Among the Mongers

Henry Mayhew and the pursuit of history, from the bottom up

There is no place in any era more evocative of soot, steam, gruel, and misery than Victorian London. It is one of the great landscapes of the imagination. This is probably because the mid-century London we know best is the literary London of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, a teeming metropolis plagued by poverty and grime and peopled by the likes of Tiny Tim and Laura Fairlie. This vision of the city—all squalor and desperation—seems almost melodramatic, as if ripped from the pages of a penny dreadful.

The alarming tone isn’t particularly surprising, given the actual state of London at the time. For Dickens’s fictions were very much rooted in reality: beggars, orphans, and scatter-rats crowded its filthy streets by day, eking out miserable livings (that is, when there were ekings to be had) to take back to mean quarters. Immigrants fleeing the potato famine in Ireland or the lack of work in rural counties came in great number hoping to find jobs, only to add further surplus to a labor pool that already outstripped demand. They came and they never left—there was nowhere else to go. People made do, but there is a reason that the time is remembered as the Hungry Forties. The streets were not a fertile soil.

There are moments at which certain forms of inequity become intolerable to societies; the Victorian era was one such moment. A quick survey of the major issues that dominated English political life from 1815 to 1870 reveals a nation anxious about the consequences of modernization upon its least fortunate members—and aware of the fact that this class of people appeared to be increasing in number. The idealistic spirit of the newly enfranchised middle classes, coupled with the rise of a vocal mass labor movement, eventually led to widespread reform in almost all spheres of public life: in the composition of the electorate, in government-mandated education, in labor laws, in public health, in public safety, and in much else. Queen Victoria did not exchange all of the bricks in London for marble, but, by 1900, it was no longer an act of suicide to drink the water.

One of the great, all-too-neglected artifacts of the era’s reformist zeal is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, a far-ranging, four-volume illustrated catalogue of the city’s underclass, largely drawn from the words of the study’s subjects themselves. Mayhew’s “cyclopædia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work” is an unmatched, if idiosyncratic, record of a country getting to know itself. The interviews and accounts contained in it depict the clamor and bustle, the liveliness and sorrow, of lower-class London life, as in this passage describing a workingmen’s market:

Here, alongside the road, are some half-dozen headless tailors’ dummies, dressed in Chesterfields and fustian jackets, each labelled, “Look at the prices,” or “Observe the quality.” After this is a butcher’s shop, crimson and white with meat piled up to the first-floor, in front of which the butcher himself, in his blue coat, walks up and down, sharpening his knife on the steel that hangs to his waist. A little further on stands the clean family, begging; the father with his head down as if in shame, and a box of lucifers held forth in his hand. . . . This stall is green and white with bunches of turnips—that red with apples, the next yellow with onions, and another purple with pickling cabbages. One minute you pass a man with an umbrella turned inside up and full of prints; the next, you hear one with a peepshow of Mazeppa, and Paul Jones the pirate, describing the pictures to the boys looking in at the little round windows. Then is heard the sharp snap of the percussion-cap from the crowd of lads firing at the target for nuts; and the moment afterwards, you see either a black man half-clad in white, and shivering in the cold with tracts in his hand, or else you hear the sounds of musk from “Frazier’s Circus,” on the other side of the road, and the man outside the door of the penny concert, beseeching you to “Be in time—be in time!” as Mr. Somebody is just about to sing his favourite song of the “Knife Grinder.” Such, indeed, is the riot, the struggle, and the scramble for a living, that the confusion and uproar of the New-cut on Saturday night have a bewildering and saddening effect upon the thoughtful mind.

Fact-finding commissions had reported on the “Condition of England” before (for example, in the Board of Trade’s “Blue Books”) and such lights as Thomas Carlyle had weighed in on the question. The London press played a part in the conversation, too, with articles, pamphlets, and editorials. But for all their solutions about what was to be done, few writers took the time to understand the objects of their pity; “the poor” under consideration served mainly as mouthpieces for predetermined opinions. Mayhew was the first to develop a form that took a rational approach to the situation and worked as a call to arms all at once. London Labour blends together personal observation, oral accounting, and a proto-sociology based on hundreds of interviews conducted by Mayhew and his team, as well as reams of statistical evidence (46,800 pounds of refuse under-waistcoasts, mostly destined for the paper mills, were bought, collected, or found in the streets of London annually). It was a revolutionary innovation in journalism—the first real “bottom-up” history ever written—and it remains, in many ways, just as relevant today.

