Victorian London - Publications - Social
Investigation/Journalism - The Great Metropolis, by James Grant, 1837
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[-THE GREAT METROPOLIS, VOLUME 2-]
Precariousness of their
employment—Their labour and enterprise—Their character—Their ingenuity in
finding employment for themselves—The feeling they entertain towards each
other—Various anecdotes respecting them—Immutability of their character
and phraseology—Concluding observations.
one has heard of a class of persons in connexion with the London journals,
called "Penny-a-Liners ;" but none but those who are intimately acquainted
with the arrangements of newspaper offices, know anything about them. They are
altogether a singular race; they are a class, in a great measure, by themselves;
they live by the press, and yet they do not, strictly
belong to the press. They have no regular sum for their labours; sometimes no
sum at all. If there be what the thimble-riggers at Greenwich and other fairs
call "the for-tune of war" in any line of business, it is in theirs.
Sometimes they will fag away without a moment's intermission for seven or
eight hours, writing in that time as much matter as would fill from a column to
a column and a half of a morning newspaper, walking, it may be, in addition,
five or six miles, and yet not receive one penny, notwithstanding all their
enterprise and exertion. No paper is bound to use the matter, or any part of it,
which they furnish; for they were not sent by any one connected with the press,
to the meetings or the coroner's inquests, of whose proceedings their reports
usually consist, but went of their own accord. In other words, it was all matter
of speculation; quite a toss up whether they should receive the Irishman's
at all; or whether they should pocket five or six pounds by the adventure. The
former, I must, however, say, is the most fre-[-284-]quent occurrence. I have no idea
that we shall ever have a treatise, with illustrative examples, of any value,
" On the Caprices of Fortune," until it is written by a Penny-a-Liner.
To-day they have not one farthing in their pockets; to-morrow, the entire sum
due to them by the daily papers may be several pounds. When their matter is
inserted, or, to use their own phraseology, their copy is used, they are paid at
the rate of three-halfpence for every line. The price originally was a penny a
line; hence the origin of their designation. A column of a morning paper
produces at this rate from thirty to forty shillings. It is but seldom, however,
one of them is so fortunate as to get an entire column of matter into any of the
papers; but he does now and then get in half a column or so, into three or four
out of the six morning papers; and the joint produce is a few pounds. It often
happens, that owing to the press of parliamentary or other matter furnished by
the regular reporters of the morning journals, or to the absence of any
peculiar interest in the matter [-285-] they have procured, that some of them will not
realise a sovereign for weeks in succession. On the other hand, they have the
good fortune of occasionally meeting with "something," which not only
enables them to clear off old scores, but replenishes their pockets for some
time to come. A "horrible murder," such as that of Thurtell's, rejoices
the hearts of the Penny-a-Liners. They call it a "windfall." To work they
set directly, and everything connected with the murdered party and the murderer,
is hunted out by them with an alacrity which exceeds all belief. If no romantic
materials exist, they call in the aid of their inventive faculties. They
consider anything bearing on the romantic or horrible as a sort of mine, which
they work with most exemplary industry. The produce, as I have already hinted,
is sometimes considerable. One of them made, from first to last, nearly 70l.
out of Thurtell's murder. In 1833, another reaped an abundant harvest. The
"subject," as they sometimes call it, was an inquest on the body of a man in
Shadwell, [-286-] who had been suspected to have been murdered by a policeman. One
person chanced to have a monopoly of it, and the inquest lasted five days; and
as each of the morning papers had from a column and a half to two columns of the
proceedings daily, it brought him about 50l.
Penny-a-Liners do not confine their exertions within the limits of the
metropolis: in the true spirit of speculation, if matters are dull in town, they
will go when they hear of anything important, two or three hundred miles into
the country. In many instances these adventures prove entire failures; owing
either to the thing not turning out as they expected, or to the editors of the
morning papers sending down their own reporters to report the proceedings. The
hardship, in such cases, is particularly great: they have endured much anxiety
of mind, encountered much bodily fatigue, and incurred the expense of several
pounds, which they had most probably raised with great difficulty, all to no
purpose. Sometimes, however, a good hit is made in this way: the best one of
late, [-287-] was the reporting the proceedings of an inquest on the bodies of some men
who had been shipwrecked on the northern coast, and where, it was suspected,
some of the more influential of the parties in the neighbourhood had taken from
the persons of the drowned men, considerable property. The proceeds to the young
man who went down on the occasion, could not have been less than from 40l.
alluded to the way in which the Penny-a-Liners -work "mines" of this kind.
