London Labour and the London Poor is a vivid oral account of London’s working classes in the mid-19th century. Taking the form of verbatim interviews that carefully preserve the grammar and pronunciation of every interviewee, the completed four-volume work amounts to some two million words: an exhaustive anecdotal report on almost every aspect of working life in London.
In his introduction to the book, Henry Mayhew (1812-87) writes: ‘I shall consider the whole of the metropolitan poor under three separate phases, according as they will work, they can’t work, and they won’t work.’ Thus, the book proceeds from interviews with working-class professionals (dockers, factory workers) to street performers and river scavengers (‘mudlarks’) and finally to interviews with beggars, prostitutes and pickpockets.
In its comprehensiveness and documentary honesty, London Labour and the London Poor was adopted as a key text by social reformers of all stripes: Christians, Whigs, liberal conservatives and socialists. A sometime editor of the satirical magazine Punch, Mayhew had been born into a conservative family, but was inspired into reforming zeal in 1849 by his experience reporting on the devastating effects on the poor of a cholera outbreak in Bermondsey, south London.