London Labour was a story that grew in the telling. Initially, The Morning Chronicle commissioned Mayhew to cover the 1849 cholera epidemic in London, the “King Cholera” that killed nearly fifteen thousand of the city’s denizens, most of whom resided in slums south of the Thames. Mayhew decided to go directly to the source. Writing as the Metropolitan correspondent from Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey—a stew Dickens once described as the “filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London”—Mayhew turned out a forceful polemic arguing that poor sanitation either caused or exacerbated the contagion: “the masses of filth and corruption round the metropolis are . . . the nauseous nests of plague and pestilence.” (a visit to the cholera districts of dermondsey, The Morning Chronicle, Monday, September 24, 1849.)

Mayhew’s first dispatch resembles a traditional opinion piece more than the interview-heavy accounts that are the hallmark of London Labour, but it received an overwhelmingly positive response nonetheless. He was put in charge of the London portion of the Chronicle’s series “Labour and the Poor,” which, during the Parliamentary recess in the winter of 1849, regularly made up the majority of the paper’s content. (Following their falling out in October 1850, both Mayhew and the Chronicle’s editors claimed credit for the series’s genesis.) Mayhew contributed some eighty letters, at the rate of two or three per week, and, in the course of the concentrated effort such production demanded, his vision began to take shape.

Mayhew’s biographer Anne Humphreys maintains that his reputation was at its highest during these months, and the series’s reception bears this out. In Punch (which Mayhew had helped to found), the author William Makepeace Thackeray called it:

A picture of human life so wonderful, so awful . . . so exciting and terrible, that readers of romances own they never read anything like to it. . . . [Y]ou and I—we are of the upper classes; we have had hitherto no community with the poor . . . until some clear-sighted energetic man like the writer of the Chronicle travels into the poor man’s country for us, and comes back with his tale of terror and wonder. (Punch, March 9, 1850)

The series inspired philanthropic societies and political organizations to mount new campaigns, and the offices of the Chronicle were flooded with individual donations from readers, usually in response to the particular plight of one or another of Mayhew’s subjects. This led to criticism in certain quarters: James Wilson’s Economist opined that the publication was “unthinkingly increasing the enormous funds already profusely destined to charitable purposes, adding to the number of virtual paupers, and encouraging a reliance on public sympathy for help instead on self-exertion.”

Although Mayhew interviewed the innocent and scoundrels alike—although he depicted scenes that highlighted the dignity as much as the pathos of poverty—stories of high heartbreak elicited the greatest reactions. One of his most famous accounts was of an eight-year-old flower seller, a watercress girl, who “although the weather was severe, was dressed in a thin cotton gown, with a threadbare shawl wrapped round her shoulders”:

I go about the streets with water-creases, crying, ‘Four bunches a penny, water-creases.’ I am just eight years old—that’s all, and I’ve a big sister, and a brother and a sister younger than I am. On and off, I’ve been very near twelvemonth in the streets. Before that, I had to take care of a baby for my aunt. . . . 

The creases is so bad now, that I haven’t been out with ’em for three days. They’re so cold, people won’t buy ’em; for when I goes up to them, they say, ‘They’ll freeze our bellies.’ Besides, in the market, they won’t sell a ha’penny handful now—they’re ris to a penny and tuppence. In summer there’s lots, and ‘most as cheap as dirt; but I have to be down at Farringdon-market between four and five, or else I can’t get any creases, because everyone almost—especially the Irish—is selling them, and they’re picked up so quick. . . . We children never play down there, ’cos we’re thinking of our living. No; people never pities me in the street—excepting one gentleman, and he says, says he, ‘What do you do out so soon in the morning?’ but he gave me nothink —he only walked away.

It’s very cold before winter comes on reg’lar—specially getting up of a morning. I gets up in the dark by the light of the lamp in the court. When the snow is on the ground, there’s no creases. I bears the cold—you must; so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts ’em to take hold of the creases, especially when we takes ’em to the pump to wash ’em. No; I never see any children crying—it’s no use.

