Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bards of the Seven Dials

[1] The History of Bluebeard, Ryle & Co., c.1846

by John Adcock

“He often makes a good deal upon a monster. A rape has often afforded him great satisfaction, but a murder — an out-and-out murder — if well timed, is board, lodging, and washing, with a feast of nectared sweets for many a day.” — True History of Tom and Jerry, by Charles Hindley, 1888

THE PRINTERS of the Seven Dials published selections from Shakespeare, Byron, Dibdin and Eliza Cook; songs and ballads; accounts of apparitions; “awful and ’orrible” murders; and dying confessions from the celebrated murderers of the hour. John “Mother” Pitts, Jemmy Catnatch, and others in the City and provinces carried on the tradition of the chap-book sellers, who tramped the country in the 18th century selling books at villages and farms. The Enclosure Acts encouraged the traveling colporteurs to set up shop in the City of London where many settled in the environs of the Seven Dials.

In 1856 working-class author Charles Manby Smith (1804-80) confessed to a “lurking partiality for some of them which the memories of childhood have rendered dear.” The booklets were still sold in large quarto for a penny, a smaller publication costing a half-penny, smaller still, a farthing.

“Jack Spratt, Cock Robin, Mother Goose, Simple Simon, Goody Two-shoes, Mother Hubbard, et hoc genus omne — together with Books of Fate, Universal Dreamers, Universal Fortune-tellers, Jack Sheppard, Dick Turpin, Moll Flanders, and others of that type.” — The Press of the Seven Dials by Charles Manby Smith, Chambers's Journal, June 28, 1856
W.M. Thackeray noted that in 1839 Catnatch’s emporium also sold wholesale valentines, “children’s toys, in the shapes of little carts, tin-trumpets, drums, dolls, picture-books, lollipops, pin-cushions, laces.”

[2] The Seven Dials, London
Evelyn’s diaries record that, in 1694, St. Giles’s was a place “where seven streets make a star from a Doric Pillar, placed in the middle of a circular area...” George Augustus Sala wrote of getting “hopelessly, irretrievably lost” in the labyrinth of streets. “I ought to be tolerably well up in my Dials, for I lived in Great St. Andrew Street, once; yet I declare that I never yet knew the exact way in or out of that seven-fold mystery.” 

An anonymous author wrote that by 1845 the Doric column was gone and “four out of the seven houses that form the angles between the different streets were occupied as gin-shops or ‘palaces,’ and each of these had a large clock with an illuminated dial in its uppermost story.” He suggested visiting gin-palaces between 8 o’clock and midnight on a Saturday night, to view by gaslight the “striking contrasts of the maddest mirth with the most squalid misery.” The streets were filled with a multitude of beggars, match-vendors, drunken brawlers of both sexes, children selling tape and pins, apple and fish-women and “noisiest of the throng, the ballad-sellers with stentorian lungs calling out the names of the last new songs, often in strange and startling combinations enough, and offering them at the rate of a halfpenny per yard.”

FLOCKS. Flocks of ballad singers arrived at the Beggar’s Opera on Saturday night to “purchase, to pay, to exchange, to bleed a tankard, to fathom a rowley-poley, and blow a cloud. Ah, the glorious confusion of those festivals! Who that has heard, will ever forget the mingling contributions of the hundred voices, exercising themselves in the respective pastimes of singing, scolding, swearing, roaring &c.”

[3] Curiosities of Street Literature by Charles Hindley, Reeves & Turner, 1871
The Beggar’s Opera was a thieves den, and “a sort of house of call for street ballad writers. When the publisher wants a song, or a ghost story, or what not to be immediately got up, he knows where to send for the particular man who can do it. Very often he has to lock the writer up in a certain room of his warehouse, in order to prevent his going out and getting drunk before the article is finished. I have been told of one instance where an inveterate tippling poet, in spite of this precaution, got tight. One of his ‘chums’ brought liquor in a bottle to the door, and he sucked it through a straw placed in the keyhole!”

BALLAD SINGERS. Forgotten mendicant ballad singers included Ned Buckhorse, who made music by striking his chin, Ned Friday, Jemmy Dawson, Mary Cornwall, Mary Grace and Thomas John Dibdin, (1771-1841) who wrote nearly 2000 songs and numerous plays during his lifetime. Joe Johnson “was wont to wear, on days of business, a model (and an elaborate miniature it was) of the brig Nelson on his hat. She was full-rigged, had all her masts set, and looked for all the world as if she scudded before a gale of wind.”

