Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - The Press of the Seven Dials

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THE PRESS OF THE SEVEN DIALS.

    THE region of the Seven Dials, to which we must introduce our friends, is unique in the topography of London. In a central area on what was once Cock and Pye Fields, in the parish of St. Giles, seven narrow streets have their termini. A column formerly stood there, surmounted with sun-dials turning a face towards each street, and hence the name of the place. It was built in the reign of Charles I., and was for some time a place of fashionable repute ; but it fell into ill odour more than a century ago the column with the dials was then removed ; and when the Irish, who had long held possession of a part of St. Giles's, extended their Rookery to its immediate neighbourhood, Seven Dials lapsed into the possession of everybody and anybody who chose to tolerate their proximity. From the time of Gay, who describes it in his Trivia, down to the present hour, it does not appear to have much changed in character, though it has become immensely more populous with the increasing population of the capital, and its worst features have intensified in repulsiveness. At the present moment, order is maintained by an extra force of policemen, and the first symptoms of riot are summarily suppressed. The whole region of the seven streets, with the innumerable courts and channels of intercommunication, wears the aspect of a market crammed with merchandise not worth possessing. Monmouth Street, the rag-fair of the metropolis, stretches towards and overflows into it and the odour of the filthy tatters, the mouldy leather and greasy disjecta, and the [-252-] Cockney slang and explosive eloquence of the Jew-dealers, go to make up its smells and sounds. Every third shop is a marine-store or a depot for rags and grease - each and all of them rivalling the rest in placarded announcements of what they will give for old lead, old brass, old copper, old pewter, old iron, old glass, or old hones. Here a profusion of cracked, smashed, and rickety furniture bursts out upon the pathway, and shuts out half the light front the next door, where two women are grinding away at a crippled mangle, and brawling and squabbling the while, heedless of the roar of a squalling urchin writhing on the floor with a broken head. Here a group of undeniable London thieves, lounging at the entrance of a court, are seen romping lazily with their dusty inamoratas, or more seriously employed in gambling for coppers at pitch-and-toss. Here the brazen-fronted gin-shop grins at its fellow over the way ; and the votaries of both are swarming at the bar, where, as you peep in, the operations appear to be all conducted in dumb show, so deafening are the clack and the din. Here the trash-shop, with its myriad of ballads, long songs, song-books, and pictured tragedies, attracts a group of idlers, three-fourths of them of the light-fingered juvenile gentry whose professional avocations commence with the gloaming. And here is the half-penny shaving-shop, that luxuriates, besides, in penny-cigars, modicums of pigtail, and screws of tobacco.
    In this delectable locality, all unfavourable as it is to the Muses, are the head-quarters not only of the Seven Dials Press, whose productions surpass in number and popularity those of any other press in the kingdom, but, for the most part, also of the aspiring geniuses who furnish it with novelties at the demand of the moment, and distil their brains for the delectation of the mob. The Press, we are bound to say, is in good keeping with its surroundings the rag-shops, the fencing-kens, the crippled mangles, and the gin-shops - seeing that its literature is decidedly tattered [-253-] that three-fourths of its productions are stolen property, that both its verse and prose are crippled and mangled beyond cure, and that its philosophy is principally of the tipsy and staggering sort.
