Monday, October 7, 2013

The Patterer: News Mongers We Love

by Larry Brill

It came to me in a flash of inspiration.

Late at night and unable to sleep I opened a book, Infamous Scribblers, about the wordsmiths and rabble-rousers that were our first journalists in America. Since too many Americans are only vaguely aware that there were a few significant developments in history between the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, the author, Eric Burns, started with the obligatory chapter tracing journalism in this country back to its roots in England.

And he wrote a very short paragraph describing 18th century fellows known as “patterers.” It was not much more than a throwaway mention of street performers who would run from corner to corner in London hyping the news of the day for the crowds they drew. Burns offered the observation that they might conceivably be considered a forerunner to today’s TV newscaster.

As someone who spent 25 years at a news anchor desk, I knew immediately there was a story there. From that moment, the Patterer became my personal hero.

The rise of the patterer coincided with Britain’s industrial revolution; both gained steam through the first half of the 18th century. By the end of the century, both were running like the well-oiled machines that were turning England into an industrial marvel and global powerhouse. This was also in an age when literacy was on the rise and the number of newspapers in England grew from a smattering when The Daily Courant was launched in 1702, to more than 50 in London by 1776.

London streets were teeming with costermongers back then, vendors who sold anything and everything from their carts, their tables, their haversacks or even their pockets.

Fish and poultry? “Got you covered, Sir.”

Rings and buckles? “Yes Ma’am, step right up.”

Cough drops and elixirs? “Guaranteed, Doctor Maximucel’s potion right here will cure anything that ails ya.”

Many costermongers used their strong lungs, shouting and competing with one another amid the loud and chaotic din on those crowded London streets, in order to sell their wares. And those streets were unquestionably a crowded and noisy place to do business.

“Fresh Fruit. Vegetables and tobacco. Get them here.”

“Oy! Oy, razors. Knives. Sharpen your blade sir, three shilling an’ a half.”

Some started taking the role of common street barker a step further by using interesting stories or jokes to engage passers-by. They might sing or juggle. Or they might, as one 18th century citizen observed, “help off their wares by pompous speeches, in which little regard is paid either to truth or propriety.” Those costermongers would perform with whatever skill they had to steal the attention of potential customers.

Ah, but the “patterers,” the street sellers of news and information, well, they were the elite of their class, and more often than not, looked down their noses at the other costermongers. It was the cachet of having a product for the mind and not the hands.

“We are the haristocracy of the streets.”

That is what one patterer told Henry Mayhew. Mayhew was a contemporary of Charles Dickens and wrote London Labour and the London Poor, the definitive study of the city’s street people in the 1840s. He compiled four volumes from exhaustive interviews with people like rag pickers and rat killers, fish sellers and chimney sweeps, beggars, prostitutes and, yes, the costermongers who sold news and literature and called themselves “patterers.” Mayhew published his work just as the patterers reached their peak.

There were essentially two types. The “running patterer,” who not only had a strong voice, but strong legs. He needed them because he moved quickly up and down streets and alleyways, slowing only long enough to sell a newspaper, or its cousin, the single page broadsheet that might be as long as your arm. The stories they told and the papers they sold dealt almost exclusively with the most lurid and sensational acts of blood and lust that they could find to print. And when they couldn’t find or recycle a decent bit of mayhem, they simply made it up. No news? No problem.

The “standing patterer” was no less prone to embellishing a good murder or scandal in ways that would make even today’s most jaded tabloids cringe. But he had an advantage that allowed him to rely less on sensational details in his stories and more on his imagination and an entertaining delivery. Because he had the luxury of engaging and holding the audience he drew to his corner, he offered a longer, higher quality of storytelling that may have lacked the shock and awe of his running counterpart but was no less compelling.

He would set up on the corners of thoroughfares and use a large placard on a pole with drawings depicting the terrors a reader might find in the newspaper and pamphlets he had to sell. And here we are, more than two hundred years later, using computer-generated graphics on the TV screen to do the same thing.

It was their education, formal or informal, that separated the elite patterers from the rest of the street sellers. They were the “brainy” ones making a living on the street.

"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.”

That’s how Henry Mayhew’s patterer explained it in 1840. Many were men with respectable connections and families. These were the sons of gentlemen and even noblemen. Mayhew interviewed patterers who were the sons of high ranking military officers, clergy, two whose families raised them to be in the medical profession, as well as an entire class “who have been educated with no especial calling.” Some took to the streets after a fall-out with their families that deprived them of support. Others took up the street life simply because they were born to be rovers and rogues.

They dressed better than your average costermonger on the street. Mayhew reports that patterers 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.”

The patterer actually advanced and fed the public’s appetite for news. Patterers pitched and sold newspapers and magazines for the growing body of middle class readers. They entertained and informed the illiterate with enough detail that both could share a table at the pub and carry on reasonable dialogue about current affairs. And so it was, in the end, literacy and the masses’ ability to read that killed off the patterer.

Two hundred years hence, he’s back. The patterer has been resurrected by technology and transported right into our living rooms night after night through the magic box we call television.


Larry Brill spent 25 years as a modern day patterer, anchoring TV news in several cities across four states. The Patterer is his second novel, and imagines what it would look like if the modern newscast were dropped onto the streets of London in 1765. Brill’s Dickensian satire proves that over the centuries nothing has changed in the news business except the technology that produces it.

Larry is giving away a copy of The Patterer. Please see the giveaway HERE.


Larry's Website


  1. A wonderful tribute to a familiar Georgian sight!

    1. Hi Gilflurt - Thx for your comment, but if you were trying to win the giveaway, your comment goes elsewhere.

  2. Replies
    1. Hi Barbara - Thx for your comment, but if you were trying to win the giveaway, your comment goes elsewhere.


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