When blind Jack Stuart, the last of the old ballad singers died on August 15, 1815, his funeral procession “included most of the friends to the profession in and near the metropolis. It was headed by the two Worthingtons, blind fiddlers, dressed in the ghastly costume of mourners, who did all in their power to perform a dirge. Several of the most respected mendicants of the day lent the aid of their powerful talents to increase the melancholy interest of the occasion.”

A ballad was written titled “The history of John, alias Jack Stuart, commencing with his death and funeral, being a sad lament for his downfall, likewise his dog, Tippo, showing the true end of greatness in this here world.” The dog Tippo went by inheritance to George Dyball, the mourners probably ended up in one of “two public houses in Church-Lane, St. Giles’s, whose chief support depends upon beggars; one called The Beggar’s Opera, which is the Rose and Crown public-house, and the other the Robin Hood.”

[4] Old St. Giles’s — Church Lane and Dyot Street, 1869
G.W.M. Reynolds described the Seven Dials in his fictional The Mysteries of London:

“The shops are all of the lowest and dirtiest description; nauseous odours impregnate the atmosphere. In winter the streets are knee-deep in mud, save when hardened by the frost; and in summer they are strewed with the putrefying remnants of vegetables, offal, and filth of every description. Half-naked children paddle about in the mire or wallow on the heaps of decomposing substances just alluded to, — greedily devouring the parings of turnips and carrots, sucking the marrow out of the rotting bones, and rejoicing when they happen to find a mouldy crust, a morsel of putrid meat, or the maggot-eaten head of a fish.”
LAKE OF FILTH. Reynolds was probably not exaggerating. “There is a lake of filth under London, large enough to swallow the whole population,” said one journalist in 1852. The houses in the nefarious Jacob’s Island overlooked a quadrangular ditch which was the reeking common sewer of the neighbourhood, where the dwellers took water for drinking, washing and cooking.

“In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and it positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow; indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water: and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink…”
The muck was put into buckets and left to stand for a few days, once the effluvium had settled the liquid was skimmed from the top and used to slake the thirst of the poverty stricken wretches who lived there.

“Supposing the peripatetic to have well lost himself in Seven Dials… Supposing him to have been told to move on, to have been mocked, cursed, hooted, and to have one oyster-shell, and one turnip-stalk cast at him by way of reply, and supposing him, finally, to have become so wearied and dispirited with the noise, the dirt, the smell, the horrible labyrinth he has wandered into, and the howling fiends that come dancing and fighting from it, that he feels half inclined to throw himself under the wheels of the fire-engine that comes tearing by (there always is a fire — when there isn’t a murder going on in the vicinity of Seven Dials), or to rush into any one of the seven gin-palaces that stare at him like seven Acherons, and drink himself to madness with vitriolic acid and coculus indicus: this desirable state of things being arrived, and state of mind attained, I beg to offer to the peripatetic a friendly remedy against suicide or insanity. He will find solace, amusement, and instruction, in the contemplation of “cocks…”
“Now, a cock is a lie. It is, however, so far different from and above simple mendacity, that to succeed, it must be a lie pictorial, a lie literary, a lie poetical, or a lie dramatic. And, it must be, above all things, a lie typographical; for an unprinted Chanticleer is a mere rumour, that brings profit to no one; whereas, printed, it is sold for a halfpenny, and brings bread into the mouth of a seller.” Bright Chanticleer, George Augustus Sala, 1855
GHASTLY PLOT. In the first volume of his dreadful masterpiece, The Mysteries of London, G.W.M. Reynolds told of a boy, seven, and a girl, five, sent out begging by a drunken parent, who returned home short of money and were fearfully beaten by the harridan. The mother hatched a ghastly plot with her husband, just returned from jail, namely, to blind the girl so she would be more effective a beggar.