    Foremost on the list of its productions stand the songs and ballads. Of these, the Seven Dials printer, who is his own publisher, professes to have, and perhaps really has, above five thousand different samples constantly on hand. On turning over a massive bundle, we find them to embrace lyrical selections from the works of Shakspeare, Herrick, Suckling, Rochester, Burns, Byron, Moore, Dibdin, Russell, Eliza Cook, and a number of other names well known in literature. Such selections, however, form but an exceedingly small proportion of the general stock, and have but a limited sale. They are mostly above the comprehension or the sympathies of the class which buys half-penny ballads and even when they are not open to this objection, they are too tame and general for the relish of the multitude. The people must have piquancy and novelty and it would seem to signify very little what is the subject of a song, provided it have these elements in its composition, and be sung or singable to a popular tune. In general, it is no recommendation to the unlettered singer the the grammar of his strain is good and the versification correct - these are excellences which he is not always qualified to appreciate : what he can appreciate are strong language and dramatic incident, the more striking and startling the better. The popular ballad, Seven Dials born, treats or all popular subjects - it is political, warlike, amatory - its incidents are now horrible murders and assassinations, now the funniest practical jokes, now ghostly apparitions, and now a stand-up fight it plunges into questions of morals and religion, of teetotalism, of sabbatarianism, of patriotism and legislation, and is diffuse and humanely indignant on the matter of wife-beating. Songs of this class, of which every [-254-] week produces its quota of novelties, are written by men in the pay of the publishers, and not unfrequently by the publishers themselves. Very often the author of a new ballad is the man who first chants it about the streets but oftener still he is a man whose chanting and pattering days are over, who has lost his voice and worn out his legs in the trade, and is reduced to his last shifts for a living. The established honorarium for a new song is a shilling, though eighteen-pence is sometimes given for something "particular spicy." This miserable payment is defended by the publisher on the ground that, whatever he pays for a song, he cannot make it his own. "If I print a new song,'' says he, "on Wednesday, my neighbour is selling it on Thursday. How can I afford to pay for property which is at another man's use as much as it is at mine ?"
    The new song, when first published, appears on a quarter-sheet of crown-paper, and always in company with another older ditty, which is given into the bargain. In this shape it is sold by the street-chanters, who find out its value by an experiment of a few days on the London public. Hundreds of them in the course of a season are all but still-born, notwithstanding the noise they make in coming into the world, and fall into oblivion either from their own element, or from the rise of new subjects of greater interest. If a song stands the public ordeal, and finds favour with purchasers, it is immediately pirated ; and the next shape in which it figures is as an item in those streaming fathoms of verse technically known as "long songs,'' in which as many as a hundred favourite ditties are sold for a penny, by the patterer posted on the kerb, who never troubles himself to sing them, but spends his breath the livelong day in recapitulating their titles. From such. long strips the most successful songs are transferred, finally, to the song-books published in the Dials as serials, under no end of titles, and adorned with a supposititious portrait of some popular singer, or perhaps of the [-255-] Queen or Prince Albert. Regarding these serials, we may remark that they have one curious characteristic, and that is that the song most in vogue is inserted in every number.
    The song-trade is always most flourishing in periods of public excitement, and there is nothing more conducive to its prosperity than a stirring and popular war. The palmy era for the muse of the Seven Dials was the time when Nelson was triumphant at sea - the years that followed, when the Duke overran the Peninsula - and especially the year of the crowning conquest at Waterloo. After the peace, song-chanting declined, and thousands of wandering minstrels had to seek another occupation. True, the people had their songs and ballads ; but three-fourths of the demand vanished with the war ; and the songs upon home-subjects went but tamely off after the excitement of battle and heroic deeds. With the loss of public countenance, the chanter lost his confidence, and the rugged spirit and wit of the song-writer declined. Both were fast falling into contempt - the vagabond minstrel sank into a half-starved tatterdemallion, and became at once an object of commiseration and of comical travestie on the stage, and those supplementary institutions of low comedy, the shades, the coal-holes, and cider-cellars of the metropolis. This saved him from extinction, or from a fate as bad. It would not do to sing upon the stage or the platform of the cider-cellar the rubbish concocted by the Dials publisher, or the superannuated chanter he held in pay. So the dramatic authors of the day had to apply themselves to the task and if popularity be a proof of success, they certainly succeeded to an extraordinary extent. They imitated the diction, the coarseness, the unsophisticated out- speaking of the Diallians, but they informed their productions with such a vein of wit and humour and ridiculous comicality, as set all the world laughing and applauding. What is not so much to their credit is the fact, that they also blended the most ghastly terrors with flippant jocularity, [-256-] and knew how to arrest the hilarious laugh with the shuddering chill of horror. These imitations of the Diallian songs are now very numerous, and of themselves form one of the oddest curiosities of literature. We have said that they rescued the chanter from comparative extinction and they did so because the Seven Dials press, true to its principles, stole them all as fast as they came out, printed them in countless numbers on its crown-quarter sheets, sowed them broadcast in its long streamers, and stitched them up in its serials. The chanter finds them infinitely more popular than the works of his own poets, and the mob is never weary of laughing at them. We need only mention Willikins and his Dinah, Billy Barlow, The Rat-catcher's Daughter, and that dramatic, pathetic, and mysterious ballad which is so great a favourite on hearth the fleet, Molly the Betrayed, or the Fog-bound Vessel, the incidents of which are a murder, an appalling apparition, and a spell-bound ship, sung to the chorus of "Doddle, doddle, doddle, chip, chum, chow, chooral li la."
