London Labour and the London Poor, Volume 1

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Street-Sellers of Play-Bills.


The sellers of play-bills carry on a trade which is exceedingly uncertain, and is little remunerative. There are now rather more than people selling play-bills in London, but the number has sometimes been as high as . "Yes, indeed," a theatrical gentleman said to me, "and if a dozen more theatres were opened to-morrow, why each would have more than its bill-sellers the very night. Where they come from, or what they are, I haven't a notion."

The majority of the play-bill sellers are either old or young, the sexes being about equally engaged in this traffic. Some of them have followed the business from their childhood. I met with very few indeed who knew anything of


theatres beyond the names of the managers and of the principal performers, while some do not even enjoy that small modicum of knowledge, and some can neither read nor write. The boys often run recklessly alongside the cabs which are conveying persons to the theatre, and so offer their bills for sale. of these youths said to me, when I spoke of the danger incurred, "The cabman knows how to do it, sir, when I runs and patters; and so does his hoss." An intelligent cabman, however, who was in the habit of driving parties to the Lyceum, told me that these lads clung to his cab as he drove down to in such a way, for they seemed never to look before them, that he was in constant fear lest they should be run over. Ladies are often startled by a face appearing suddenly at the cab window, "and thro' my glass," said my informant, "a face would look dirtier than it really is." And certainly a face gliding along with the cab, as it were, no accompanying body being visible, on a winter's night, while the sound of the runner's footsteps is lost in the noise of the cab, has much the effect of an apparition.

I did not hear of person who had been in any way connected with the stage, even as a supernumerary, resorting to play-bill selling when he could not earn a shilling within the walls of a theatre. These bill-sellers, for the most part, confine themselves, as far as I could ascertain, to that particular trade. The youths say that they sometimes get a job in errand-going in the daytime, but the old men and women generally aver they can do nothing else. An officer, who, some years back, had been on duty at a large theatre, told me that at that time the women bill-sellers earned a trifle in running errands for the women of the town who attended the theatres; but, as they were not permitted to send any communication into the interior of the house, their earnings that way were insignificant, for they could only send in messages by any other "dress woman" entering the theatre subsequently.

In the course of my inquiries last year, I met with a lame woman of , who had been selling play-bills for the last years. She had been, for or months before she adopted that trade, the widow of a poor mechanic, a carpenter. She had thought of resorting to that means of a livelihood owing to a neighbouring old woman having been obliged to relinquish her post from sickness, when my informant "succeeded her." In this way, she said, many persons "succeeded" to the business, as the recognised old hands were jealous of and uncivil to any additional new comers, but did not object to a "successor." These parties generally know each other; they murmur if the hands, for instance, resort to the Lyceum for any cause, or , thus overstocking the business, but they offer no other opposition. The old woman further informed me that she commenced selling play-bills at Astley's, and then realized a profit of per week. When the old Amphitheatre was burnt down, she went to the Victoria; but "business was not what it was," and her earnings were from to a week less; and this, she said, although the Victoria was considered of the most profitable stations for the play-bill seller, the box-keeper there seldom selling any bill in the theatre. "The boxes," too, at this house, more frequently buy them outside. Another reason why "business" was better at the Victoria than elsewhere was represented to me, by a person familar with the theatres, to be this: many go to the Victoria who cannot read, or who can read but imperfectly, and they love to "make-believe" they are "good scholards" by parading the consulting of a play-bill!

On my visit the bill-sellers at the Victoria were old women (each a widow for many years), young men, besides or , though there are sometimes as many as or children. The old women "fell into the business" as successors by virtue of their predecessors' leaving it on account of sickness. The children were generally connected with the older dealers. The young men had been in this business from boyhood; some sticking to the practice of their childhood unto manhood, or towards old age. The number at the Victoria is now, I am informed, or more, as the theatre is often crowded. The old woman told me that she had known and even visitors to the theatre club for the purchase of a bill, and then she had sometimes to get farthings for them.

