Bill-Sticking by Charles Dickens
Marie Duval, Judy, or the London Serio-Comic Journal, 1874
IF I had an enemy whom I hated – which Heaven forbid! – and if I knew of something which sat heavy on his conscience, I think I would introduce that something into a Posting-Bill, and place a large impression in the hands of an active sticker. I can scarcely imagine a more terrible revenge. I should haunt him, by this means, night and day. I do not mean to say that I would publish his secret, in red letters two feet high, for all the town to read: I would darkly refer to it. It should be between him, and me, and the Posting-Bill. Say, for example, that, at a certain period of his life, my enemy had surreptitiously possessed himself of a key. I would then embark my capital in the lock business, and conduct that business on the advertising principle. In all my placards and advertisements, I would throw up the line SECRET KEYS. Thus, if my enemy passed an uninhabited house, he would see his conscience glaring down on him from the parapets, and peeping up at him from the cellars. If he took a dead wall in his walk, it would be alive with reproaches. If he sought refuge in an omnibus, the panels thereof would become Belshazzar’s palace to him. If he took boat, in a wild endeavour to escape, he would see the fatal words lurking under the arches of the bridges over the Thames. If he walked the streets with downcast eyes, he would recoil from the very stones of the pavement, made eloquent by lamp-black lithograph. If he drove or rode, his way would be blocked up by enormous vans, each proclaiming the same words over and over again from its whole extent of surface. Until, having gradually grown thinner and paler, and having at last totally rejected food, he would miserably perish, and I should be revenged. This conclusion I should, no doubt, celebrate by laughing a hoarse laugh in three syllables, and folding my arms tight upon my chest agreeably to most of the examples of glutted animosity that I have had an opportunity of observing in connexion with the Drama – which, by-the-by, as involving a good deal of noise, appears to me to be occasionally confounded with the Drummer.
The foregoing reflections presented themselves to my mind, the other day, as I contemplated (being newly come to London from the East Riding of Yorkshire, on a house-hunting expedition for next May), an old warehouse which rotting paste and rotting paper had brought down to the condition of an old cheese. It would have been impossible to say, on the most conscientious survey, how much of its front was brick and mortar, and how much decaying and decayed plaster. It was so thickly encrusted with fragments of bills, that no ship’s keel after a long voyage could be half so foul. All traces of the broken windows were billed out, the doors were billed across, the water-spout was billed over. The building was shored up to prevent its tumbling into the street; and the very beams erected against it were less wood than paste and paper, they had been so continually posted and reposted. The forlorn dregs of old posters so encumbered this wreck, that there was no hold for new posters, and the stickers had abandoned the place in despair, except one enterprising man who had hoisted the last masquerade to a clear spot near the level of the stack of chimneys where it waved and drooped like a shattered flag. Below the rusty cellar-grating, crumpled remnants of old bills torn down, rotted away in wasting heaps of fallen leaves. Here and there, some of the thick rind of the house had peeled off in strips, and fluttered heavily down, littering the street; but, still, below these rents and gashes, layers of decomposing posters showed themselves, as if they were interminable. I thought the building could never even be pulled down, but in one adhesive heap of rottenness and poster. As to getting in – I don’t believe that if the Sleeping Beauty and her Court had been so billed up, the young Prince could have done it.
Knowing all the posters that were yet legible, intimately, and pondering on their ubiquitous nature, I was led into the reflections with which I began this paper, by considering what an awful thing it would be, ever to have wronged – say M. JULLIEN for example – and to have his avenging name in characters of fire incessantly before my eyes. Or to have injured MADAME TUSSAUD, and undergo a similar retribution. Has any man a self-reproachful thought associated with pills, or ointment? What an avenging spirit to that man is PROFESSOR HOLLOWAY! Have I sinned in oil? CABBURN pursues me. Have I a dark remembrance associated with any gentlemanly garments, bespoke or ready made? MOSES and SON are on my track. Did I ever aim a blow at a defenceless fellow-creature’s head? That head eternally being measured for a wig, or that worse head which was bald before it used the balsam, and hirsute afterwards – enforcing the benevolent moral, ‘Better to be bald as a Dutch cheese than come to this,’ – undoes me. Have I no sore places in my mind which MECHI touches – which NICOLL probes – which no registered article whatever lacerates? Does no discordant note within me thrill responsive to mysterious watchwords, as ‘Revalenta Arabica,’ or ‘Number One St. Paul’s Churchyard’? Then may I enjoy life, and be happy.