    Besides the chanters, who sing the songs through the streets of every city, town, village, and hamlet in the kingdom - the long-song seller, who shouts their titles on the kerb-stone - and the countless small shopkeepers, who in trash-shops, toy-shops, sweet-stuff-shops,  tobacco-shops, and general-shops, keep them as part of their stock, for the supply of the street-boys and the servant-girls - there is another important functionary engaged in their distribution, and who is well known to the inhabitants of large towns this is the Pinner-up, who takes his stand against a dead wall or a long range of iron-railing, and, first festooning it liberally with twine, pins up one or two thousand ballads for public perusal and selection. Time was when this was a thriving trade; and we are old enough to remember the day when a good half-mile of wall fluttered with the minstrelsy of war and love, under the guardianship of a scattered file of [-257-] pinners-up, along the south side of Oxford Street alone. Twenty years ago, the dead-walls gave place to shop-fronts, and the pinners-up departed to their long homes. As they died out, no one succeeded to their honours and emoluments and in place of the four or five score of them who flourished in London at the commencement of this century, it is probable that the most rigid search would hardly reveal a dozen in the present day. In the provincial towns, the diminution is not so marked and there, from causes not difficult to explain, the pinner-up has been better able to hold his ground. This functionary, wherever he is found, is generally a superannuated artisan or discarded servant ; and as he is necessarily exposed to all weathers, his costume usually consists of everything he can contrive to hang about him.
    If the first care of the Seven Dials publisher is to cater for the chanter, the second is certainly to subserve the interests of the patterer. This genius, who has not at all a musical voice, yet boasts inexhaustible lungs, and can bawl in a crowd or patter at an area gate with perfect ease from one week's end to another. If he sings, it is with a companion, in a humdrum way ; and the cream of his song is found in the spoken dialogue with which the two interlard the stanzas. For these the Seven Dials press deals forth numerous romances of real life, cut from the columns of the newspaper, and appropriately garnished with gratuitous details calculated to make a sensation. Then it prints myriads of riddles and charades, contrived as vehicles of satire against statesmen and the government, which the patterer propounds with a stolid face to the gaping crowd, and sets them in a roar by the comical solution after they have given it up. But it is under the scaffold and the gibbet the patterer reaps his largest gains. Time out of mind, the sale of last-dying speeches and "sorrowful lamentations" has followed upon the capital punishment of the British criminal; and so strong [-258-] is the morbid craving of the multitude for details connected with the gallows, that the sale of these gloomy sheets far exceeds that of any other production of the press throughout the world. If the legislature should put an end to capital punishment, they will at the same time destroy a species of traffic which yields an occasional harvest to thousands of vagabonds scattered through every part of the kingdom from John o'Groats to the Land's End. The annals of literature can boast no publication whose circulation equals that of the gallows-sheet. There never is a murder avenged by the law that does not call for its hundreds of thousands of impressions from the Seven Dials Press. When the murder is a "good 'un" - that is, when it is marked by extra barbarity in the perpetration, or extra insensibility in the perpetrator - the impression approaches a million, or even exceeds that. The gallows-sheet of the wretched Rush, containing his "sorrowful lamentation,'' actually approximated to two millions and a half in number. Enough were sold to supply nearly one in ten of the entire population of the realm with a copy - a circumstance not very flattering to our ideas of the schoolmaster's progress.
