London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Fly-Paper Maker.

IN a small attic-room, in a house near Drurylane, I found the "catch "em alive" manufacturer and his family busy at their trade.

Directly I entered the house where I had been told he lodged, I knew that I had come to the right address; for the staircase smelt of turpentine as if it had been newly painted, the odour growing more and more powerful as I ascended.

The little room where the man and his family worked was as hot as an oven; for although it was in the heat of summer, still his occupation forced him to have a fire burning for the purpose of melting and keeping fluid the different ingredients he spread upon his papers.

When I opened the door of his room, I was at puzzled to know how I should enter the apartment; for the ceiling was completely hidden by the papers which had been hung up to dry from the many strings stretched across the place, so that it resembled a washerwoman"s back-yard, with some thousands of red pocket-handkerchiefs suspended in the air. I could see the legs of the manufacturer walking about at the further end, but the other part of his body was hidden from me.

On his crying, "Come in!" I had to duck my head down, and creep under the forest of paper strips rustling above us.

The most curious characteristic of the apartment was the red colour with which everything was stained. The walls, floor, and tables were all smeared with ochre, like the pockets of a drover. The papers that were drying were as red as the pages of a gold-leaf book. This curious appearance was owing to part of the process of "catch "em alive" making consisting in covering the paper


with coloured size, to prevent the sticky solution from soaking into it.

The room was so poorly furnished, that it was evident the trade was not a lucrative . An old Dutch clock, with a pendulum as long as a walking-stick, was the only thing in the dwelling which was not indispensable to the calling. The chimneypiece—that test of "well-to-do" in the houses of the poorer classes—had not a single ornament upon it. The long board on which the family worked served likewise as the table for the family meals, and the food they ate had to be laid upon the red-smeared surface. There was but chair, and that the wife occupied; and when the father or son wished to sit down, a tub of size was drawn out with its trembling contents from under the worktable, and on this they rested themselves.

We are called in the trade," said the father, "fly-paper makers. They used to put a nice name to the things once, and call "em Egyptian fly-papers, but now they use merely the word "fly-papers," or "fly-destroyers," or "fly-catchers," or "catch "em alive, oh."

I never made any calculation about flies, and how often they breeds. You see, it depends upon so many things how they"re produced: for instance, if I was to put my papers on a dung-heap, I might catch some thousands; and if I was to put a paper in an ice-well, I don"t suppose I should catch one.

I know the flies produce some thousands each, because if you look at a paper well studded over with flies, you"ll see—that is, if you look very carefully—where each fly has blown, as we call it, there"ll be some millions on a paper, small grubs or little mites, like; for whilst struggling the fly shoots forth the blows, and eventually these blows would turn to flies.

I have been at fly-catcher making for the last nine years. It"s almost impossible to make any calculation as to the number of papers I make during the season, and this is the season. If it"s fine weather, then flies are plentiful, and the lads who sell the papers in the streets keep me busy; but if it"s at all bad weather, then they turn their attention to blacking boots.

It"s quite a speculation, my business is, for all depends upon the lads coming to me to buy, and there"s no certainty beyond. I every season expect that these lads who bought papers of me the last year will come back and deal with me again. First of all, these lads will come for a dozen, or a kipple of dozen, of papers; and so it goes on till perhaps they are able to sell half a gross a-day, and then from that they will, if the weather is fine, get up to ten dozen, or perhaps a gross, but seldom or never over that.

In the very busiest and hottest time as is, I have, for about two or three weeks, made as many as thirty-six gross of papers in a week. We generally begins about the end of June or the beginning of July, and then for five or six weeks we goes on very busy; after that it dies out, and people gets tired of laying out their money.

It"s almost impossible to get at any calculation of the quantity I make. You see, today I haven"t sold a gross, and yesterday I didn"t sell more than a gross; and the last three days I haven"t sold a single paper, it"s been so wet. But last week I sold more than five gross a-day,—it varies so. Oh yes, I sell more than a hundred gross during the season. You may say, that for a month I make about five gross a-day, and that—taking six days to the week, and thirty days to the month—makes a hundred and thirty gross: and then for another month I do about three gross a-day, and that, at the same calculation, makes seventy-eight gross, or altogether one hundred and ninety-eight gross, or 28,512 single papers, and that is as near as I can tell you.

Sometimes our season lasts more than two months. You may reckon it from the latter end of June to the end of August, or if the weather is very hot, then we begins early in June, and runs it into September. The prime time is when the flies gets heavy and stings—that"s when the papers sells most.

There"s others in the business besides myself; they lives up in St. Giles"s, and they sells "em rather cheaper. At one time the shopkeepers used to make the papers. When they first commenced, they was sold at twopence and threepence and fourpence a-piece, but now they"re down to three a-penny in the streets, or a halfpenny for a single one. The boys when they"ve got back the money they paid me for their stock, will sell what papers they have left at anything they"ll fetch, because the papers gets dusty and spiles with the dust.

