London has always been a noisy place. Amongst the cacophony 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 last of our extracts we learn of the crushing poverty to which illness could reduce even the most genteel. Our witnesses are a gentlewoman and a gentleman. Their insight to the desperate straits of Victorian live at the bottom of the ladder are very poignant.
OF A "REDUCED" GENTLEWOMAN, AND A "REDUCED " TRADESMAN, AS STREET-SELLERS OF STATIONERY.
I now give two statements, which show the correctness of my conclusion, that among the street stationers were persons of education who had known prosperity, and that, as a body, those engaged in this traffic were a better class than the mass of the "paper-workers." They are also here cited as illustrations of the causes which lead, or rather force, many to a street-life.
The first statement is that of a lady: -
"My father," she said, "was an officer in the army, and related to the Pitt family. After his death, I supported myself by teaching music. I was considered very talented by my profession, both as teacher and composer." (I may here interrupt the course of the narrative by saying, that I myself have had printed proofs of the lady's talents in this branch of art.) "A few years ago, a painful and protracted illness totally incapacitated me from following my profession; consequently, I became reduced to a state of great destitution. For many weeks I remained ill in my own room. I often, during that time, went without nourishment the day through. I might have gone into an hospital; but I seemed to dread it so much, that it was not until I was obliged to give up my room that I could make up my mind to enter one.
From that time, until within a few weeks ago, I have been an inmate of several hospitals: the last I was in was the Convalescent Establishment at Carshalton. On my coming to London, I found I had to begin the world again, as it were, in a very different manner from what I have been accustomed to. I had no head to teach - I felt that; and what to do I hardly knew. I had no home to go to, and not a halfpenny in the world. I had heard of the House of Charity, in Soho-square, and, as a last resource, I went there; but before I could have courage to ask admittance, I got a woman to go in and see what kind of a place it was - I seemed to fear it so much. I met with great kindness there, however; and, by the time I left, the care they had bestowed upon me had restored my health in a measure, but not my head.
The doctors advised me to get some outdoor occupation (I am always better in the open air); but what to do I could not tell. At last I thought of a man I had known, who made fancy envelopes. I went to him, and asked him to allow me to go round to a few houses with some of them for a small percentage. This he did, and I am thereby enabled, by going along the streets and calling to offer my envelopes at any likely house, just to live. None but those who have suffered misfortunes (as I have done) can tell what my feelings were on first going to a house. I could not go where I was known; I had not the courage, nor would my pride allow me. My pupils had been very kind to me during my illnesses, but I could not bear the idea of going to them and offering articles for sale.
"My fear of strangers is so great, that I tremble when I knock at a door - lest I should meet with an angry word. How few have any idea of the privations and suffering that have been endured before a woman (brought up as I have been) can make up her mind to do as I am obliged to do! I am now endeavouring to raise a little money to take a room, and carry on the envelop business myself. I might do pretty well, I think; and, should my head get better, in time I might get pupils again. At present I could not teach, the distressed state of my mind would not allow me."
The tradesman's statement he forwarded to me in writing, supplying me with every facility to test the full accuracy of his assertions, which it is right I should add I have done, and found all as he has stated. I give the narrative in the writer's words (and his narrative will be found at once diffuse and minute), as a faithful representation of a "reduced" tradesman's struggles, thoughts, and endurances, before being forced into the streets.
"I was brought up," he writes, "as a linen draper. After filling every situation as an assistant, both in the wholesale and retail trade, I was for a considerable time in business. Endeavouring to save another from ruin, I advanced what little money I had at my banker's, and became security for more, as I thought I saw my way clear. But a bond of judgment was hanging over the concern (kept back from me of course) and the result was, I lost my money to the amount of some hundreds, of which I have not recovered one pound. Since that time I have endeavoured to gain a livelihood as a town traveller.
In 1845 I became very much afflicted, and the affliction continued the greater part of the following year. At one time I had fifteen wounds on my body, and lost the use of one side. I was reduced by bodily disease, as well as in circumstances. My wife went to reside among her friends, and I, after my being an out-patient of Bartholomew's Hospital went, through necessity, to Clerkenwell Workhouse. When recovered, I made another effort to do something among my own trade, and thought, after about two years struggle, I should recover in a measure my position.
In August, 1849, I sent for a few shillings-worth of light articles from London (being then at Dunstable). I received them, and sold one small part; I went the following day to the next village nearer London. There I had a violent attack of cholera; which once more defeated my plans, leaving me in a weak condition. I was obliged to seek the refuge of my parish, and consider that very harshly was I treated there. They refused me admittance, and suffered me to walk the street two days and two nights. I had no use of my arm, was ill and disabled. About half-past seven on the third night, a gentleman, hearing of my sufferings, knocked at the door of the Union, took me inside, and dared them to turn me thence.
This was in October, 1849. I lay on my bed there for seven weeks nearly, and a few days before Christmas day the parish authorities brought me before the Board, and turned me out, with one shilling and a loaf; one of the overseers telling me to go to h -ll and lodge anywhere. I came to lodge at the Model Lodging-house, King-street, Drury Lane; but being winter-time they were full. Although I remained there in the day-time, I was obliged to sleep at another house. At this domicile I saw how many ways there were of getting what the very poor call a living, and various suggestions were offered. I was promised a gift of 2s. 6d. by an individual, on a certain day, - but I had to live till that day, and many were the feelings of my mind, how to dispose of what might remain when I received the 2s. 6d., as I was getting a little into debt. My debt, when paid, left me but 9 d. out of the 2s. 6d. to trade with.