    The matter of these sheets is generally collected from the newspapers, the only addition being the "sorrowful lamentation" - a copy of verses made to order for a shilling. Jemmy Catnach, for a long time the great Maecenas and Elzevir of the Dials, when his bards happened to be tipsy, which was too often the case, was driven to write them himself. When hanging was a weekly ceremony, and the victims much more numerous than they have been latterly, the same copy of verses was made to do duty for a dozen different criminals - there was, in fact, no help for it, because the execution followed so quickly on the sentence. But when the law was passed which allowed a longer day, there was no excuse for second-hand verses, and each unfortunate had a ditty to himself. As executions have become less frequent, [-259-] the impressions of the gallows-sheet have increased in number - which would seem to show that the demand for this exceptional article is subject to the usual law.
    But the gallows is not always a fruit-bearing tree, and a "good murder" does not happen every day. Nevertheless, the patterer must live and, lest the increase of public virtue should condemn him to starvation, the Seven Dials press steps forward to his aid, and considerately supplies him with -"cocks." Perhaps the reader does not know what a "cock'' is. A cock, then, is a pleasing fiction - a romance of a startling and exciting character - a tale of scandal concerning some celebrated personage or aristocratic family - an olio of sorrowful loves, heart-rending horrors, and desperate revenges - anything, in short, that is violently interesting and touching, and has not an atom of foundation in fact. In the vulgar tongue, it is simply a lie ; but the Diallians are polite, and disguise the exceptionable term under the cognomen of the bird of dawn. With a good cock-crow, the patterer can do tolerably well; and with an assortment of them, to suit the several districts on his beat, he can do still better. Are you startled from your meditations, while making your toilet some morning, by a stentorian voice roaring along the terrace the "halarming news, just arrived by he-lectric telegraph, of the hassassination of the Hemperor Napoleon by a hinfernal machine - of the happrehension of the hassassin with his heyes blowed out of his ed - of the consternation of the city of Pairis ;" and fifty other things besides ? Don't be agitated: it is only Scuffler. By the time you have done dressing, he will have mulcted your Betty and half the servant-maids of the terrace of a halfpenny apiece - will have realised enough by the "cock-a-doodle-doo" to buy him a substantial breakfast, which he will enjoy at his leisure, and afterwards sally forth to crow another cock for dinner. In the evening, just after sundown, when the stars begin to blink through the fog, his tremendous voice will be [-260-] heard reverberating along the quiet streets of the West End, with a full, true, and circumstantial account of the elopement of John Simkins, the ansome footman of Belgravyer, vith the rnarkis's youngest daughter, and the narrer escape of the appy pair from the markis's eldest son, Colonel G -, vot started arter 'em with sword and pistols - and shewin' how the colonel vas done at the Rugby station by the false intelligence prepared for him by the ansome John, and started on to Scotland by express ;  while the appy couple peseeded to Liverpool, and then sailed for Ameriker vere they finally landed on the shores of love and liberty - the young 'ooman havin' a splendid fortin in her own right." This is found to be a capital crow for the servants-hall and kitchen, and needs but a little vigour on the part of Scuffler to secure him a supper and a bed at any time. The crows for the working classes must be of a little stronger flavour, and, to tell well, should be illustrated by a huge picture in flaming colours, and mounted on a pole, in which blood, fire, or phantom is the conspicuous feature. Now it is an earthquake, now a conflagration, now a horrible thunder-storm and shipwreck. In London, this species of illustrated cock is everlastingly on the alert - and crows, and crows, and crows, early and late, and all day long, in quarters judiciously selected - except when the falling rain declares war against the painted cartoon. The cock, like the ballad and the sorrowful lamentation, sells for a half-penny, but, in spite of all its crowing, not so readily partly because it is objectionable to the police, who will not allow it to remain long on its perch, and partly for want of faith on the side of the mob, whom, in these days of cheap newspapers, it is not so easy to delude in the article of news.
