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The Patterers; a breed apart

I’d heard about Patterers, I knew a bit about them, that is in terms of the job that they did, like a lot of their peers it seemed to be a job and a description only found on the streets of the capital, but I recently read an account of an interview with one such Patterer that was a bit of an eye opener.


A Broadsheet Patterer

Lets start with the basics. A Patterer was a person who sold various publications, latterly newspapers as we would know them today, but before that they would sell either a single sheet broadsheet or what were known as a chapbook. The broadsheet was a single sheet publication possibly up to around six feet in length, while the chapbook was usually printed on a single sheet or portion of a sheet, and folded into books of 8, 12, 16 and 24 pages. Both the book and the broadsheet were often illustrated with crude woodcuts prints and printed on poor quality paper, the chapbook could also contain words set to popular songs of the day.

There were two types of patterer, the standing and the running. The running patterer would move quickly up and down streets and alleyways, slowing only long enough to sell whatever publication they were carrying, while the more sedate standing patterer would work from a pitch or designated location, such as street corners of thoroughfares and use a large placard on a pole with drawings depicting the terrors a reader might find in the publications they had to sell.  .


Their job was to sell their publications by arousing the publics curiosity and by appealing to their ghoulish curiosity; the more outrageous the headline, the better the sales. They did this not just by declaring the headlines but by constructing a short narrative to rope the prospective punters in and then make a sale. There is still an epithet used today which says that if someones got all the patter then they are good at spinning a tale. The term could quite possibly stem from the repetition of prayers as in Paternoster.


The stories in these publications dealt almost exclusively with the most lurid and sensational acts of blood and lust that they could find, and when there was the equivalent of the modern “Slow news day” they simply made the stories up. Not that this was in the hands of the patterer’s themselves. Behind these armies of street vendors there were a number of publishers who employed writers to come up with the narrative to whatever stories they saw fit to publish, something akin to the Press Barons of the twentieth century. One such was James “Jemmy” Catnach who became a major publisher of chapbooks in the Seven Dials district.


The Patterers were encountered by Henry Mayhew when he was collating his book London Labour and the London Poor, the definitive study of the city’s street people in the 1840s. He found their “patter” fascinating and interviewed one of their number who ventured the following, People don’t pay us for what we gives ’em, but only to hear us talk. We live like yourself, sir, by the hexercise of our hintellects; we by talking, and you by writing. And here is the thing that surprised me. It appears that these people were taken to be a cut above the average street seller or costermonger by way not only through the linguistic dexterity but also from their social standing.

Many had respectable connections and families, some were the sons of gentlemen and in several cases noblemen. Mayhew interviewed sons of the clergy, and two whose families raised them to be in the medical profession. He described them as a class who have been educated with no especial calling.” Some patterers took to the streets after rows and disputes with their families that saw them evicted from the family home. Others took up the street life simply because they were born to be rogues and wanderers.

They were better turned out than your average costermonger on the street. They took pride in their looks, probably because it was good for business. He wrote that in dress and appearance, they presented little difference from the “gent.”

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