A young fellow—who said he believed he was only eighteen, but certainly looked older—told me that he was in the habit of selling play-bills, but not regularly, as he sometimes had a job in carrying a board, or delivering bills at a corner, "or the likes o' that;"—he favoured me with his opinion of the merits of the theatres he was practically acquainted with as regarded their construction for the purposes of the bill-seller. His mother, who had been dead a few years, had sold bills, and had put him into the business. His ambition seemed to be to become a general bill-sticker. He could not write but could read very imperfectly.

Vy, you see, sir," he said, "there's sets off. At the Market (Haymarket), now, there's this: there's only one front, so you may look sharp about for there goes, boxes, pit, and gallery. The 'Delphis as good that way, and so is the Surrey, but them one's crowded too much. The Lyceum's built shocking orkered. Vy, the boxes is in one street, and the pit in another, and the gallery in another! It's true, sir. The pit's the best customer in most theatres, I think. Ashley's and the Wick is both spoiled that way—Ashley's perticler—as the gallery's a good step from the pit and boxes; at the Wick it's round the corner. But the shilling gallery aint so bad at Ashley's. Sadler's Wells I never tried, it's out of the way, and I can't tell you much about the 'Lympic or the Strand. The Lane is middling. I don't know that either plays or actors makes much difference to me. Perhaps it's rather vorser ven it's anything werry prime, as everybody seems to know every think about it aforehand. No, sir, I can't say, sir, that Mr. Macready did me much good. I sometimes runs along by a cab because I've got a sixpence from a swell for doing it stunnin', but werry seldom, and I don't much like it; though ven you're at it you don't think of no fear. I makes 3s. or rather more a week at bill-selling, and as much other vays. I never saw a play but once at the Wick. I'd rather be at a Free and Heasy. I don't know as I knows any of the actors or actresses, either hes or shes.

The sellers of play-bills purchase their stock of the printer, at the , or in that proportion for half or quarter-hundreds. If a smaller quantity be purchased, the charge is usually for ; though they used to be only for These sellers are among the poorest of the poor; after they have had meal, they do not know how to get another. They reside in the lowest localities, and some few are abandoned and profligate in character. They reckon it a good night to earn clear, but upon an average they clear but per week. They lose sometimes by not selling out their nightly stock. What they have left, they are obliged to sell for waste-paper at per lb. Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide are generally their best times—they will then make per night clear. The printer of the play-bills prints but a certain number, the demand being nearly ascertained week by week. These are all sold (by the printer or some person appointed) to the regular customers, in preference to others, but the "irregulars" can get supplied though often not without trouble. The profit on all sold is rather more than cent. per cent. As I have intimated, when some theatres are closed, the bill-sellers are driven to others; and as the demand is necessarily limited, a superflux of sellers affects the profits, and then is considered a good week's work. During the opera season, I am told, a few mechanics, out of work, will sell bills there and books of the opera, making about a week, and doing better than the regular hands, as they have a better address and are better clad.

Taking the profits at a week at cent. per cent. on the outlay, and reckoning sellers, including those at the saloons, concert-rooms, &c., we find that is now expended weekly on play-bills purchased in the streets of London.