The quantity of words they use is amazing. Dean Swift once remarked, that a
surgeon would take half an hour to tell you that a patient had broken his leg,
whereas the unfortunate man himself would acquaint you with the fact in five
words— "I have broken my leg." It is the same with the Penny-a-Liners.
They will spin out to the extent of half a column, what might be given with the
greatest ease in a dozen lines. And it is all quite natural; the solution of the
thing is to be found in the fact, that they are paid by the quantity. If they
have occasion to mention [-288-] that a deputation waited for any particular purpose
on Mr. Spring Rice, they will say, "waited on the Right Honourable Thomas
Spring Rice, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his own office, in Downing
Street, Whitehall." They are fond of expletives. If they have occasion to say
that the tendency of any measure is to produce tranquillity, they will say,
"peace, concord, harmony, and tranquillity." A few months since, one of
them, in stating the fact that one of the doors of Newgate was opened to admit
some persons who were on a visit to it, expressed himself as follows :—" The
door was unlocked, unbarred, unbolted, and opened." But not only do the
Penny-a-.Liners spin out any report or piece of information they are fortunate
enough to procure, but they will sometimes write a good part of a newspaper
column, to tell their readers that they have nothing to communicate. They thus
improve on the American editor, who published a second edition to inform the
public that he had no additional intelligence to give. A few months since, a
Penny-a-Liner wrote a full
of a column to say that the subject of peerage reform was not brought
forward at a particular meeting of the Marylebone vestry. This reminds me of the
author who wrote forty pages of a preface to his book for the purpose of proving
that no preface was necessary.
unenviable mode of life than that of the Penny-a-Liners does not exist.
entirely on their own resources, their minds are constantly racked with anxiety,
to find out when or where anything is to be done. They know not a moment's
repose. Every new day brings with it its own anxieties. They are wonderfully
quick at scenting out intelligence of any important meeting about to be held, or
any other matter which they suppose likely to produce a penny. Falstaff knew
royalty by jnstinct; and they seem to find out "subjects" by the same
quality. Things that nobody else ever heard a word about, are so well and
generally known to them, that out of the eighteen or twenty which compose their
number, there will be a muster of nine or ten. Often, indeed, do [-290-] their numbers
exceed that of the persons taking part in the proceedings they report. At a
held two years ago in the vestry-room of St. Clement Danes, relative to some
parish matters, the number of parishioners present was seven; the number of
impossible to say how much they average per month; but their vocation is
certainly not a lucrative one. I have no idea that taking one month with
another, the majority of them earn more than six pounds, or thirty shillings per
Irishman of the lower orders be asked what country he comes from, he adds, after
telling you it is from "ould Ireland," "and sure there are good and bad of
all countries." The observation applies with special force to the Penny-a-Liners. If ever the extremes of good and bad met in any class of men, it
is in them. I am sorry to say, however, that the bad preponderates in number
over the good. Some of them are great drinkers. One poor fellow died last year
who was known, for some years past, [-291-] to have been drunk for weeks in succession.
Tom Paine is said to have been drunk six weeks before his death. The
Penny-a-Liner to whom I refer, has repeatedly been drunk for a longer period
than that. His favourite drink was porter, with an occasional glass of gin by
way of parenthesis. Some time before his death, he drank at one sitting of
several hours, in a public house in Fleet-street, the astonishing quantity of
twenty-two pints of porter! The statement may appear incredible: it did so to
myself when I first heard it; but my curiosity having led me to make inquiries
into the thing, I may mention that its truth is placed beyond all doubt. There
are some very excellent young men amongst them, whom one cannot but regret to
see so unfortunately circumstanced; but the majority are destitute of all
honourable principle, and of very exceptionable habits. They never hesitate for
a moment at palming on the subeditors of the morning papers—for it is the
province of the sub-editors to accept or reject [-292-] their matter—the purest
inventions of their own, provided they think it can be done without detection.
And in order to make the most of the thing, two of them will sometimes come to
an understanding together, that the one shall send a detailed contradiction
to-morrow of what the other had sent to-day. The proceeds, in such a case, are
shared between the parties. Nay, to such a length in deliberate imposition will
some of them go, that the same person, under a different name, and writing in a
disguised hand, will contradict to-morrow what he himself has sent to-day. The
editors of newspapers, of course, always take care, when they have detected
any fraud of this kind, to exclude any future matter which the party may send;
but the latter often evades the effects of the editor's determination, by
assuming some new name, or by employing some one to send his copy in theirs,
making some allowance to the party who proves so accommodating. All the
"romantic affairs," "mysterious circumstances," &c. which from [-293-]
to time appear in the London journals, worded in general terms, are specimens of
the inventive capabilities of the Penny-a-Liners. I knew one who made from 2001.
to 2501. every year by repeating the same series of invented stories in
rotation. The whole num-. her was turned over every three years.