I had never hawked an article before that time; to stand the streets was terrible to my mind, and how to invest this small sum sadly perplexed me. My mind was racked by painful anxiety; one moment almost desponding, the next finding so much sterling value in a shilling, that I saw in it the means of rescuing me from my degradation. Wanting many of the necessaries of life, but without suitable attire for my own business, and still weak from illness, I made up my mind. On the afternoon of 2nd Jan., 1850, I purchased 1 doz. memorandum-books, of a stationer in Clerkenwell, telling him my capital. I obtained the name of `Ninepence-halfpenny Man' (the amount of my funds) at that shop.
The next step was how to dispose of my books. I thought I would go round to some coffee and public-houses, as I could not endure the streets. I went into one, where I was formerly known, and sold 6d.-worth, and meeting a person who was once in my own line, at another house, I sold 4d.-worth more. The first night, therefore, I got over well. The next day I did a little, but not so well, and I found out that what I had bought was not the most ready sale. My returns that week were only 6s. 2d. I found I must have something different, - one thing would not do alone; so I bought a few childrens' books and almanacks sometimes going to market with as little as seven farthings.
I could not rise to anything better in the way of provisions during this time than dry toast and coffee, as the rent must be looked to. I struggled on, hoping against hope. At one period I had a cold and lost my voice. Two or three wet days in a week made me a bankrupt. If I denied myself food, to increase my stock, and went out for a day or two to some near town, I found that with small stock and small returns I could not stem the tide.
"I always avoided associating with any but those a step higher in the grades of society - a circumstance that caused me not to know as much of the market for my cheap articles as I might have done. I am perhaps looked on as rather an 'aristocrat,' as I am not often seen by the street sellers at a stand. My difficulties have been of no ordinary kind; with a desire for more domestic comfort on one hand, and painful reflections from want of means on the other, I have had to call to my aid all the philosophy I possess, to keep up a proper equilibrium, lest I should be tempted to anything derogatory or dishonest. I am desirous of a rescue at the only time likely for it to take place with advantage, as I am persuaded when persons continue long in a course that endangers their principles and self-respect, a rescue becomes hopeless. Should I have one small start with health, the privations I have undergone show not what comforts I have had, or may hope ever to have, but what I can absolutely do without.
"I found the first six months not quite so good as the latter; March and May being the worst. The entire amount taken from January 2nd to December 31st, 1850; was 28. 10s. 6d., an average of about 11s. 4d. a week; say for cost of goods, 6s. per week; and rent, 1s. 9d.; leaving me but 3s. 7d. clear for living. This statement, sir, is strictly correct, as I do not get cent. per cent. on all the articles; and yet with so small a return I am not behind one single crown at the present time.
"On New Year's-day last, I had but the cost price of stock, 5d. Up to the evening of February 10th, I have taken 2l. 19s. 8d.; having paid for goods, 1. 10s. 5d.; and for rent, 8s. 10d.: leaving me 1. 5d. to exist on during nearly six weeks. These facts and figures show that without a little assistance it is impossible to rise; and remember this circumstance - I have had to walk on some occasions as much as twenty or twenty-two miles in a day. If those whom Providence has blessed with a little more than their daily wants would only enter into the conflicts of the really reduced person, they would not be half so niggardly in spending a few coppers for useful articles, at least, nor overbearing in their requirements as to bulk, when purchasing of the itinerant vendor. Did they but reflect that they themselves might be in the same condition, or some of their families, I am sure they would not act as they do; for I would venture to say that the common street beggar does not get more rebuffs or insults than the educated and unfortunate reduced tradesmen in the streets. The past year has been one of the most trying and painful, yet I hope instructive, periods of my existence, and one of which I trust I never shall see the like again."
I subjoin one of the testimonies that have been furnished me, as to this man's character, and which I thought it right to procure before giving publicity to the above statement. It is from a minister of the gospel - the street-seller's father-in-law.
-I received a letter, last Tuesday, from Mr. Knight, intimating that he was requested by you to inquire into the character of Mr. J -N -.
"It is quite correct, as he states, that his wife is my daughter. They lived together several years in London; but eventually, notwithstanding her efforts in the millinery and straw-work, they became so reduced that their circumstances obliged my daughter to take her two little girls with herself to us.
"This was in the summer, 1845. His wife and children have been of no expense to Mr. N. since that time. The sole cause of their separation was poverty.
"I consider him to have acted imprudently in giving up his situation to depend on an income arising from a small capital; whereas, if he had kept in a place, whilst she attended to her own business, they might have gone on comfortably; and should they, through the interposition of a kind Providence, gain that position again, it is to be hoped that they will improve the circumstance to the honour and glory of the Author of all our mercies, and with gratitude to the instrument who may be raised up for their good.
"I am, dear Sir, respectfully yours, "J. D."
Links to the other articles in the series.
The London Street Patterers
The Origins of Patterers
The Morals of Patterers
The Patterers' Street Literature
The Running Patterer
The Death and Fire Hunters
The Second Edition
The Standing Patterers: I
Pattering Religious and Political Dialogues
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
The Street Card Sellers II
The Street Card Sellers III
The Street Card Sellers IV
The Street Stationery Sellers I
The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.