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Patterers: The Street Card-Sellers II
Posted on Oct 21, 2006 - 06:51 PM by Bill McCann

London has always been a noisy place. Amongst the cachophony of sound in the Victorian streets was the chanting of the "Patterers", either moving or stationary. In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew devoted an entire chapter to an investigation of the artistry, lives and habits of these Londoners. In the next of our extracts we remain the "educated Patterer" who sells do-it-yourself short-hand kits. After hearing some of his banter with his audience we hear how he descended into disgrace and poverty and, finally, of his great love of children.



On occasions when the audience is not very liberal, the lecturer treats them to the following hint:

"When in my golden days -or at the least they were silver ones compared to these -I was in the habit of lecturing on scientific subjects, I always gave the introductory lecture free. I suppose this is an `introductory lecture,' for it yields very little money at present. I have often thought, that if everybody a little richer than myself was half as conscientious, I should either make a rapid fortune, or have nobody to listen to me at all; for I never sanction long with my company anything I don't believe. Now, if what I say is untrue or grossly improbable, it does not deserve the sanction of an audience; if otherwise, it must be meritorious, and deserve more efficient sanction. As to any insults I receive, Christinity has taught me to forgive, and philosophy to despise them."

These very curious, and perhaps unique, specimens of street elocution are of course interrupted by the occasional sale of a card, and perhaps some conversation with the purchaser. The stenographic card-seller states that he has sometimes been advised to use more commonplace language. His reply is germane to the matter. He says that a street audience, like some other audiences, is best pleased with what they least understand, and that the way to appear sublime is to be incomprehensible. He can occasionally be a little sarcastic. A gentleman informed me that he passed him at Bagnigge-wells on one occasion, when he was interrupted by a "gent" fearfully disfigured by the small-pox, who exclaimed:

"It's a complete humbug."
"No, sir," retorted Mr. Shorthand, "but if any of the ladies present were to call you handsome, that would be a humbug."
On another occasion a man (half-drunk) had been annoying him some time, and getting tired of the joke, said:
"Well -I see you are a learned man, you must pity my ignorance."
"No," was the reply, "but I pity your father."
"Pity my father! -why?" was the response.
"Because Solomon says, `He that begetteth a fool shall have sorrow of him.'"
This little jeu-d' sprit, I was told, brought forth loud acclamations from the crowd, and a crown-piece from a lady who had been some minutes a listener. These statements are among the most curious revelations of the history of the streets.

The short-hand card-seller, as has partly appeared in a report I gave of a meeting of street-folk, makes no secret of having been fined for obstructing a thoroughfare, having been bound down to keep the peace, and several times imprisoned as a defaulter. He tells me that he once "got a month" in one of the metropolitan jails. It was the custom of the chaplain of the prison in which he was confined, to question the prisoners every Wednesday, from box to box (as they were arranged before him) on some portion of Holy Writ, and they were expected, if able, to answer. On one occasion, the subject being the Excellence of Prayer, the chaplain, remarked that, "even among the heathen, every author, without exception, had commended prayer to a real or supposed Deity." The card-seller, I am told, cried out

"Question!"
"Who is that?" said the chaplain.
The turnkey pointed out the questioner.
"Yes," said the card-seller, "you know what Seneca says: -'Quid opus votis? Fac teipsum felicem, vel bonum.' `What need of prayer? Make thou thyself happy and virtuous.' Does that recommend prayer?"
The prisoners laughed, and to prevent a mutiny, the classical querist was locked up, and the chaplain closed the proceedings. It is but justice, however, to the worthy minister to state, his querist came out of durance vile better clothed than he went in.

The stenographic trade, of which the informant in question is the sole pursuer, was commenced eleven years ago. At that time 300 cards were sold in a day; but the average is now 24, and about 50 on a Saturday night. The card-seller tells me that he is more frequently than ever interrupted by the police, and his health being delicate, wet days are "nuisances" to him. He makes an annual visit to the country, he tells me, to see his children, who have been provided for by some kind friends. About two years ago he was returning to London and passed through Oxford. He was "hard up," he says, having left his coat for his previous night's lodging. He attended prayers (without a coat) at St. Mary's church, and when he came out, seated himself on the pavement beside the church, and wrote with chalk inside an oval border.