Lifting up my eyes, as I was musing to this effect, I beheld advancing towards me (I was then on Cornhill, near to the Royal Exchange), a solemn procession of three advertising vans, of first-class dimensions, each drawn by a very little horse. As the cavalcade approached, I was at a loss to reconcile the careless deportment of the drivers of these vehicles, with the terrific announcements they conducted through the city, which being a summary of the contents of a Sunday newspaper, were of the most thrilling kind. Robbery, fire, murder, and the ruin of the United Kingdom – each discharged in a line by itself, like a separate broad-side of red-hot shot – were among the least of the warnings addressed to an unthinking people. Yet, the Ministers of Fate who drove the awful cars, leaned forward with their arms upon their knees in a state of extreme lassitude, for want of any subject of interest. The first man, whose hair I might naturally have expected to see standing on end, scratched his head – one of the smoothest I ever beheld – with profound indifference. The second whistled. The third yawned.
Pausing to dwell upon this apathy, it appeared to me, as the fatal cars came by me, that I descried in the second car, through the portal in which the charioteer was seated, a figure stretched upon the floor. At the same time, I thought I smelt tobacco. The latter impression passed quickly from me; the former remained. Curious to know whether this prostrate figure was the one impressible man of the whole capital who had been stricken insensible by the terrors revealed to him, and whose form had been placed in the car by the charioteer, from motives of humanity, I followed the procession. It turned into Leadenhall-market, and halted at a public-house. Each driver dismounted. I then distinctly heard, proceeding from the second car, where I had dimly seen the prostrate form, the words:
‘And a pipe!’
The driver entering the public-house with his fellows, apparently for purposes of refreshment, I could not refrain from mounting on the shaft of the second vehicle, and looking in at the portal. I then beheld, reclining on his back upon the floor, on a kind of mattress or divan, a little man in a shooting-coat. The exclamation ‘Dear me’ which irresistibly escaped my lips caused him to sit upright, and survey me. I found him to be a good-looking little man of about fifty, with a shining face, a tight head, a bright eye, a moist wink, a quick speech, and a ready air. He had something of a sporting way with him.
He looked at me, and I looked at him, until the driver displaced me by handing in a pint of beer, a pipe, and what I understand is called ‘a screw’ of tobacco – an object which has the appearance of a curl-paper taken off the barmaid’s head, with the curl in it.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said I, when the removed person of the driver again admitted of my presenting my face at the portal. ‘But – excuse my curiosity, which I inherit from my mother – do you live here?’
‘That’s good, too!’ returned the little man, composedly laying aside a pipe he had smoked out, and filling the pipe just brought to him.
‘Oh, you DON’T live here then?’ said I.
He shook his head, as he calmly lighted his pipe by means of a German tinder-box, and replied, ‘This is my carriage. When things are flat, I take a ride sometimes, and enjoy myself. I am the inventor of these wans.’
His pipe was now alight. He drank his beer all at once, and he smoked and he smiled at me.
‘It was a great idea!’ said I.
‘Not so bad,’ returned the little man, with the modesty of merit.
‘Might I be permitted to inscribe your name upon the tablets of my memory?’ I asked.
‘There’s not much odds in the name,’ returned the little man, ‘ – no name particular – I am the King of the Bill-Stickers.’
‘Good gracious!’ said I.