Penny-a-Liners sometimes bring themselves into awkward predicaments by a too
liberal exercise of their inventive faculties. They generally, however,
contrive, by having recourse to some ingenious expedient or other, to make their
escape out of it. Some years ago, one of the fraternity gave a "full and
particular"—I cannot say "true"—account of an alleged suicide of a
gentleman by leaping off Waterloo Bridge into the river. The writer, of course,
said he witnessed it, and was surpassingly pathetic and eloquent in the
expression of his regret that the unfortunate deceased should have "committed
the rash act." An elaborate description of the personal appearance of the
party was given. The body, of course, was not found. The account having appeared
in two of [-294-] the morning papers, two
gentlemen called at the office of one of the journals, and expressing their
apprehensions that from the description given of the unhappy man, it was a near
relation of their own who had been missing two days— wished to see the writer,
to make some further inquiries as to the identity of the deceased. An intimation
to this effect was sent to the Penny-a-Liner, who, on the first blush of the
thing, was afraid he had got himself, to use his own elegant phraseology,
"into a hobble." However, a thought afterwards struck him which he doubted
not would enable him to get out of the difficulty with great éclat. He
accordingly proceeded to the office where the two gentlemen were anxiously
awaiting his arrival.
we're very sorry to trouble you; but this is a very affecting case,"
observed one of the gentlemen, in melancholy accents, immediately upon the
Penny-a-Liner presenting himself.
is, indeed," observed the other, sighing deeply as he spoke.
the unhappy man who threw himself into the river, I suppose you mean," said
putting on a face as grave as that of an undertaker, and appearing to sympathise
feelingly with the manifest distresses of the gentleman.
about the unfortunate deceased," observed one of the gentlemen.
we're very much afraid he's a near relation of ours, Sir," remarked the
other. "Would you do us the favour of giving us any further information
respecting his personal appearance, so that we may be able to satisfy our minds
as to whether or not he is our relative ?" he added.
was the colour of your relative's hair ?" inquired the Penny-a-Liner.
haired," answered both at once.
then, the unfortunate deceased was not your relative; for his hair was jet
of joy irradiated the countenances of the two gentlemen. "I assure you, Sir,
we are infinitely obliged to you for your readiness in complying with our
name it," remarked the inventive genius.
obliged to you, indeed," said [-296-] the second gentleman. "Will you accept of a
couple of sovereigns for the trouble to which we have thus put you ?" at the
same time depositing two circular pieces of gold in his hand.
you are very kind. I am extremely happy the unfortunate gentleman was not your
relative," said the Penny-a-Liner, putting the sovereigns into his pocket. He
went home, and penned another "invention" that evening, respecting the
alleged suicide of "an interesting and elegantly dressed female"—all the
females of Penny-a-Liners are "interesting and elegantly dressed" by
throwing herself into the Regent's canal.
ingenious expedient for getting out of "a scrape," as the Penny-a-Liners
sometimes call such things, was lately resorted to by one of the brotherhood. He
had fabricated a very elaborate account of some supposed "melancholy
accident," the scene of which he fixed at a particular place in the suburbs of
town. On the day after the paragraph, redolent with expressions of deep regret
at having to communi-[-297-]cate the painful intelligence, &c., appeared a letter,
with the writer's name attached to it, sent to the editor of the journal in
which the account was published, denying that any such circumstance had
occurred. The editor sent for the Penny-a-Liner to take him to task for the
unfounded statement. On his way to the "Morning ———"office, the latter called on a friend, and said he was afraid
he would be found out this time, adding that he did not know what he could say
when the journalist should show him the letter denying the truth of the
faith, and it's myself will be after telling you what to say," observed
his friend, who was a ‘Paddy from Cork.'
do you think I should say ?" inquired the other, eagerly.
tell him to be sure, whenever he shows you the letter, that it's written by a
particular friend of your own, who knew the paragraph was yours, for the purpose
of having a little fun ;
signature was Thomas Smith, and the letter was dated Exeter-place, Mile-end
Road. [-298-] and that the writer knows quite well that the whole thing is intirely
struck the Penny-a-Liner as excellent ; and he determined to act on the hint.