[unclear: ] ." -Lucam xv. 17.

"I perish with hunger."

He was not long unnoticed, he tells me, by the scholars; some of whom "rigged him out," and he left Oxford with 6. 10s. in his pocket.

"Let us indulge the hope," writes one who knows this man well, "that whatever indiscretions may have brought a scholar, whom few behold without pity, or converse with without respect for his acquirements, to be a streetseller, nevertheless his last days will be his best days, and that, as his talents are beyond dispute and his habits strictly temperate, he may yet arise out of his degradation."

Of this gentleman's history I give an account derived from the only authentic source. It is, indeed, given in the words of the writer from whom it was received. -

"The Reverend Mr. Shorthand" [his real name is of no consequence -indeed, it would be contrary to the rule of this work to print it] "was born at Hackney, in the county of Middlesex, on Good Friday, the 15th of April, 1808; he is, therefore, now in his 43rd year. Of his parents very little is known; he was brought up by guardians, who were 'well to do,' and who gave him every indulgence and every good instruction and example. From the earliest dawn of reason he manifested a strong predilection for the church; and, before he was seven years old, he had preached to an infant audience, read prayers over a dead animal, and performed certain mimic ceremonies of the church among his schoolfellows.

"The directors of his youthful mind were strong Dissenters, of Antinomian sentiments. With half-a-dozen of the same denomination he went, before he was thirteen, to the anniversary meeting of the Countess of Huntingdon's College, at Cheshunt. Here, with a congregation of about forty persons, composed of the students and a few strangers, he adjourned, while the parsons were dining at the `Green Dragon,' to the College Chapel, where, with closed doors, the future proprietor of the 'penny short-hand' delivered his first public sermon.

"Before he was quite fourteen, the stenographic card-seller was apprenticed to a draper in or near Smithfield. In this position he remained only a few months, when the indentures were cancelled by mutual consent, and he resumed his studies, first at his native place, and afterwards as a day-scholar at the Charterhouse. He was now sixteen, and it was deemed high time for him to settle to some useful calling. He became a junior clerk in the office of a stockbroker, and afterwards amanuensis to an 'M.D.,' who encouraged his thirst for learning, and gave him much leisure and many opportunities for improvement. While in this position he obtained two small prizes in the state lottery, gave up his situation, and went to Cambridge with a private tutor. As economy was never any part of his character, he there 'overrun the constable,' and to prevent," he says, "any constable running after him. He decamped in the middle of the night, and came to London by a waggon - all his property consisting of a Greek Prayer-book, Dodd's Beauties of Shakspere, two shirts, and two half-crowns.

"At this crisis a famous and worthy clergyman, forty years resident in Hackney (the Rev. H. H. N -, lately deceased), had issued from the press certain strictures against the Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews. The short-hand seller wrote an appendix to this work, under the title of the 'Church in Danger.' He took it to Mr. N -, who praised the performance and submitted to the publication. The impression cast off was limited, and the result unprofitable. It had, however, one favourable issue; it led to the engagement of its author as private and travelling tutor to the children of the celebrated Lady S -, who, though (for adultery) separated from her husband, retained the exclusive custody of her offspring. While in this employment, my informant resided chiefly at Clifton, sometimes in Bath, and sometimes on her ladyship's family property in Derbyshire. While here, he took deacon's orders, and became a popular preacher. In whatever virtues he might be deficient, his charities, at least, were unbounded. This profusion ill suited a limited income, and a forgery was the first step to suspension, disgrace, and poverty. In 1832 he married; the union was not felicitous.