    We come now to notice the more solid staple of the Seven Dials press - what may be termed its classics, the production of which yields it steady employment during those reactionary periods and pauses of quiet which intervene be-[-261-]tween the recurring seasons of excitement. These classics comprise a numerous list of works which the generality of the reading public have long lost sight of; because among persons of intelligence they have been long supplanted by others which either are, or are supposed to be, infinitely better. We confess to a lurking partiality for some of them which the memories of childhood have rendered dear ; while at the same time the great mass might be advantageously surrendered to oblivion. Among them will be found all those wonderful little books which formed almost the exclusive library of childhood, in the days when we were children - 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. They are all published at the lowest price - in large quarto for a penny, a smaller edition for a half-penny, and still smaller editions for a farthing; and they about equal in bulk the song-books at the same cost. To these must be added a selection of the old-fashioned school-books whose copyrights have run out, as the works of Vyse, Mayor, Walker, Carpenter ; an. immense issue of Christmas-pieces flamingly coloured, of Twelfth-night characters, of Christmas carols, and Scripture sheets or coloured pictures of sacred subjects ; and last, not least, of valentines by the ton annually, varying in price from a half-penny to five shillings each. If to these we add almanacs, marine-store and rag-shop placards, which are always on sale, window-bills, poetry-cards, panoramic cuts and theatrical characters, we shall not be far from completing the catalogue of works issuing from the Diallian Press.
    We must be allowed here one word on the subject of Seven Dials art. Songs, ballads, books, lamentations, cock-crows - all are illustrated ; and of a large proportion of the productions named above, the illustrations form. the chief [-262-] part, while some of them are entirely pictorial. Sir Joshua Reynolds once said that he was indebted for the chiaro-oscuro of his well-known picture of Lord Ligonier to a wood-cut at the head of a ballad which he found on a dead-wall, and bought for a half-penny. It may have been that the engraving in question strayed into the Seven Dials after it had been worn out in the regular service at any rate, the engravings on the sheet-ballads of the present day are a full century behind the march of improvement in that direction, and, in addition to being worn and ground to death by myriads of impressions, have generally the merit of being quite independent of the subject they are supposed to illustrate. Where they are new, they are plainly the attempts of tyros in the art, and are probably purchased at the prime cost of the wood on which they are engraved. There are a few exceptions, however. Now and then we meet with a spirited scene by Seymour, rivalling Cruikshank in his wildest humour ; and there lies before us at this moment a portrait of the Rat-catchers donkey, apparently dashed off with pen and ink in a furious hurry, and containing lines of which the most accomplished artist might be proud. The larger cuts which adorn the dying speeches and lamentations, the calamities and the crows, may be described in one word - they are all simply abominable. Those which figure as frontispieces to books and on the Christmas-pieces are not much better ; but when covered with flashy water -colours, they are gorgeous to the uneducated eye, and, being retailed at a low price, sell by thousands. Then there are the cheap valentines, which are monstrous caricatures, only comical when they are not disgusting, and which, fierce in red, blue, and green, are to be met with at the proper season in all the slums and trash-shops of the kingdom. The staff of artists must be pretty numerous, and the consumption of watercolours must be enormous in the Dials, taking all these productions into account, and reckoning also the huge cartoons [-263-] exhibited by the cock-crower, and calamities, such as explosions, wrecks, earthquakes, floods, conflagrations, &c., without number, which are executed for shipwrecked and mutilated sailors, for car-borne cripples, for blasted miners, and machine-crushed factory-workers - all of which are painted in the Seven Dials or its immediate purlieus.