He proceeded forthwith to the sanctorum of the editor.
Sir," said the journalist, sternly, as he entered the apartment—" So, Sir,
you have been injuring the Morning — , and grossly deceiving the
public. Look at that, Sir, "—tossing the letter down on the table before
Penny-a-Liner took up the letter, and opening it, first looked at the signature,
and then at the date. "Why, Mr. P.—" affecting to enjoy the alleged
joke—" why, Mr. P., this letter is written by my own particular friend Tom
Smith, of Mile-end Road. I told him I had written the paragraph, and he has only
done this for a bit of a lark."
that's all," observed the editor, in a subdued tone, "if that's all, the
fire is the best place in which to insert the letter which the blockhead wished
to publish." Mr. P. thrust [-299-] the letter into the fire that instant, and he and
the Penny-a-Liner parted on better terms than ever, Mr. P. apologising for the
unnecessary trouble he had given the paragraph-monger.
only mention one other instance of the trouble into which Penny-a.Liners often
get themselves by their fabricated accounts of the "horrible," and of the
ingenuity they evince in getting out again. Sometime before the death of Mr.
Perry, the then proprietor of the Morning Chronicle, a long account of a "most
horrible murder," said to have been committed in an open space called the B at
Brompton, was sent to him. Never for one moment suspecting its accuracy, he
inserted it in the paper of the following day. In two days afterwards a letter
was forwarded to him, signed by about thirty of the most respectable inhabitants
of the neighbourhood, denying that any such circumstance had occurred, and
severely lecturing the journalist for giving, publicity to false reports of so
serious a nature. As one of the evils which had arisen from the publication of
the paragraph, [-300-] it was stated that servants were afraid to go out about the
neighbourhood after dark, and that the children of the inhabitants in the
were nearly frightened out of their wits at the alleged murder. Mr. Perry, in
the first instance, published the letter contradicting the pretended murder,
and then sent for the Penny-a-Liner. The rascal stoutly insisted that the whole
narrative was true to the letter, and expressed his firm assurance that the
journalist would immediately receive a counterstatement from some of the
inhabitants of Brompton, confirming all that lie had stated. " Well, Sir, if I
do, you shall be absolved from all blame," said the journalist, in gruff
tones: " but if not," he immediately added,—" but if not, remember,
Sir, that you shall never write another line for the ‘Morning Chronicle."'
The journalist and the Penny-a-Liner then parted. That very evening Mr. Perry
received a letter signed " Veritas," with the two-penny post-mark of
Brompton on it, in which the writer assured the Editor of the ‘ Morning
Chronicle,' that every word of [-301-] the account of the " horrible murder at
Brompton" was strictly true, and that the object of the parties who sent the
contradiction of it was, by dwelling on the fears of servants to go out in the
neighbourhood of the place at night, to get a police established in the
neighbourhood. The Penny-a-Liner wrote the letter himself, and to prevent
suspicion had gone out and put it into the Brompton two-penny post-office with
his own hand. Mr. P— was perfectly satisfied: he thought the Penny-a-Liner
was an injured man, and was happy that he had not thoughtlessly made him a
victim to the faithful performance of his duty.
though the Penny-a-Liners, in playing such tricks as I have mentioned, often
escape detection for years, they are usually found out at last. Some years ago,
the circumstances under which the impositions of one of the fraternity were
brought to light, were amusing in no ordinary degree. Joseph Thomson, who dealt
in invented paragraphs touching inquests, horrible murders, and so forth, on a
much more extensive scale [-302-] than any of his Penny-a-Line contemporaries, chanced
one day to "get up" a very affecting coroner's inquest. The inquest was
represented as having been held at the "Cat and Bag"* (*It can hardly he
necessary to say that there was no such public-house.)