The monarch informed me, with a smile, that he had never been crowned or installed with any public ceremonies, but that he was peaceably acknowledged as King of the Bill-Stickers in right of being the oldest and most respected member of ‘the old school of bill-sticking.’ He likewise gave me to understand that there was a Lord Mayor of the Bill-Stickers, whose genius was chiefly exercised within the limits of the city. He made some allusion, also, to an inferior potentate, called ‘Turkey-legs;’ but I did not understand that this gentleman was invested with much power. I rather inferred that he derived his title from some peculiarity of gait, and that it was of an honorary character.
‘My father,’ pursued the King of the Bill-Stickers, ‘was Engineer, Beadle, and Bill-Sticker to the parish of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty. My father stuck bills at the time of the riots of London.’
‘You must be acquainted with the whole subject of bill-sticking, from that time to the present!’ said I.
‘Pretty well so,’ was the answer.
‘Excuse me,’ said I; ‘but I am a sort of collector – ‘
Not Income-tax?’ cried His Majesty, hastily removing his pipe from his lips.
‘No, no,’ said I.
‘Water-rate?’ said His Majesty.
‘No, no,’ I returned.
‘Gas? Assessed? Sewers?’ said His Majesty.
‘You misunderstand me,’ I replied, soothingly. ‘Not that sort of collector at all: a collector of facts.’
‘Oh, if it’s only facts,’ cried the King of the Bill-Stickers, recovering his good-humour, and banishing the great mistrust that had suddenly fallen upon him, ‘come in and welcome! If it had been income, or winders, I think I should have pitched you out of the wan, upon my soul!’
Readily complying with the invitation, I squeezed myself in at the small aperture. His Majesty, graciously handing me a little three-legged stool on which I took my seat in a corner, inquired if I smoked.
‘I do; – that is, I can,’ I answered.
‘Pipe and a screw!’ said His Majesty to the attendant charioteer. ‘Do you prefer a dry smoke, or do you moisten it?’
As unmitigated tobacco produces most disturbing effects upon my system (indeed, if I had perfect moral courage, I doubt if I should smoke at all, under any circumstances), I advocated moisture, and begged the Sovereign of the Bill-Stickers to name his usual liquor, and to concede to me the privilege of paying for it. After some delicate reluctance on his part, we were provided, through the instrumentality of the attendant charioteer, with a can of cold rum-and-water, flavoured with sugar and lemon. We were also furnished with a tumbler, and I was provided with a pipe. His Majesty, then observing that we might combine business with conversation, gave the word for the car to proceed; and, to my great delight, we jogged away at a foot pace.
I say to my great delight, because I am very fond of novelty, and it was a new sensation to be jolting through the tumult of the city in that secluded Temple, partly open to the sky, surrounded by the roar without, and seeing nothing but the clouds. Occasionally, blows from whips fell heavily on the Temple’s walls, when by stopping up the road longer than usual, we irritated carters and coachmen to madness; but they fell harmless upon us within and disturbed not the serenity of our peaceful retreat. As I looked upward, I felt, I should imagine, like the Astronomer Royal. I was enchanted by the contrast between the freezing nature of our external mission on the blood of the populace, and the perfect composure reigning within those sacred precincts: where His Majesty, reclining easily on his left arm, smoked his pipe and drank his rum-and-water from his own side of the tumbler, which stood impartially between us. As I looked down from the clouds and caught his royal eye, he understood my reflections. ‘I have an idea,’ he observed, with an upward glance, ‘of training scarlet runners across in the season, – making a arbour of it, – and sometimes taking tea in the same, according to the song.’
I nodded approval.
‘And here you repose and think?’ said I.
‘And think,’ said he, ‘of posters – walls – and hoardings.’
We were both silent, contemplating the vastness of the subject. I remembered a surprising fancy of dear THOMAS HOOD’S, and wondered whether this monarch ever sighed to repair to the great wall of China, and stick bills all over it.
‘And so,’ said he, rousing himself, ‘it’s facts as you collect?’
‘Facts,’ said I.