View all images in this book
 Title Page
 The Street-Folk: Of Wandering Tribes in General
 Of the Wandering Tribes of this Country
 Of the London Street-Folk
Of the Number of Costermongers and Other Street-Folk
Of the Number of Costermongers and Other Street-Folk
Of the Varieties of Street-Folk in General, and Costermongers in Particular
Of Costermongering Mechanics
Ancient Calling of Costermongers
Of the Obsolete Cries of the Costermongers
Of the Costermongers 'Economically' Considered
The London Street Markets on a Saturday Night
The Sunday Morning Markets
Habits and amusements of Costermongers
Gambling of Costermongers
'Vic Gallery'
The Politics of Costermongers.-- Policemen
Marriage and Concubinage of Costermongers
Religion of Costermongers
Of the Uneducated State of Costermongers
Language of Costermongers
Of the Nicknames of Costermongers
Of the Education of Costermongers' Children
The Literature of Costermongers
Of the Honesty of Costermongers
Of the Conveyances of the Costermongers and Other Street-Sellers
Of the 'Smithfield Races'
Of the Donkeys of the Costermongers
Of the Costermongers' Capital
Of the 'Slang' Weights and Measures
Of Half Profits
Of the Boys of the Costermongers, and their Bunts
Of the Juvenile Trading of the Costermongers
Of the Education of the 'Coster-Lads'
The Life of a Coster-Lad
Of the 'Penny Gaff'
Of the Coster-Girls
The Life of a Coster Girl
Of Costermongers and Thieves
Of the More Provident Costermongers
Of the Homes of the Costermongers
Of the Dress of the Costermongers
Once Try You'll Come Again
Of the Diet and Drink of Costermongers
Of the Cries, Rounds, and Days of Costermongers
Of the Costermongers on their Country Rounds
Of the Earnings of Costermongers
Of the Capital and Income of the Costermongers
Of the Providence and Improvidence of Costermongers
Of the Costermongers in Bad Weather and During the Cholera
Of the Costermongers' Raffles
Of the Markets and Trade Rights of the Costerongers, and of the Laws Affecting Them
Of the Removals of Costermongers From the Streets
Of the Tricks of Costermongers
Of the Street-Sellers of Fish
Of Sprat-Selling in the Streets
Of the Street-Sellers of Fruit and Vegetables
Of the Stationary Street-Sellers of Fish, Fruit, and Vegetables
Of the Street-Irish
Of the Street-Sellers of Game, Poultry (Live and Dead), Rabbits, Butter, Cheese, and Eggs
Of the Sellers of Trees, Shrubs, Flowers (Cut and In Pots), Roots, Seeds, and Branches
Street-Sellers of Green Stuff
Of the Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Of the Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Of the Street-Sellers of Pea-Soup and Hot Eels
Of the Experience of a Hot-Eel and Pea-Soup Man
Of the Street-Sellers of Pickled Whelks
Of the Customers, Etc., of Pickled Whelk-Sellers
Of the Street Sellers, and of the Preparation of Fried Fish
Of the Experience of a Fried Fish- Seller, and of the Class of Customers
Of the Preparation and Quantity of Sheep's Trotters, and of the Street-Sellers
Statements of Sheep's Trotter Women
Of the Street Trade in Baked Potatoes
Of 'Trotting,' or 'Hawking' Butchers
Of the Experience of a Hawking Butcher
Of the Street-Sellers of Ham-Sandwiches
Of the Experience of a Ham Sandwich- Seller
Of the Street-Sellers of Bread
Of the Street-Sellers of Hot Green Peas
Of the Experience of a Hot Green Pea Seller
Of Cats' and Dogs'--Meat Dealers
Of the Street-Sale of Drinkables
Of Coffee-Stall Keepers
Of the Street Sale of Ginger-Beer, Sherbet, Lemonade, &c
Of the Experience and Customers of A Ginger-Beer Seller
Of the Street-Sellers of Hot Elder Wine
Of the Street Sale of Peppermint-Water
Of Milk Selling in St. James's Park
Of the Street Sale of Milk
Of the Street-Sale of Curds and Whey
Of the Street-Sellers of Rice-Milk
Of Water-Carriers
Of the Street-Sellers of Pastry and Confectionary
Of Street Piemen