public house, Islington, and the jury, as all juries at coroner's in
quests are, were "highly respectable." With the view of making the case more
attractive, the Penny-a-Liner determined on giving the paragraph a touch of
the romantic. His story—a story in a double sense
to the effect, that the unfortunate deceased was a young woman of great
personal attractions, and dressed in the extreme of fashion—that her body
had been found on the previous morning in the Regent's Canal—that she had
been walking on the banks of the canal the night before, with a young gentleman,
supposed to be her lover, and that two love letters, without a name attached to
them, were found in her bosom. These pretended facts were spun out to the great
length which Penny-a-Liners patronise, [-303-] and they were worked up in most elaborate
and high-flown language. Of course, the inquest excited the deepest interest in
the neighbourhood. Even the coroner himself—a very unusual thing—seemed
deeply affected while the examination into the probable way in which the
unfortunate deceased came by her death, was going on. The verdict of the jury
was the very sapient one of—" Found drowned." The inventor of the story,
who used to go by the name of Mungo among the brotherhood of Penny-a-Liners,
having finished the thing, went with his "copy"—a technical term among
this class of persons—to the office of a Sunday paper, now boasting a very
large circulation. It chanced, that while the paragraph was lying on the editor's
desk, and while he himself was temporarily absent from his room, another
Penny-a-Liner, a native of the Emerald Isle, called Tim O'Callaghan, dropped
in with an account of some horrible accident which had really happened. Seeing
the open copy before him, and being attracted by the title, three times
underlined by [-304-] large scores, of "Melancholy Case," his curiosity got the
better of his good manners, and he began to read the paragraph. Once begun,
there was no ending—not, at any rate, for a Penny-a-Liner
he got to the close of the paragraph. He accordingly read till he got to the
verdict of the jury, and having a good memory all the pretended facts of the
case were distinctly impressed on his mind. As he quitted the office, a thought
struck him. "Thunder and turf !" said he to himself, "why should this
spalpeen of a Penny-a-Line reporther have all the benefit of this maalancholy
caase to himself?" Pat hurried to the nearest public-house and drew out an
account of the same case, strictly adhering to the supposed facts, and sent it
to the only other Sunday paper which he thought likely to use it on the
day,—this being on a Saturday. Pat's paragraph duly appeared, to the
ineffable amazement of Mungo. As the thing never had an existence, other
than in his own imagination, he knew on a little reflection, that there must, as
he himself said, be some foul play; and the conclusion [-305-] to which he came was,
that some subordinate in the office to which he sent his manuscript, had
picked out the facts, dressed up the thing in his own style, and sent the
paragraph to the office of the other newspaper with the view of getting a few
shillings to himself. "I'm blowed though," ejaculated he to himself, "if
the rascal gets the money," and in order to prevent his fingering a sixpence
of the produce, Mungo made a point of being at the office on its opening on
Monday morning. He claimed the amount due for the paragraph.
the man's mad," said the clerk. "Not a bit of it," said Mungo.
you're a rogue," observed the clerk.
do you mean ?" asked Mungo.
when you could go and ask, or expect me to pay money for, what does not belong
my inquest," remarked Mungo.
a downright invention, I must be plain to tell you," said the other.
face slightly coloured at the word [-306-] "invention," supposing, in the first
instance, that the clerk applied it to the paragraph, and that his tricks in the
inventive way had been found out
an invention ?" asked Mungo.
your saying that the inquest is your's. It's Tim O'Callaghan's."
maintain it is mine. I'm ready to prove that—"
Mungo was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Tim O'Callaghan.
are just come in time," said the clerk, addressing himself to Tim as he
entered the office.
the matther ?" said Tim hastily, and in a strong Counaught brogue.
this person," pointing to Mungo, "says that your account of the inquest at
the ‘Cat and Bag' on Saturday, is his."
luck to the -! How could he be after saying such a thing ?"
insist on it, that the matter of it is mine," observed Mungo.
observed Tim, "you may insist on [-307-] what you plase, but where's the mother's
son will belave you? It's in my hand-writing: is it not, Mr. Jones ?"
addressing himself to the clerk.
is, certainly," answered the latter.
sure isn't that the best proof that the inquest's mine," said Paddy,
eagerly. " Come, tip me the money, Mr. Jones, if it's convanient."
say the inquest's mine," said Mungo, in a very angry tone.
mind him, Mr. Jones," said Tim, " he does not belave the thing himself."
were not at the inquest at all," said Mungo, addressing himself to Pat.
that same's a thundering untruth," answered Tim.
what part of the room did you stand then ?" inquired Mungo.
sure I'm not obligated to tell you that," said Pat, assuming a look of
infinite surprise at such a question being put to him.