"About this date my informant relates, that under disguise and change of name he supplied the pulpits of several episcopal chapels in Scotland with that which was most acceptable to them. Unable to maintain a locus standi in connexion with the Protestant church, he made a virtue of necessity, and avowed himself a seceder. In this new disguise he travelled and lectured, proving to a demonstration (always pecuniary) that 'the Church of England was the hospital of Incurables.'

"Always in delicate health, he found continued journeys inconvenient. The oversight of a home missionary station, comprising five or six villages, was advertised; the card-seller was the successful candidate, and for several years performed Divine service four times every Sunday, and opened and taught gratuitously a school for the children of the poor. Here report says he was much beloved, and here he ought to have remained; but with that restlessness of spirit which is so marked a characteristic of the class to which he now belongs, he thought otherwise, and removed to a similar sphere of labour near Edinburgh. The town, containing a population of 14,000, was visited to a dreadful extent with the pestilence of cholera. The future streetseller (to his honour be it spoken) was the only one among eight or ten ministers who was not afraid of the contagion. He visited many hundreds of cases, and, it is credibly asserted, added medicine, food, and nursing to his spiritual consolations. The people of his charge here embraced the Irving heresy; and unable, as he says, to determine the sense of 'the unknown tongues,' he resigned his charge, and returned to London in 1837. After living some time upon his money, books, and clothes, till all was expended, he tried his hand at the 'beggingletter trade.' About this time, the card-seller declares that a man, also from Scotland, and of similar history and personal appearance, lodged with him at a house in the Mint, and stole his coat, and with it his official and other papers. This person had been either a city missionary or scripture-reader, having been dismissed for intemperance. The street cardseller states that he has 'suffered much persecution from the officers of the Mendicity Society, and in the opinion of the public, by the blending of his own history with that of the man who robbed him.' Be the truth as it may, or let his past faults have been ever so glaring, still it furnishes no present reason why he should be maltreated in the streets, where he is now striving for an honest living. Since the cardseller's return to London, he has been five times elected and re-elected to a temporary engagement in the Hebrew School, Goodman's-fields; so that, at the worst, his habits of life cannot be very outrageous."

The "pomps and vanities of this wicked world," have, according to his own account, had very little share in the experience of the short-hand parson. He states, and there is no reason for doubting him, that he never witnessed any sort of public amusement in his life; that he was a hard student when he was young, and now keeps no company, living much in retirement. He "attends the ministry," he says, "of the Rev. Robert Montgomery, - reads the daily lessons at home, and receives the communion twice every month at the early service in Westminster Abbey."

Of course these are matters that appear utterly inconsistent with his present mode of life. One well-known peculiarity of this extraordinary character is his almost idolatrous love of children, to whom, if he "makes a good Saturday night," he is very liberal on his way home. This is, perhaps, his "ruling passion" (an acquaintance of his, without knowing why I inquired, fully confirmed this account); and it displays itself sometimes in strong emotion, of which the following anecdote may be cited as an instance: -One of his favourite spots for stenographic demonstration is the corner of Playhouse-yard, close to the Times office. Directly opposite lives a tobacconist, who has a young family. One of his little girls used to stand and listen to him; to her he was so strongly attached, [unclear: ] when he heard of her death (he had missed her several weeks), he went home much affected, and did not return to the spot for many months. At the death of the notorious Dr. Dillon, the card-seller offered himself to the congregation as a successor; they, however, declined the overture.

Links to the other articles in the series.

The London Street Patterers

Introduction
The Origins of Patterers
The Morals of Patterers
The Patterers' Street Literature
Long Song-Sellers
The Running Patterer
Chaunters
The Death and Fire Hunters

The Second Edition
The Standing Patterers: I
Pattering Religious and Political Dialogues
Of Cocks
Of Strawing
The sham of Indecent Street Trade
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers - Part I
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers - Part II
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers - Part III
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers - Part IV
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers - Part V
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers - Part VI
Of The Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, And Characteristics Of The Different Grades Of Patterers - Part VII
The Street Card Sellers I

Site Map

Notes:

The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.


 

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