    We have but small space left for some few particulars and details of the literary trade of the Dials. From what has been shown above, it would appear inexplicable, on the face of it, that in these days, when good and serviceable literature is so cheap and abundant, there should be found a paying market for what not only is unquestionable rubbish, but looks what it is, and, scorns to assume the appearance of anything better. In point of real value, there is no comparison to be instituted between the pennyworth that issues from the Seven Dials and that sent forth at the same price by respectable publishers. The paper used by the Seven Dials press averages some four or five pounds' weight to the ream instead of sixteen or seventeen pounds, which it should weigh to be of any permanent service, and in quality is so vile that no decent shopkeeper would condescend to use it to wrap up copper change. The print is indescribably viillanous - rarely legible for three lines together, and teeming with blunders and omissions where it is legible ; and the matter is such as we have described above. What, then, is the secret of the large and continuous sale, and how does this refuse compete, and compete successfully, with, matter infinitely better - double, treble, fivefold in quantity, and printed on good paper, with perfect correctness, and in an elegant form? "Oh," says the philosopher, "the reason is plain enough - it is the corrupt taste of the masses, who will feed on garbage, and prefer it to wholesome mental food." With, all deference to the philosopher, and allowing his dogmas their due weight, we are of opinion that this oracular utterance leads but a little way towards the solu-[-264-]tion of the question. As practical inquirers, we look at facts, and we find this single one to be worth more than a bushel of theories:- The distributing-agent of the Seven Dials literature pockets as profit four-fifths of his receipts. The chanter, the patterer, the pinner-up, the cock-crower, the small shopkeeper - all buy their sheet-ballads, lamentations, crows, &c., at 2d. to 2?d. the long dozen. The trade thus yields the agent from 200 to 300 per cent. on his outlay and this enormous profit he often doubles by charging a penny instead of a half-penny for his gallows-sheet, when this, as in the case of a "good-murder,'' is in great request. Moreover, in the case of the ballads, a provision is made for this doubling process - two being printed on the quarter-sheet, which is oftener than not split up by the chanter at country wakes and fairs. Now, it is a truth pretty well established by experience, that rubbish and quackery of all kinds may be forced upon the public by persistent vehemence and vociferation. Were the literature we speak of subjected to the usual distributive agency, it would be all but still-born - would be rejected by book-sellers, or, where received, would rot upon their shelves, and would speedily, from ceasing to be remunerative, become extinct. But, trumpeted as it is by hundreds of bawling vagabonds and audacious wags in the ears of the ignorant populace, it creates its own market wherever it goes ; and the Seven Dials press flourishes, thanks to its paternal care of its agents. Perhaps we ought in candour to add, that this judicious exercise of liberality is not confined to the Dials, and that it has been the foundation of greater fortunes than have ever been made within the precincts of that classical spot. We might refer to a well-known Family Bible, which was pushed by voluble touters into the cottage of the poor man and the simpleton, in sixpenny numbers, to the number of 40,000 copies - which cost the subscriber ?6 6s. by the time it was completed, of which [-265-] sum the proprietor received 40s.. leaving more than double that amount to the  distributors! And we might point to fifty works besides, circulated by the same machinery at the present moment, which cost the purchasers from two to three times their value in the market.
    Another peculiarity in the Dials trade, and which must be a chief cause of its success, is, that all its transactions are for ready cash. Credit, and the fact is suggestive, is a word unknown in the Dials. From the ragged chanter to the bookselling country-agent, all must down with the cash before they receive the goods. Thus the Dials publisher has no bad debts ; and, looking to the complexion of his wares, must make a brilliant profit in spite of the abnormal allowance to agents.
    Of the amount of the Seven Dials trade in literature, but little is positively known, and statistics on this subject are hard to be got at. It has been estimated that about ?12,000 is thrown away annually by the people upon the sheets, half-sheets, and quarter-sheets emanating from this district; but what proportion this bears to the produce of its myriads of cheap books is a question to which we can obtain no reliable response. The average gains of the chanter and his confr?res are from 7s. to 9s. a week, in ordinary seasons ; but in seasons distinguished by the exploits of a Rush or a Manning, they will run up to five, or even ten times that amount while the excitement lasts. The pinner-up takes about ?60 a year, disbursing for his stock perhaps ?18. The shopkeeper is content with far less profit, as in places remote from the Dials he acts as middleman between the chanter and the publisher.
    The known prosperity of the Dials press naturally provoked rivalry in other quarters ; and Holywell Street, the Borough, Clerkenwell, even the Row itself, have started in the race, with a similar species of literature at the same price. But the means they adopted to insure success have only [-266-] insured their defeat - they printed too well - on paper too good, and could not in consequence leave so liberal a margin to the agent. So the chanter, who must look to his profits, leaves them in the lurch, and turns his face to the Dials when he is out of stock.
    From the above sketch, it will be gathered that, with all our success in the diffusion of cheap literature, the Seven Dials press has never yet felt to any extent the effects of rivalry in its own peculiar field. Nor is it easy to see how by anybody incommoded by a conscience, effectual rivalry can be established. One only consolation seems derivable from an investigation of the subject - and it is, that some advance is perceivable in the morality of the Dials productions -  though the improvement is only negative. They are neither so rancorously seditious, nor so grossly indecent as we can recollect them to have been in times past.

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857