Sometimes I make a great deal of money.

Here was a real-life Oliver Twist, spun without the aid of any literary invention. Who wouldn’t weep for those that cannot?

The son of a middle-class law-yer, Mayhew proved a disappointment to his domineering father by not following him to the bar. Although he excelled at his public school, Westminster, he never completed a formal education, opting instead for the bohemian life of a hack writer. Articles, one-shot theatricals, novels—he took whatever paid. For a short while, he fancied himself a chemist and spent some years learning the science in a lab he built at his brother Alfred’s house (he later put some of this knowledge to use in a biography of Humphry Davy aimed at schoolboys). Mayhew was always short of cash, and was briefly bankrupt following the failure of the Iron Times, his paper devoted entirely to railway news. His most notable success was the co-founding of the satirical weekly Punch in 1841, but his tenure as editor lasted just one year, due to erratic work habits. (He was, however, kept on as “suggester-in-chief” for a few years more.)

Mayhew recognized that he was onto something new with his survey of the lower classes, which perhaps explains why he chose to stick with the project for the better part of five years instead of adding it to his long list of half-completed endeavors. After parting ways with the Chronicle over editorial differences—he had grown critical of the paper’s liberal adherence to free trade—he continued to publish his work in small numbers, now titled London Labour and the London Poor. In the preface to the 1861 complete edition, he laid out what he saw as the reason for the project’s popularity:

It is believed that the book is curious for many reasons: It surely may be considered curious as being the first attempt to publish the history of a people, from the lips of the people themselves—giving a literal description of their labour, their earnings, their trials, and their sufferings, in their own “unvarnished” language. . . . 

It may be considered curious also as being the first commission of inquiry into the state of the people, undertaken by a private individual, and the first “blue book” [government report] ever published in twopenny numbers.

It is curious, moreover, as supplying information concerning a large body of persons, of whom the public had less knowledge than of the most distant tribes on earth—the government population returns not even numbering them among the inhabitants of the kingdom.

That’s a tricky set of criteria to satisfy. Social science tends to be dull (and in the case of economics, dismal), advocacy shrill, and twopenny journalism flippant. A combination of the three suggests Dante’s forgotten ditch in the eighth circle, reserved for prattlers. It is our good fortune that Mayhew’s intellectual development left him qualified to write what he did while saving him from the ranks of the bores, the shouters, and the dandies.

Even as its circulation waned, London Labour evolved into a sprawling but ever-changing undertaking: a masterpiece of astonishing complexity suited to a man that had always been a dabbler. The interviews became paramount, searching into the lives of his subjects—what card games they played, what plays they attended, what secret jargons they spoke. And, as he fleshed out daily lives in daily speech, he sorted the sinks of London into further subcategories: “the street-sellers of fish &c.; vegetables; eatables and drinkables; stationary, literature and the fine arts; manufactured articles; second-hand articles; live animals; mineral production and curiosities.” He wrote on street buyers and purchasers of “hare-skins, old clothes, old umbrellas, bottles, glass, broken metal, rags, waste paper and dripping”; on “street-finders” who “picked up their living in public thoroughfares” by gathering “dogs’-dung” and cigar ends. Performers—sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, sapient pigs, and talking dogs—took up the bulk of third installment, and whores, thieves, cheats, and beggars were the subject of volume four.

A typical section of London Labour begins with Mayhew’s brief description of the trade at hand, along with the environments and locales in which it was practiced. The interviews, which varied in number from chapter to chapter, followed. In them, the real wealth of detail about everyday work poured forth. Mayhew kept himself invisible most of the time, working the sense of his questions into the responses he printed. The interviews never suffer from the actuarial tenor of a census-taking. While talking to a middle-aged woman who sold prints from the inside of her umbrella, he manages to call forth information about her customers, her custom, and her earnings, all while preserving a natural and spontaneous tone:

I’ve sat with an umbrella,” she said, “these seven or eight years, I suppose it is. . . . Well, sir, I think I sell most ‘coloured.’ ‘Master Toms’ wasn’t bad last summer. ‘Master Toms’ was pictures of cats, sir—you must have seen them—and I had them different colours. . . . I sell only to working people, I think; seldom to boys, and seldomer to girls; seldom to servant-maids and hardly ever to women of the town. . . . I don’t remember that ever I have made more than 1 s. 10 d. on an evening. I don’t sell, or very seldom indeed, at other times, and only in summer, and when its fine. If I clear 5 s. I counts that a good week. . . . I seldom clear so much. Oftener 4 s.