‘The facts of bill-sticking,’ pursued His Majesty, in a benignant manner, ‘as known to myself, air as following. When my father was Engineer, Beadle, and Bill-Sticker to the parish of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, he employed women to post bills for him. He employed women to post bills at the time of the riots of London. He died at the age of seventy-five year, and was buried by the murdered Eliza Grimwood, over in the Waterloo Road.’
As this was somewhat in the nature of a royal speech, I listened with deference and silently. His Majesty, taking a scroll from his pocket, proceeded, with great distinctness, to pour out the following flood of information:-
‘”The bills being at that period mostly proclamations and declarations, and which were only a demy size, the manner of posting the bills (as they did not use brushes) was by means of a piece of wood which they called a ‘dabber.’ Thus things continued till such time as the State Lottery was passed, and then the printers began to print larger bills, and men were employed instead of women, as the State Lottery Commissioners then began to send men all over England to post bills, and would keep them out for six or eight months at a time, and they were called by the London bill-stickers ‘TRAMPERS,’ their wages at the time being ten shillings per day, besides expenses. They used sometimes to be stationed in large towns for five or six months together, distributing the schemes to all the houses in the town. And then there were more caricature wood-block engravings for posting-bills than there are at the present time, the principal printers, at that time, of posting-bills being Messrs. Evans and Ruffy, of Budge Row; Thoroughgood and Whiting, of the present day; and Messrs. Gye and Balne, Gracechurch Street, City. The largest bills printed at that period were a two-sheet double crown; and when they commenced printing four-sheet bills, two bill-stickers would work together. They had no settled wages per week, but had a fixed price for their work, and the London bill-stickers, during a lottery week, have been known to earn, each, eight or nine pounds per week, till the day of drawing; likewise the men who carried boards in the street used to have one pound per week, and the bill-stickers at that time would not allow any one to wilfully cover or destroy their bills, as they had a society amongst themselves, and very frequently dined together at some public-house where they used to go of an evening to have their work delivered out untoe ’em.”‘
All this His Majesty delivered in a gallant manner; posting it, as it were, before me, in a great proclamation. I took advantage of the pause he now made, to inquire what a ‘two-sheet double crown’ might express?
‘A two-sheet double crown,’ replied the King, ‘is a bill thirty-nine inches wide by thirty inches high.’
‘Is it possible,’ said I, my mind reverting to the gigantic admonitions we were then displaying to the multitude – which were as infants to some of the posting-bills on the rotten old warehouse – ‘that some few years ago the largest bill was no larger than that?’
‘The fact,’ returned the King, ‘is undoubtedly so.’ Here he instantly rushed again into the scroll.
‘”Since the abolishing of the State Lottery all that good feeling has gone, and nothing but jealousy exists, through the rivalry of each other. Several bill-sticking companies have started, but have failed. The first party that started a company was twelve year ago; but what was left of the old school and their dependants joined together and opposed them. And for some time we were quiet again, till a printer of Hatton Garden formed a company by hiring the sides of houses; but he was not supported by the public, and he left his wooden frames fixed up for rent. The last company that started, took advantage of the New Police Act, and hired of Messrs. Grissell and Peto the hoarding of Trafalgar Square, and established a bill-sticking office in Cursitor Street, Chancery Lane, and engaged some of the new bill-stickers to do their work, and for a time got the half of all our work, and with such spirit did they carry on their opposition towards us, that they used to give us in charge before the magistrate, and get us fined; but they found it so expensive, that they could not keep it up, for they were always employing a lot of ruffians from the Seven Dials to come and fight us; and on one occasion the old bill-stickers went to Trafalgar Square to attempt to post bills, when they were given in custody by the watchman in their employ, and fined at Queen Square five pounds, as they would not allow any of us to speak in the office; but when they were gone, we had an interview with the magistrate, who mitigated the fine to fifteen shillings. During the time the men were waiting for the fine, this company started off to a public-house that we were in the habit of using, and waited for us coming back, where a fighting scene took place that beggars description. Shortly after this, the principal one day came and shook hands with us, and acknowledged that he had broken up the company, and that he himself had lost five hundred pound in trying to overthrow us. We then took possession of the hoarding in Trafalgar Square; but Messrs. Grissell and Peto would not allow us to post our bills on the said hoarding without paying them – and from first to last we paid upwards of two hundred pounds for that hoarding, and likewise the hoarding of the Reform Club-house, Pall Mall.”‘
His Majesty, being now completely out of breath, laid down his scroll (which he appeared to have finished), puffed at his pipe, and took some rum-and-water. I embraced the opportunity of asking how many divisions the art and mystery of bill-sticking comprised? He replied, three – auctioneers’ bill-sticking, theatrical bill-sticking, general bill-sticking.