“There’s nothin’ like a blind child to excite compassion,” added the woman coolly. “I know it for a fact,” she continued, after a pause, seeing that her husband did not answer her. “There’s old Kate Betts, who got all her money by travelling about the country with two blind girls; and she made ‘em blind herself, too she’s often told me how she did it; and that has put the idea in my head.”
“And how did she do it ?” asked the man, lighting his pipe, but not glancing towards his wife; for although her words had made a deep impression upon him, he was yet struggling with the remnant of a parental feeling, which remained in his heart in spite of himself.”
“She covered the eyes with cockle shells, the eye-lids, recollect, being wide open; and in each shell there was a large black beetle. A bandage tied tight around the head, kept the shells in their place, and the shells kept the eye-lids open. In a few days the eyes got quite blind, and the pupils had a dull white appearance.”
“And you’re serious, are you?” demanded the man.
“Quite,” returned the woman, boldly: “why not?”
“Why not indeed?” echoed Bill, who approved of the horrible scheme, but shuddered at the cruelty of it, villain as he was.”
“Ah! Why not?” pursued the female: “one must make one’s children useful somehow or another…”
Reynolds’s readers, servants, shop-girls and costermongers, would probably have been familiar with the awful tale as a “cock,” periodically dusted off and sent bawling Phoenix-like through the neighbourhoods to rake up halfpennies for the umpteenth time. Sala noted that the older the cock was the more it was admired.

            “For, observe, though personal reflections upon the aristocracy do not go down among the nobs at the Westend, horrors are always sure of a sale. The inhuman mother with the black beetles is a great favourite in all the areas that sober insect, the beetle, coming familiarly home to the serving man and woman’s mind in connection with the kitchen dresser and the coal-cellar and ofttimes, as a patterer dwells, with grim minuteness, upon the horrible perticklers of the murder; or the agonies of the small children under the walnut shells; or, as with grisly unction he describes Vyenna in flames; the red flag of the Marsellays histed over Paris; the Kezar’s hanser to the Hemperer; war to the last rubble and the last knife; the Preston strike hended in blood; the hartillery called out; or (a very favourite device), ferocious hattempt upon Her Majesty by a maniac baker; you will see John the footman, or Mary the housemaid, steal up the area steps and into the street, purchase a halfpenny of dire intelligence, which, shallow cock as it is, is read with trembling eagerness and enthralled interest, in kitchen or servant’s hall, till the cat puts her back up by the fire, and the hair of the little footpage stands on end.”
COCKS. The cocks were not exclusive to the Seven Dials; cocks were also used in the morning, afternoon and Sunday newspapers. Her Majesty’s invented doings were a favourite subject of newspaper “chanticleers”:

“The Queen enters Highland cottages; eats bannocks; tastes the whiskey… adopts children, and pensions octogenarians. She asks the way down by-lanes and across commons of country boys, and slips sovereigns into their hands when she leaves them; writes Victoria with a diamond ring upon cottage window-panes, and makes anonymous water-colour drawings in the albums of private families. As to Prince Albert, he carries schoolboys’ pickaback, makes the Prince of Wales (with some touching moral remarks) present his patent leather shoes to a beggar, and matches his cob against the trotting pony of a butcher…” Bright Chanticleer by George Augustus Sala, in Household Words, March 31, 1855

[5] Curiosities of Street Literature, 1871
The reports of the outrages of Spring-Heel’d Jack must have been seen as a “good go” by purveyors of street literature. The chanters, ballad-sellers and newspaper vendors of the Seven Dials, were all part of an efficient system of distribution that helped spread rumours throughout the city of London, London’s suburbs, and into rural areas, through ballads, ‘cocks,’ dying confessions and Dream Books.

FLYING STATIONERS. The authors of these ephemeral works took any job offered; they wrote begging letters, translated French and Latin works, hacked broadsheets and songs, wrote numbers for penny bloods, and edited penny papers. This motley and enterprising crew included patterers, the ‘haristocracy’ of street sellers, who cried the “last dying speeches” under the scaffold; chaunters of street ballads, who bawled their wares from the Holy Land (aka St. Giles) to the mansions of the West-end; and flying stationers who ordered ballads, broadseets and penny books (bearing the words Printed for the Flying Stationers), for distribution in the country at large commercial fairs. 