I use the very best "Times" paper for my "catch "em alives." I gets them kept for me at stationers" shops and liberaries, and suchlike. I pays threepence a-pound, or twentyeight shillings the hundred weight. That"s a long price, but you must have good paper if you want to make a good article. I could get paper at twopence a-pound, but then it"s only the cheap Sunday papers, and they"re too slight.

The morning papers are the best, and will stand the pulling in opening the papers; for we always fold the destroyers with the sticky sides together when finished. The composition I use is very stiff; if the paper is bad, they tear when you force them open for use. Some in the trade cut up their newspapers into twelve for the full sheet, but I cut mine up into only eight.

The process is this. First of all the paper is sized and coloured. We colour them by putting a little red lead into the size, because if the sticky side is not made apparent the people wont buy "em, "cause they might spile the furniture by putting the composition-side downwards. After sizing the papers, they are hung up to dry, and then the composition is laid on. This composition is a secret, and I"m obligated to keep it so, for of course all the boys who come here would be trying to make "em, and not only would it injure me, but I"d warrant they"d injure theirselves as well, by setting the house on fire. You may say that my composition is made from a mixture of resinous substances. Everything in making it depends upon using the proper proportions. There"s some men who deal with me who know the substances to make the composition from, but because they haven"t got the exact proportions of the quantities, they can"t make it right.

The great difficulty in making them is drying the papers after they are sized. Some days when it"s fine they"ll dry as fast as you can hang "em up a"most, and other days they won"t dry at all—in damp weather "specially. There is some makers who sizes and colours their papers in the winter, and then puts "em to dry; and when the summer comes, then they has only to put on the composition.

I"m a very quick hand in the trade (if you can call it one, for it only lasts three months at most, and is a very uncertain one, too; indeed, I don"t know what you can style our business—it ain"t a purfession and it ain"t a trade, I suppose it"s a calling): I"m a quick hand I say at spreading the composition, and I can, taking the day through, do about two gross an hour—that is, if the papers was sized ready for me; but as it is, having to size "em first, I can"t do more than three gross a-day myself, but with my wife helping me we can do such a thing as five gross a-day.

It"s most important that the size should dry. Now those papers (producing some covered with a dead red coating of the size preparation) have been done four days, and yet they"re not dry, although to you they appear so, but I can tell that they feel tough, and not crisp as they ought to. When the size is damp it makes them adhere to one another when I am laying the stuff on, and it sweats through and makes them heavy, and then they tears when I opens them.

When I"m working, I first size the entire sheet. We put it on the table, and then we have a big brush and plaster it over. Then I gives it to my wife, and she hangs it up on a line. We can hang up a gross at a time here, and then the room is pretty full, and must seem strange to anybody coming in, though to us it"s ordinary enough.

The man was about to exhibit to us his method of proceeding, when his attention was drawn off by a smell which the moving of the different pots had caused. "How strong this size smells, Charlotte!" he said to his wife.

It"s the damp and heat of the room does it," the wife replied; and then the narrative went on.

Before putting on the composition I cut up the papers into slips as fast as possible, that don"t take long.

"We can cut "em in style," interrupted the wife.

I can cut up four gross an hour," said a boy, who was present.

I don"t think you could, Johnny," said the man. "Two gross is nearer the mark, to cut "em evenly.

"It"s only sheets," remonstrated the lad, "and that"s only a little more than a minute."

A pile of entire newspapers was here brought out, and all of them coloured red on side, like the leaves of the books in which gold-leaf is kept.

Judging from the trial at cutting which followed, we should conclude that the lad was correct in his calculation.

When we put on the composition," continued the catch-"em-alive maker, "we has the cut slips piled up in a tall mound like, and then we have a big brush, and dips it in the pot of stuff and rubs it in; we folds each catcher up as we does it, like a thin slice of bread and butter, and put it down. As I said before, at merely putting on the composition I could do about two gross an hour.

My price to the boys is twopence-halfpenny a dozen, or two-and-sixpence a gross, and out of that I don"t get more than ninepence profit, for the paper, the resin, and the firing for melting the size and composition, all takes off the profit.

This season nearly all my customers have been boys. Last season I had a few men who dealt with me. The principal of those who buys of me is Irish. A boy will sometimes sell his papers for a halfpenny each, but the usual price is three a-penny. Many of the blacking-boys deal with me. If it"s a fine day it don"t suit them at boot-cleaning, and then they"ll run out with my papers; and so they have two trades to their backs—one for fine, and the other for wet weather.

The first man as was the inventor of these fly-papers kept a barber"s shop in St. Andrewstreet, Seven Dials, of the name of Greenwood or Greenfinch, I forget which. I expect he diskivered it by accident, using varnish and stuff, for stale varnish has nearly the same effect as our composition. He made "em and sold "em at first at threepence and fourpence a-piece. Then it got down to a penny. He sold the receipt to some other parties, and then it got out through their having to employ men to help "em. I worked for a party as made "em, and then I set to work making "em for myself, and afterwards hawking them. They was a greater novelty then than they are now, and sold pretty well. Then men in the streets, who had nothing to do, used to ask me where I bought "em, and then I used to give "em my own address, and they"d come and find me.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men