‘The auctioneers’ porters,’ said the King, ‘who do their bill-sticking, are mostly respectable and intelligent, and generally well paid for their work, whether in town or country. The price paid by the principal auctioneers for country work is nine shillings per day; that is, seven shillings for day’s work, one shilling for lodging, and one for paste. Town work is five shillings a day, including paste.’
‘Town work must be rather hot work,’ said I, ‘if there be many of those fighting scenes that beggar description, among the bill-stickers?’
‘Well,’ replied the King, ‘I an’t a stranger, I assure you, to black eyes; a bill-sticker ought to know how to handle his fists a bit. As to that row I have mentioned, that grew out of competition, conducted in an uncompromising spirit. Besides a man in a horse-and-shay continually following us about, the company had a watchman on duty, night and day, to prevent us sticking bills upon the hoarding in Trafalgar Square. We went there, early one morning, to stick bills and to black-wash their bills if we were interfered with. We WERE interfered with, and I gave the word for laying on the wash. It WAS laid on – pretty brisk – and we were all taken to Queen Square: but they couldn’t fine ME. I knew that,’ – with a bright smile – ‘I’d only give directions – I was only the General.’ Charmed with this monarch’s affability, I inquired if he had ever hired a hoarding himself.
‘Hired a large one,’ he replied, ‘opposite the Lyceum Theatre, when the buildings was there. Paid thirty pound for it; let out places on it, and called it “The External Paper-Hanging Station.” But it didn’t answer. Ah!’ said His Majesty thoughtfully, as he filled the glass, ‘Bill-stickers have a deal to contend with. The bill-sticking clause was got into the Police Act by a member of Parliament that employed me at his election. The clause is pretty stiff respecting where bills go; but HE didn’t mind where HIS bills went. It was all right enough, so long as they was HIS bills!’
Fearful that I observed a shadow of misanthropy on the King’s cheerful face, I asked whose ingenious invention that was, which I greatly admired, of sticking bills under the arches of the bridges.
‘Mine!’ said His Majesty. ‘I was the first that ever stuck a bill under a bridge! Imitators soon rose up, of course. – When don’t they? But they stuck ’em at low-water, and the tide came and swept the bills clean away. I knew that!’ The King laughed.
‘What may be the name of that instrument, like an immense fishing-rod,’ I inquired, ‘with which bills are posted on high places?’
‘The joints,’ returned His Majesty. ‘Now, we use the joints where formerly we used ladders – as they do still in country places. Once, when Madame’ (Vestris, understood) ‘was playing in Liverpool, another bill-sticker and me were at it together on the wall outside the Clarence Dock – me with the joints – him on a ladder. Lord! I had my bill up, right over his head, yards above him, ladder and all, while he was crawling to his work. The people going in and out of the docks, stood and laughed! – It’s about thirty years since the joints come in.’
‘Are there any bill-stickers who can’t read?’ I took the liberty of inquiring.
‘Some,’ said the King. ‘But they know which is the right side up’ards of their work. They keep it as it’s given out to ’em. I have seen a bill or so stuck wrong side up’ards. But it’s very rare.’
Our discourse sustained some interruption at this point, by the procession of cars occasioning a stoppage of about three-quarters of a mile in length, as nearly as I could judge. His Majesty, however, entreating me not to be discomposed by the contingent uproar, smoked with great placidity, and surveyed the firmament.
