Historical references to London's sounds

A database of several hundred historical descriptions and references to London's sounds. They're drawn mainly from primary sources such as autobiographies, diaries and statutes, as well as novels written around the times they depict.

11th to
16th to
18th Early
 Beggars, hustlers and scavengers   1 1 1   2 3 1
 Street entertainers             2  
 Costermongers and street traders   1   2 1 5 2  
 Transport for hire   1 1          
 Quack doctors       1        
 Recruitment of workers     1     1    
 Work songs and music             1  
 Workplace cries and audible signals       1 1 2 3  
 Shops and shop staff         1   3  

Period referred to: 1840s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: London Labour and the London Poor

Type of publication: Social Investigation

Author: Henry Mayhew

Year of publication: 1851

Page/volume number: Volume 1, Chapter 11

Henry Mayhew on Victorian street-sellers of conundrums

When a clever patterer "works conundrums" – for the trade is in the hands of the pattering class – he selects what he may consider the best, and reads or repeats them in the street, sometimes with and sometimes without the answer. But he does not cripple the probable quickness of his sale by a slavish adherence to what is in type. He puts the matter, as it were, personally. "What gentleman is it," one man told me he would ask, "in this street, that has –

`Eyes like saucers, a back like a box,
A nose like a pen-knife, and a voice like a fox?'

You can learn for a penny. Or sometimes I'll go on with the patter, thus," he continued, "What lady is it that we have all seen, and who can say truly –

`I am brighter than day, I am swifter than light,
And stronger than all the momentum of might?'

More than once people have sung out `the Queen,' for they seem to think that the momentum of might couldn't fit any one else. It's `thought' as is the answer, but it wouldn't do to let people think it's anything of the sort. It must seem to fit somebody. If I see a tailor's name on a door, as soon as I've passed the corner of the street, and sometimes in the same street, I've asked – `Why is Mr. So-and-so, the busy tailor of this (or the next street) never at home?' `Because he's always cutting out.' I have the same questions for other tradesmen, and for gentlemen and ladies in this neighbourhood, and no gammon. All for a penny. Nuts to Crack, a penny. A pair of Nutcrackers to crack 'em, only one penny."

Sometimes this man, who perhaps is the smartest in the trade, will take a bolder flight still, and when he knows the residence of any professional or public man, he will, if the allusion be complimentary, announce his name, or – if there be any satire – indicate by a motion of the head, or a gesture of the hand, the direction of his residence. My ingenuous, and certainly ingenious, informant obliged me with a few instances: – "In Whitechapel parish I've said – it ain't in the print, it was only in the patter – `Why won't the Reverend Mr. Champneys lay up treasures on earth?' – `Because he'd rather lay up treasures in heaven.' That's the reverend gentleman not far from this spot; but in this sheet – with nearly 100 engravings by the first artists, only a penny – I have other questions for other parsons, not so easy answered; nuts as is hard to crack. `Why is the Reverend Mr. Popjoy,' or the Honourable Lawyer Bully, or Judge Wiggem, – and then I just jerks my thumb, sir, if it's where I know or think such people live – `Why is the Reverend Mr. Popjoy (or the others) like two balloons, one in the air to the east, and the 'tother in the air to the west, in this parish of St. George's, Hanover-square?' There's no such question, and as it's a sort of a `cock,' of course there's no answer. I don't know one.

But a gentleman's servant once sung out: `'Cause he's uppish.' And a man in a leather apron once said: `He's a raising the wind,' which was nonsense. But I like that sort of interruption, and have said – `You'll not find that answer in the Nutcrackers,' only a penny – and, Lord knows, I told the truth when I said so, and it helps the sale. No fear of any one's finding out all what's in the sheet before I'm out of the `drag.' Not a bit. And you must admit that any way it's a cheap pennorth." That it is a cheap harmless pennyworth is undeniable.

The street-sale of conundrums is carried on most extensively during a week or two before Christmas; and on summer evenings, when the day's work is, or ought to be, over even among the operatives of the slop employers. As the conundrum patterer requires an audience, he works the quieter streets, preferring such as have no horse-thoroughfare – as in some of the approaches from the direction of Golden-square to Regent-street. The trade is irregularly pursued, none following it all the year; and from the best information I could acquire, it appears that fifteen men may be computed as working conundrums for two months throughout the twelve, and clearing 10s. 6d. weekly, per individual.