Mayhew’s easy sociability, to which many of his peers attest, was also crucial to the enterprise in simply convincing his subjects to volunteer. If well-heeled London looked upon the city’s street people as utterly alien, the converse was just as true. Mayhew’s street-side manner allowed him to break through social barriers, which can be seen in his report of an encounter with a brothel-worker:

Did she expect to lead this life till she died? Well, she never did, if I wasn’t going to preachify. She couldn’t stand that—anything but that.

I really begged to apologize if I had wounded her sensibility; I wasn’t inquiring from a religious point of view, or with any particular motive. I merely wished to know, to satisfy my own curiosity.

Well, she thought me a very inquisitive old party, anyhow. At any rate, as I was so polite, she did not mind answering my questions.

Of course, charm and politesse didn’t always carry the day. One costermonger rebuffed Mayhew’s questioning with a line for the ages: “The press? I’ll have nothing to say to it. We are oppressed enough already.” A pity the rejoinder was directed at the grocer’s would-be champion.

London labour is not a text that holds up as a work of science in the manner of Principia or The Descent of Man. Insofar as today’s standards of objectivity are concerned, the methods used to assemble the volumes are quaint. Statisticians would find the numerous lists that pepper the book laughable, not to mention the means employed to ascertain the facts within them. (Though the opportunity to learn the rates of drunkenness among button-molders, carpenters, and the clergy might not be without some appeal.)

Oral historians would find much objectionable as well; and Mayhew’s subjective style is but the first of his sins. He questioned his middle-class assumptions more than most of his contemporaries, but kept many of them: his attitudes towards the Irish, Jews, and people of color were all too commonplace, especially in someone so otherwise perceptive. Mayhew regarded many of his subjects as being “in a state of almost brutish ignorance,” though he felt that the fault for this “national disgrace” was “assuredly an evil of our own [his middle- and upper-class readers] creation.” He also made judgments about which street people were or weren’t deserving of their state, a violation of the rules of oral history, if not advocacy.

A further flaw was Mayhew’s occasional tendency to edit or exaggerate the speech of his subjects to suit his editorial needs. His take on Cockney dialect occasionally resembles the speech of Jem Bags, the antihero of his 1834 farce, The Wandering Minstrel—one suspects for humorous purposes. More rarely, when Mayhew wanted to press home the righteousness of some cause, the diction of his interviewee might suddenly become more formal, suspiciously so, than it was the preceding passages.

Its foibles aside, London Labour does not deserve to be relegated to Victorian Studies. Not only do its charms strike the sight—so does its merit win the soul. Indeed, it is a genotext, the first of its kind, and should be required reading for any aspiring journalist, particularly at a time that has seen the reassertion of advocacy in the news. (Oxford University Press’s recent one-volume abridged text, edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, would serve the purpose well.) Although the fiction of journalistic objectivity may be wearing thin, the legions of would-be, new-media polemicists, on their smartphones or at the office, would do well to recall that the soundest opinions are produced by feet on the ground—and that talking to ordinary people beats generalizing about them.

There is a reason W. H. Auden put Mayhew (only half in jest) atop “the list” of the “greatest Victorian Englishmen,” who “among social anthropologists . . . is unique . . . in his . . . passion for idiosyncrasies of character and speech such as only the very greatest novelists have exhibited.” His prose, devoted mostly to topical themes, remains fresh and vital some 160 years down the road because he took the time to observe the simplest of human decencies: he listened. And brought what he heard to life. People are never props in London Labour and the London Poor; and though they live in Other London, deep in the underbelly of the Crystal Palace, to meet them is to grasp fraternity in hand. 

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Jeffrey Greggs is the associate editor of The New Criterion.