Of the Street-Sellers of Boiled Puddings
Of the Street-Sellers of Plum 'Duff' or Dough
Of the Street-Sellers of Cakes, Tarts, &c.
Of Other Cake-Sellers in the Streets
Of the Street-Sellers of Gingerbread- Nuts, &c.
Of the Street-Sellers of Hot-Cross Buns, and of Chelsea Buns
Of Muffin and Crumpet-Selling in the Streets
Of the Street Sale of Sweet-Stuff
Of the Customers of the Sweet-Stuff Street-Sellers
Of the Street-Sellers of Cough Drops and of Medical Confectionary
'Lohoch de farfara,' the Lohoch of Coltsfoot
Of the Street-Sellers of Ices and of Ice Creams
Of the Capital and Income of the Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Capital, or Stock in Trade, of the Street- Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Income, or 'Takings,' of Street-Sellers of Eatables and Drinkables
Of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, Literature, and the Fine Arts
Of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, &c.
Of the Former and Present Street- Patterers
Of the Habits, Opinions, Morals, and Religion of Patterers Generally
Of the Publishers and authors of Street-Literature
Of Long Song-Sellers
Of Running Patterers
Experience of a Running Patterer
Of the Recent Experience of a Running Patterer
Of the Chaunters
Of the Experience of a Chaunter
Of the Death and Fire Hunters
Of the Sellers of Second Editions
Of the Standing Patterers
Experience of a Standing Patterer
Of Political Litanies, Dialogues, etc.
Of 'Cocks,' Etc.
Of 'Strawing'
Of the Sham indecent Street-Trade
Of Religious Tract Sellers
Of a Benefit Society of Patterers
Of the Abodes, Tricks, Marriage, Character, and Characteristics of the Different Grades of Patterers
Of the Low Lodging-Houses of London
Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-Houses
Of the Children in Low Lodging- Houses
Of the Low Lodging-Houses Throughout the Country
Of the Street Stationers, and the Street Card-Sellers
Of the Seller of the Penny Short-Hand Cards
The Lecture
'I perish with hunger'
Of the Sellers of Race Cards and Lists
Of the Street-Sellers of Gelatine, of Engraved, and of Playing Cards, &c.
Of the Street-Sellers of Stationery
Of the Experience of a Street- Stationer
Of a 'Reduced' Gentlewoman, and a 'Reduced' Tradesman, as Street-Sellers of Stationery
Of the Street-Sale of Memorandum- Books and Almanacks
Of the Street-Sale of Pocket-Books and Diaries
Of the Street-Sellers of Songs
Of the Street 'Pinners-up,' or Wall Song-Sellers
Of Ancient and Modern Street Ballad Minstrelsy
Of Street 'Ballads on a Subject'
Of the Street Poets and Authors
Of the Experience of a Street Author, or Poet
Of the Street-Sellers of Broad-Sheets
Of the 'Gallows' Literature of the Streets
Of the Street-Sellers of Conundrums
Of the Street-Sellers of Comic Exhibitions, Magical Delusions, &c.
Of the Street-Sellers of Play-Bills
Of the Street-Sellers of Periodicals, Pamphlets, Tracts, Books, Etc.
Of the Street-Sale of Back Numbers
Of the Sale of Waste Newspapers at Billingsgate
Of the Sale of Periodicals on the Steam- Boats and Steam-Boat Piers
Of the Sale of Newspapers, Books, &c., at the Railway Stations
Of the Street Booksellers
Of the Character of Books of the Street-Sale
Of the Experience of a Street Book- Seller
Of Street Book-Auctioneers
Of the Street-Sale of Song-Books, and of Children's Books
Of the Street-Sellers of Account-Books
Of the Street-Sellers of Guide-Books, &c.
Of the Street-Sellers of Fine Arts
Of Street Art
Of the Street-Sellers of Engravings, Etc., in Umbrellas, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of Pictures in Frames
Of the Street-Sellers of Manuscript and Other Music
Of the Capital and Income of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, Literature, and the Fine Arts
Capital or Value of the Stock-in-Trade of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, Literature and the Fine Arts