“The patterer is a liar by profession. It is true, he prefers truth, if it is to be had, but this is simply because it will serve his purpose better, not from any moral preference. As long as real crimes are committed often enough to keep the trade brisk, it would be a useless expense to spend time and money forging fictitious ones. But if no Rush or Manning is atrocious enough to dip his hands in the blood of his fellowman, the patterer does not scruple to make a murder for the occasion. The practice has prevailed so long that a large number of successful cases are on hand, to be brought out whenever necessary. Some dreadful tales have in this way been reproduced again and again for fifty years back. “The Scarborough Tragedy” has been worked for twenty years or more. Every winter its horrors are retailed as of the most recent occurrence.” Street Literature of London, in Leisure Hour, January 1852.

DYING SPEECH. The last dying speeches were doggerel verse broadsheets accompanied by wretched shudder impelling woodcuts hawked beneath the gallows itself on execution days. They were one of the oldest forms of literature in England dating back to at least 1605 with The Life and Death of Gamaliel Ratsy. Ratsy was a theatrical Elizabethan gentleman highwayman (also called highway-lawyers) who supposedly wore a hideous feathered owl-mask to terrify his victims into compliance.

[6] Curiosities of Street Literature, 1871
POVERTY. Most of the authors of the catchpenny productions of the Seven Dials were impecunious wretches who spent their lives between the gin-houses and the debtor’s prison, earning a precarious living by editing bawdy periodicals, newspaper penny-a-lining and writing topical songs. One song-writer, “Captain” Jack Mitford, who died in December of 1831 in St. Giles’s workhouse, sold the celebrated song “Our King is a True British Sailor,” to seven publishers in the Seven Dials, and “questioned how he could think of acting so basely to Mr. Williams, (to whom he had first sold the song, and who had expended much in advertising the same) he replied, — “Sir, my poverty and not my will consented.”

According to the Morning Chronicle of January 2, 1832:

“For many years Mitford has lived by chance, and slept three nights of the week in the open air, when his finances did not admit of his paying 3d. for a den in St. Giles’s. Though formerly a nautical fop, for the last fourteen years he was ragged and loathsome, he never thought but for the necessities of the moment; and having once had given to him an elegant pair of Wellington boots, sold them for a shilling; the fellow who bought them put them in pawn for fifteen shillings and came back in triumph with the money. “Ah,” said Jack, “but he went out in the cold for it.” He was the author of “Johnny Newcomb in the Navy.” The publisher gave him a shilling a day till he finished it. Incredible as it may appear, he lived the whole of the time in Bayswater fields, making a bed at night of grass and nettles. Two penny worth of bread and cheese and an onion was his daily food, the rest of the shilling he expended in gin. He thus passed 43 days, washing his shirt and stockings himself, in a pond, when he required clean linen. He was latterly employed by publishers of a humble class, and of a certain description.”
OBSCENE. Publishers “of a certain description” was Victorian shorthand for pornographers. The bawdy Crim. Con. Gazette was published at Elliot’s Genuine Foreign Wine Warehouse, at 14, Holywell-street, Strand, with Jack Mitford supplying articles and songs. Mitford also wrote verses for obscene caricature prints produced by William Benbow and J.L. Marks. Edward Duncombe, pornographer and blackmailer, had a shop at Little St. Andrew’s Street, Seven Dials.

[7] Curiosities of Street Literature, 1871
INSANE. In 1824 Mitford and Benbow, “the pirate bookseller,” appeared on a charge of libel brought by a man named Warburton, operator of a private insane asylum, who had kept Mitford incarcerated between May 1812 and March 1813, following a mental breakdown. The libels were published in A Description of the Crimes and Horrors of the Interior of Warburton’s Mad-house at Hoxton!, which quoted a keeper named Davis as saying that “it is a rule that if a man comes here mad, we will keep him so; but if he has his senses when he comes here, we will soon make him mad.”

When Benbow was served he was reported to have said, “That’s the very thing I want. It will be as good as 500l. (500 pounds) in my pocket. I have another publication ready, which will be ten times as bad.” The Jury returned damages of 500l. to the plaintiff and Benbow immediately came out with Part Second of the Crimes and Horrors of the Interior of Warburton’s Mad-houses at Hoxton and Bethnal-green!

FURIOUS WITH DRINK. The Morning Herald (of January 1832) gave much the same account of Mitford’s life as the Chronicle, adding that he “formerly edited the Scourge and Bon Ton Magazine.”