[-308-] " Ah,
because you can't tell," remarked the other. " You were not there at
was though, as sure as I hope to —"
may tell him at once," said the clerk, "where you stood, if that be any
satisfaction to him."
then," said Tim, " I stood directly behind the beadle."
sort of a man was he ?" inquired Mungo.
sort of a man was he? Why, I'll tell you what sort of a man he was,"
answered Tim, after a moment's hesitation, "sure, he was a very little thick
sort of man."
that proves at once you were not there; for he was a very tall thin person."
and perhaps it's myself am mistaking the beadle for some other person. I'm
sure there was a little stout man in the room. But as for the matter of
that it, does not signify at all at all: I was there, and wrote the paragraph."
a confounded l—!," shouted Mungo, unable any longer to restrain his
at the cool effrontery of Tim, "You're a confounded l—, for no such
inquest was ever held. The whole was my own pure invention."
a couple of consummate rogues you are !" said the clerk. " The one
fabricates and the other steals the paragraph. None of you shall ever finger a
farthing of the money, and a single line of your copy shall never from this day
be used by our paper."
way in which Penny-a-Liners display their ingenuity is, to use a common proverb,
in making mountains out of mole hills." Meetings, or circumstances which
possess no earthly importance whatever except to the parties immediately
interested, are worked up in such a manner as to have all the appearance of
matters of the deepest importance. I could give a variety of amusing instances
of this kind. Let one suffice. A year or two ago, a person of whom nobody knew
anything, but whose wardrobe was " all tattered and torn," like that of
[-310-] the hero in the nursery story who "kissed the maiden all forlorn"—took it
into his head, for some reason or other, to call a meeting in one of the
newspapers, to take steps to establish a joint-stock company—capital 150,0001.—for
carrying into effect some great public improvement. Nobody, however, but the
advertiser's own brother, a needy adventurer; an acquaintance; and three or
four Penny-a-Liners, responded to his call. The adventurer himself took the
chair without the formality of being voted into it. He stated the purposes for
which "the meeting" had assembled, and expatiated on the great public
advantage of which his project would be productive when carried into
effect. The Penny-a-Liners were all as busy at work as if the destinies of the
world had hung on the words which dropped from the chairman's lips. Having
exhausted his eloquence he resumed his seat. The brother then rose and proposed
the first resolution. He spoke in support of it at some length. The
acquaintance seconded it with "great pleasure." After the [-311-] latter had had his
"say," the resolution was put. Need I say what was its fate? It was carried unanimously.
The same process was gone through with the remaining resolutions. The
chairman then got up an explanation to the Penny-a-Liners, as to the causes of
the thin attendance, and begged them not to say anything about the numbers
present—a very unnecessary request by the way, their own interest being to
make the most of it. The question of adjournment to that day week was then put
and agreed to. In the papers of the following morning a flaming account of the
proceedings appeared. The hour for the adjourned meeting taking
place, arrived -in due course. The "meeting" was held, consisting of exactly
the same parties, with the addition of a person, whom the chairman called his
friend. Proceedings substantially the same again took place. The Penny-a-Liners
were at their post; the meeting was again adjourned to that day-week; and the
papers of the following morning again contained an account of the proceedings.
"This day [-312-] week," once more arrived; the Penny-a-Liners were "punctual as
lovers to the moment sworn," but behold the door was shut; neither the
nor the other orators, nor anybody else, made their appearance.
cases where there is a scarcity of meetings ready made to their hands, the
Penny-a-Liners club their wits together to get one or two up for themselves. A
very remarkable instance of this occurred about fourteen or fifteen months
ago. The case is particularly deserving of mention, because of the circumstances
connected with it. They managed—there were three of them engaged in the
affair—to get some hand-bills printed, and to procure from an eminent
auctioneer the use of one of his rooms for the meeting. The object was to raise
a subscription for the wife and two children of a deceased actor of some
celebrity. Copies of the hand-bill were sent to several of the most
nobility; and the Duchess of Kent, the Duchess of St. Albans, and some others,
severally sent donations, one of them amounting to [-313-] twenty pounds, and another
to five pounds. It was expected that the thing would have "taken," and I
confess I am surprised, under all the circumstances, that it did not. I
certainly thought there would at least have been a strong muster of theatrical
people, as the situation of the widow and children of the deceased, might soon
be the situation of many of their wives and children. Not so, however; not a
single actor was there; and of all the applications which had been made for
contributions, to persons connected with the histrionic art, only one
forwarded any donation, and that a very small sum. Had they known the parties
by whom and the circumstances under which the affair had been got up, that
would, undoubtedly, have been an excuse for taking no notice of the appeal
made to them for contributions, or the request made to attend the meeting; but
they knew nothing about the matter, and they would have evinced, I am afraid,
the same indifference to the claims of the widow and orphans of a late
fellow-performer, had the facts been otherwise. The time appointed for the
meeting [-314-] arrived. An application had been previously made to the eminent and
eloquent chairman to whom I have already referred, to preside on the occasion.