Income, or Average Annual 'Takings,' of the Street-Sellers of Stationery, Literature, and the Fine Arts
An Epitome of the Pattering Class
Of the 'Screevers,' or Writers of Begging-Letters and Petitions
'God Save the Queen'
Of the Probable Means of Reformation
Of the Street-Sellers of Manufactured Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Manufactured Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Manufactured Articles in Metal
Of the Cheap Johns, or Street Han- Sellers
'The Original Cheap John'
The Crippled Street-Seller of Nut- Meg-Graters
Of the Swag-Shops of the Metropolis
Shopkeepers and Dealers Supplied with the Following Articles --
Of the Life of a Cheap-John
The Street-Sellers of Cutlery
Of the Blind Street-Sellers of Tailors' Needles, etc.
The Public-House Hawkers of Metal Spoons, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of Jewellery
Of the Pedlar-Jewellers
Of the Street-Sellers of Card-Counters, Medals, Etc.
The Construction is of Iron and of Glass, 1848 Feet Long. about Half is 456 Wide. the Remainder 408 Feet Wide, and 66 Feet High; Site, Upwards of 20 acres. Josh. Paxton, archt.
Of the Street-Sellers of Rings and Sovereigns For Wagers
Of the Street-Sellers of Children's Gilt Watches
Of the Street-Sellers of Tinware
Of the Life of a Tin-Ware Seller
Of the Street-Sellers of Dog-Collars
Of the Life of a Street-Seller of Dog- Collars
Of the Street-Sellers of Tools
Of the Beggar Street-Sellers
Pike's Patent Cotton. 120 Yards
'The Lace-Makers' Appeal'
'ALLEN, Printer, Long-row, Nottingham'
Of the 'House of Lords,' a Street-Seller's Defunct Club
Of the Street-Sellers of Crockery and Glass-Wares
Of the 'Swag,' Crockery, and Glass Shops
Of the Street-Sellers of Spar and China Ornaments, and of Stone Fruit
Of the Street-Sellers of Textile Fabrics
Of the Haberdashery Swag-Shops
Of Hawkers, Pedlars, and Petty Chapmen
Of the Packmen, or Hawkers of Soft Wares
Statement of a Packman
Of the Tally Packman
Of the 'Duffers' or Hawkers of Pretended Smuggled Goods
Of the Street-Sellers of 'Small-Ware,' or Tape, Cotton, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of Lace
Of the Street-Sellers of Japanned Table- Covers
Of the Street-Sellers of Braces, Belts, Hose, Trowser-Straps, and Waistcoats
Of the Street-Sellers of Boot and Stay- Laces, &c.
Of a Blind Female Seller of 'Small-Wares'
The Blind Street-Seller of Boot-Laces
Of the Life of a Blind Boot-Lace Seller
Of the Low Lodging-Houses
Statement of a Young Pickpocket
Statement of a Prostitute
Statement of a Beggar
Meeting of Thieves
Of the Country Lodging-Houses
Of the Street-Sellers of Chemical Articles of Manufacture
Of the Street-Sellers of Blacking, Black Lead, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of French Polish
Of the Street-Sellers of Grease-Removing Compositions
Of the Street-Sellers of Corn-Salve
Of the Street-Sellers of Glass and China Cement, and of Razor Paste
Of the Street-Seller of Crackers and Detonating Balls
Of the Street-Sellers of Lucifer-Matches
Of the Street-Sellers of Cigar Lights, or Fuzees
Of the Street-Sellers of Gutta-Percha Heads
Of the Street-Sellers of Fly-Papers and Beetle-Wafers
Of the Street-Sellers of Miscellaneous Manufactured Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Walking-Sticks
Of the Street-Sellers of Whips, Etc.
Of the Street-Sellers of Pipes, and of Snuff and Tobacco Boxes
Of the Street-Sellers of Cigars
Of the Street-Sellers of Sponge
Of the Street-Sellers of Wash-Leathers
Of the Street-Sellers of Spectacles and Eye-Glasses
Of the Street-Sellers of Dolls
Of the 'Swag-Barrowmen,' and 'Lot- Sellers'
Of the Street-Sellers of Roulette Boxes
Of the Street-Sellers of Poison For Rats
Of the Street-Sellers of Rhubarb and Spice
Of the Hawking of Tea
Of the Women Street-Sellers
Of the Children Street-Sellers of London