“A Mr. Elliot, a printer and publisher, took him into his house, and endeavored to render him ‘decent.’ For a few days he was sober; and a relative having sent him some clothes, he made a respectable appearance; but he soon degenerated into his former habits; and whilst editing a periodical called the Bon Ton Gazette, Mr. E. was obliged to keep him in a place half-kitchen, half-cellar, where with a loose grate tolerably filled, a candle, and a bottle of gin, he passed his days, and, with the covering of an old carpet, his nights, never issuing from his lair but when the bottle was empty. Sometimes he got furious with drink, and his shoes have been taken from him to prevent his migrating; he would then run out without them, and has taken his coat off in winter and sold it for a half-pint of gin. At the time of his death he was editing a penny production, called the Quizzical Gazette.
This miserable man was buried by Mr. Green, of Will’s coffee-house, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, who had formerly been his shipmate. He has left a wife and family, but they were provided for by Lord R–, Jack Mitford was a respectable classic, and a man of varied attainments; yet for fourteen years ‘he had not where to lay his head;’ and he has been heard to say; ‘if his soul was placed on one table, and a bottle of gin on another, he would sell the former to taste the latter.’”
FAME. Tragedy was not the lot of all peripatetic journalistic authors, however, James Grant, of whom it was said that “there is not a man in London who performs a more laborious Sabbath-day’s work,” left £9,000 at his death on 23 May 1879.

The most famous of the street publishers of ballads, dying confessions, and pamphlets was Jemmy Catnatch. When he set up his shop in London he entered into a fierce rivalry with existing entrepreneurs like Johnny Pitts and his mother, an ex-bumboat woman known as “Old Mother” Pitts, who kept the Toy and Marble Warehouse in the Seven Dials. Catnatch’s successor was W.S. Fortey, who kept the shop at Monmouth Court solvent until at least 1871.

[8] Curiosities of Street Literature, 1871
DIVIDED IN FOUR. In his collection of street literature Charles Hindley divided his subjects into four. His first category was ‘Cocks’ or ‘Catchpennies,’ Street Drolleries &c, such as Shocking Rape and Murder of Two Lovers, The Life of the Man that was Hanged but is now Alive; Funny Doings in this Neighbourhood; The Female Sleep-Walker and How to Cook a Wife.

Division II was ‘Broadsides on the Royal Family,’ ‘Political Litanies’ &c. Divison III were ‘Ballads on a Subject’ such as The Sayers and Heenan Championship Fight, The Ghost of Woeburn Square and The Female Husband. The fourth and last Division was ‘The Gallows Literature of the Streets,’ which covered trials, crimes and ‘dying confessions.’

BOARD-PAINTERS. For the most part the authors played fast and loose with the truth; although some were “founded on a fact.” If a cock was popular enough it warranted the seller doing “board-work”; renting a fixed illustrated board to sell his ‘pamphlets’ under, rather than selling them on the fly. The board-painters made gaudy use of red, orange and blue water-colours covered with gum-resin to protect them from the rainy weather.

PENNY BLOODS. The street literature of the Seven Dials, along with the rise of the penny press, encouraged the tone and subjects of the penny blood and penny dreadfuls, which were published in 8 or 16 page penny weekly parts. Thomas Frost, who wrote penny bloods for publishers Edward Lloyd and George Purkess in the 1840s, said that

“The Salisbury Square school of fiction did a good work in its day. It was the connecting link between the Monmouth Street Ballads and ‘last dying speeches,’ lives of highwaymen, and terrific legends of diabolism which constituted the favourite reading of the masses fifty years ago, and the more wholesome refined literature enjoyed by them at the present day.” — Forty Years Recollections by Thomas Frost, 1880 

Curiosities of Street Literature HERE.


  1. Hi

    Thanks. This is an intriguing article. I have a particular interest because I work on Shaftesbury Avenue, more or less over where Monmouth Court would have been situated - 2 & 3 Monmouth Court being the address of Ryle & Co - one of the Seven Dials publishers.

    Could you tell me the source of your illustration [4], please? I am interested in the topography of the St Giles Rookery and was wondering about where that illustration comes from.

  2. I wish I could tell you but I really can't recall just where I found that one - it has been a year and a lot of posts under the bridge!