Expecting a full meeting, and anticipating, no doubt, much glory from his
oratorical exhibition on the occasion, blended, I am confident, with sympathy
for the destitute widow and orphans of the deceased, he engaged to take the
chair. On going into the large room where the meeting was to take place, he
could scarcely credit the evidence of his eyes when he saw only five persons
there, three of whom were those who had waited on him to ask him to preside,
and the remaining two were acquaintances whom they had brought with them. Mr. -
looked perfectly petrified. The whole affair appeared to him to be something
beyond the limits of earthly contingencies: it was a mystery, and a very
unpleasant mystery, to boot. The trio of Penny-a-Liners—it is but right to
add, however, that he was not previously aware of their manner of earning a
livelihood—the Penny-a-liners saw at once the mingled emotions of' sur-[-315-]prise
and dismay which filled his breast, and they with singular dexterity "got
up" some story or other about the badness of the weather, or inconvenience of
the hour, or some such thing, to account for the absence of persons whom they
were certain would have attended, and whose hearts they were sure were present
with them. By one means or other they actually got Mr. to take the chair. He
opened the business of the "meeting," in a speech of some length, in which
he displayed his wonted volubility, blended with much that was excellent in
feeling, and happy in expression. It is true, he did not seem so much at home as
when describing some gentleman's estate which he "has received
instructions to sell ;" but that was doubtless in a great measure owing to
the remarkable paucity of auditors, which everybody who knows anything of
oratory, knows has a most paralysing influence on all public speakers.
Resolutions were moved, seconded, and carried, after which the meeting broke up.
In the newspapers of the following morning a flaming account appear-[-316-]ed of the
proceedings. Instead, however, of the Penny-a-Liners giving their own names as
the movers and seconders of the several resolutions, they had the sagacity to
speak of "gentlemen whose names they could not learn" having discharged
those duties. In short, the impression on the public mind next day, from the way
in which the report of the proceedings was drawn up, must have been that the
meeting was one of very great importance. The only party for whom I felt sorry
on the occasion, was the wife of the deceased. I can easily imagine how her
bosom must have heaved with transports of delight when she first saw the account
of what had transpired. Her joys, however, were only raised to the highest
pitch to he dashed again to the ground. Soon would she learn that all had been a
delusion—a sort of dream—which had passed through her mind. What became of
the subscription afterwards, I could never learn, though from the highly
character of the chairman, every far-thing of the sum which had gone through
hands, with, very likely, a donation from himself, was sure to be forthwith
handed over to the widow, for her own and her children's benefit.
endless to enumerate the stratagems— for the most part very ingenious
ones—to which the Penny-a-Liners, in "dull times," have recourse to
furnish themselves with the means of earning a few shillings. With the
exceptions to which I have before referred, they are indeed a class of persons
who will hesitate at nothing, from mere moral considerations, that they think
likely to put a trifle in their pockets.
were to judge from the "copy" they send to the newspaper-offices, they must
be regarded as a race of beings who possess the attribute of ubiquity. They
bring intelligence from the remotest extremities of the metropolis, of
circumstances which occurred, according to their own showing, at the same
moment. This, however, is chiefly in those cases in which they send their copy
to the Sunday journals. These last papers only pay for intelligence relating to
occurrences which take place on the Saturday.
[-318-] In those
cases, accordingly, in which the accounts of meetings, coroner's inquests,
&c. which were held on Thursday or Friday, have not been "used," by the
morning papers of Friday or Saturday, they dress the affairs up again, and
represent them as having occurred on Saturday, and then send them to the Sunday
papers. The matter itself may be, and usually is, correctly enough given; but
the date of the occurrence is changed. This is the solution of the enigma, of
how one of them manages to give so much of what he calls Saturday's news,
though all occurring at the same time and at the most distant parts of the
spirit of opposition to one another, exists in an unusual degree among
Penny-a-Liners. They are ever devising means to overreach and steal a march on
each other. In their anxiety to leave their individual "copy" first at the
different offices, they will often, one after another, quit a meeting before the
proceedings are half over, and anticipate the remainder the best way they can.