When we were again in motion, I begged to be informed what was the largest poster His Majesty had ever seen. The King replied, ‘A thirty-six sheet poster.’ I gathered, also, that there were about a hundred and fifty bill-stickers in London, and that His Majesty considered an average hand equal to the posting of one hundred bills (single sheets) in a day. The King was of opinion, that, although posters had much increased in size, they had not increased in number; as the abolition of the State Lotteries had occasioned a great falling off, especially in the country. Over and above which change, I bethought myself that the custom of advertising in newspapers had greatly increased. The completion of many London improvements, as Trafalgar Square (I particularly observed the singularity of His Majesty’s calling THAT an improvement), the Royal Exchange, &c., had of late years reduced the number of advantageous posting-places. Bill-Stickers at present rather confine themselves to districts, than to particular descriptions of work. One man would strike over Whitechapel, another would take round Houndsditch, Shoreditch, and the City Road; one (the King said) would stick to the Surrey side; another would make a beat of the West-end.
His Majesty remarked, with some approach to severity, on the neglect of delicacy and taste, gradually introduced into the trade by the new school: a profligate and inferior race of impostors who took jobs at almost any price, to the detriment of the old school, and the confusion of their own misguided employers. He considered that the trade was overdone with competition, and observed speaking of his subjects, ‘There are too many of ’em.’ He believed, still, that things were a little better than they had been; adducing, as a proof, the fact that particular posting places were now reserved, by common consent, for particular posters; those places, however, must be regularly occupied by those posters, or, they lapsed and fell into other hands. It was of no use giving a man a Drury Lane bill this week and not next. Where was it to go? He was of opinion that going to the expense of putting up your own board on which your sticker could display your own bills, was the only complete way of posting yourself at the present time; but, even to effect this, on payment of a shilling a week to the keepers of steamboat piers and other such places, you must be able, besides, to give orders for theatres and public exhibitions, or you would be sure to be cut out by somebody. His Majesty regarded the passion for orders, as one of the most unappeasable appetites of human nature. If there were a building, or if there were repairs, going on, anywhere, you could generally stand something and make it right with the foreman of the works; but, orders would be expected from you, and the man who could give the most orders was the man who would come off best. There was this other objectionable point, in orders, that workmen sold them for drink, and often sold them to persons who were likewise troubled with the weakness of thirst: which led (His Majesty said) to the presentation of your orders at Theatre doors, by individuals who were ‘too shakery’ to derive intellectual profit from the entertainments, and who brought a scandal on you. Finally, His Majesty said that you could hardly put too little in a poster; what you wanted, was, two or three good catch-lines for the eye to rest on – then, leave it alone – and there you were!
These are the minutes of my conversation with His Majesty, as I noted them down shortly afterwards. I am not aware that I have been betrayed into any alteration or suppression. The manner of the King was frank in the extreme; and he seemed to me to avoid, at once that slight tendency to repetition which may have been observed in the conversation of His Majesty King George the Third, and – that slight under-current of egotism which the curious observer may perhaps detect in the conversation of Napoleon Bonaparte.
I must do the King the justice to say that it was I, and not he, who closed the dialogue. At this juncture, I became the subject of a remarkable optical delusion; the legs of my stool appeared to me to double up; the car to spin round and round with great violence; and a mist to arise between myself and His Majesty. In addition to these sensations, I felt extremely unwell. I refer these unpleasant effects, either to the paste with which the posters were affixed to the van: which may have contained some small portion of arsenic; or, to the printer’s ink, which may have contained some equally deleterious ingredient. Of this, I cannot be sure. I am only sure that I was not affected, either by the smoke, or the rum-and-water. I was assisted out of the vehicle, in a state of mind which I have only experienced in two other places – I allude to the Pier at Dover, and to the corresponding portion of the town of Calais – and sat upon a door-step until I recovered. The procession had then disappeared. I have since looked anxiously for the King in several other cars, but I have not yet had the happiness of seeing His Majesty.