Some time ago an interesting [-319-] coroner's inquest was held at Pimlico, and as
from the nature of the evidence adduced, speculation as to the result would
have been quite a hazardous affair, they were obliged to await the deliverance
of the foreman of the jury. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than they
all—there were ten present on the occasion—started off like so many race
horses through the Park, and down the Strand, to the no small astonishment of
the hieges, who wondered what it could be "all about." There is nothing of
greater value to Penny-a-Liners than a pair of good legs. I have heard of their
having carried the spirit of rivalry to such lengths, as that the second who
arrived at the office, took the copy of his more expeditious opponent off the
sub-editor's desk, so that his own might have a better chance of being used.
It is, however, but rarely that opportunities of playing such tricks on each
other, are afforded them. Instead of being allowed to enter the editorial
apartment at all, they are now [-320-] obliged to put all their "copy" into a box,
through a slit, set apart for the purpose.
would be impossible, by the usual method of writing, to furnish copies to the
morning papers, in a reasonable time, of any report of proceedings or
occurrences of interest, they use a certain kind of manifold writing apparatus,
by means of which they "do" six copies at once. The different Journals are
consequently supplied simultaneously with the matter which they furnish. The
paper employed for the purpose is what is called silver paper. The technical
term for it, in the newspaper offices, is "flimsy."
dwell on the mutability of all things earthly. They forget at the time that
there is such a class of persons as Penny-a-Liners. The rule, that all things
under the sun are changeable, has fewer exceptions, perhaps, than any other that
could be named. It has, however, some exceptions. Master Punch I have
always looked on as one exception; Penny-a-[-321-]-Liners, as I have just hinted, are
another. Punch has been from time immemorial the same uproarious,
bad-tempered, pugnacious, and mischievous fellow we now see him; and he will
doubtless continue so to the end of the chapter. Time has made no alteration on
him: his character has undergone no modification with the lapse of ages. He is
an incorrigible rascal: the schoolmaster can make no impression on him.
Intellect, and civilisation, and refinement, may march as rapidly as they
please; he will not stir a step with them. Not less proof against the mutations
of time is the Penny-a-Liner. That very venerable personage, "the oldest
inhabitant," knows no difference on him within the wide range of his
experience. History records no alteration or modification in his character. What
he was centuries ago, he is still. He retains all his principal phrases
in the state he used them generations since. If a coroner's inquest is held
over the body of some unfortunate suicide, or any person who came by a sudden
death, it was. as before [-322-] mentioned,
before "a highly respectable jury." Does any serious accident, no matter of
what kind, happen, then the announcement of the most distressing feature in the
occurrence is prefaced with a "when melancholy to relate." Is some
person's premises unfortunately on fire, the "devouring element" and
"dreadful conflagration" are sure to have a prominent place in the
descriptive paragraph. If the fire has been a destructive one, and the account
consequently more lengthened than usual, then von may rely on it that these
phrases will, as Junius says of the figures of Sir William Draper, dance through
it in all the mazes of metaphorical confusion. Is some unhappy man doomed to
suffer on the scaffold, the Penny-a-Liner is sure to adhere to the time
immemorial usage of the brotherhood, and to wind up his account of the spectacle
by informing us, that "on the signal being given, the drop fell," and that
the unhappy party was "launched into eternity." And as the Penny-a-Liner is
the same now as he was in past ages, so will he continue the same through ages
yet [-323-] to come. "What is Hecuba to me, or I to Hecuba?"
the modifications of so ciety, produced by circumstances, to the Penny-a-Liner,
or he to the modifications of society? lie is a being by himself. He stands as
isolated from everybody and everything else, as if he were the only human being
or object in the world. Not more immutable are the everlastiflg Alps than is the character of the
Penny-a-Liner. Down he goes to the latest
posterity, with all his peculiar habits and phrases unmodified and unaltered. He
transmits them to his successors in precisely the same state as be himself
received them from those who went before him. Never was there a more faithful
guardian of a public trust.
be right to repeat, in conclusion, that the remarks I have made in a former
part of the chapter respecting the morals and literary capabilities of the
Penny-a-Liners do not apply universally: they only apply to them as a class.
There are not only among them men of unexceptionable morals, but of great
talent. Many [-324-]of those who now occupy important situations connected with the
press, have commenced their career as Penny-a-Liners. One of the best known
Poor-Law Commissioners was for many years a Penny-a-Liner. Cobbett, with his
usual disposition to call names, used always to term this gentleman
"Penny-a-Line ———." There -are at present several gentlemen of some
celebrity in the literary world, who have been for a considerable portion of
their lives, Penny-a- -Liners; only they do not associate with nor have any
connexion with the brotherhood generally.
[nb. grey numbers in
brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]