Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor

London Labour and the London Poor is a key work in the development of investigative journalism. Dr Mary L Shannon describes how Henry Mayhew conducted numerous interviews with street-sellers, sweepers and sewer-hunters, in order to share their stories with the reading public.
‘A picture of human life so wonderful, so awful…so exciting and terrible’[1]: this is how the novelist and journalist W. M. Thackeray described Henry Mayhew’s accounts of the lives of the poor in Victorian London. Mayhew wrote his articles, collected together as London Labour and the London Poor (1851), in the decades that Dickens wrote Dombey and Son and Bleak House, and Mayhew’s work is every bit as vivid and surprising as a Dickens novel. Instead of simply describing the London poor, Mayhew lets them speak to the reader directly in their own words and their own voices, albeit edited by Mayhew the middle-class journalist. They jump off the page, opinionated and alive.

London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

'Bless your heart the smell’s nothink; it’s a roughish smell at first, but nothink near so bad as you think' – Sewer-hunter.

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1865 edition of London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

'I was fifteen on the 24th of last May, sir, and I’ve been sweeping crossings now near upon two years…When we gets home at half-past three in the morning, whoever cries out “first wash” has it. First of all we washes our feet, and we all uses the same water. Then we washes our faces and hands, and necks, and whoever fetches the fresh water up has first wash; and if the second don’t like to go get fresh, why, he uses the dirty' – Crossing-sweeper.

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These accounts are drawn from his interviews with the London poor, either in the street, at his office, in their homes, or (as word of his work spread) conducted after specially-arranged meetings of large groups of poor workers. Mayhew made use of the latest technology to bring his work to life: accompanying the text are engravings copied from daguerreotypes, an early form of photography. Mayhew aimed to cover all the poor of London, but this proved too much work. What we have, then, is interviews with the poor street-sellers and street-scavengers of London, and an extra volume with work by other contributors on London’s criminal underworld.

1865 edition of London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

'I go about the streets with water-creases [water-cress] crying, “Four bunches a penny, water-creases”… I knows a good many games, but I don’t play at ‘em, ‘cos going out with creases tires me…I ain’t a child, and I shan’t be a woman till I’m twenty, but I’m past eight, I am' – Watercress girl.

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1865 edition of London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

'Yes, I’ve my regular rounds, and I’ve kept to ‘em for near upon fifty year. All the children like to hear me coming, for I always plays my cymbal as I goes' – ‘Old Sarah’, the blind street-musician.

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London street-sellers

Mayhew’s interviewees were out and about in the London streets in all weathers, carrying out all kinds of work in tough conditions and for barely any money. Some trades we are familiar with today: the coffee-stall keepers; the street-musicians busking for coins; the stall holders selling anything from saucepans to pictures, bootlaces to umbrellas. Some worked at the street-markets where the poor bought their Sunday dinner, and some just walked around the city and sold their scanty stock in the streets. We meet street-sellers of tea and rat-poison, dog-collars and jewellery, paper and ballads. Mayhew interviews a man who sells pamphlets that he pretends are ‘indecent’, and another who sells printed accounts of the latest ‘murders, seductions, […] explosions, alarming accidents, [and] duels’. Those who sold fruit, meat, and vegetables in the streets were known as costermongers, and Mayhew spends the beginning of London Labour and the London Poor telling us all about them. They sold eels, mackerel, herrings, apples, oranges, cherries, grapes, walnuts, turnips, onions, and cabbages. They told Mayhew all their tricks for selling rotten meat or fruit disguised as fresh food: they boiled oranges to make them look bigger and juicier, filled up baskets with leaves and put strawberries on top so customers thought they were buying baskets full of fruit, and hid rotting fish amongst fresh fish.

A penny a bunch – hurrah for free trade! Here’s your turnips! Fine ‘ating apples
Who’ll buy a bonnet for fourpence?
Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy, - bu-u-uy!
- Cries of Mayhew’s street-sellers

Some unpleasant occupations

The costermongers had relatively easy lives compared with the rag-gathers, the bone-gatherers, and cigar-end finders (who hunted for rubbish in the street to sell on). Other people driven to unpleasant occupations in a desperate bid to survive were the mud-larks (mostly old women and children, who scavenged in the mud and sewage at the edge of the River Thames for anything they could sell), the crossing-sweepers (who swept the streets clear of mud and dung so that the well-dressed rich could cross the road and not dirty their clothes), and the pure-finders (dogs’-dung collectors). As well as these, Mayhew lets us hear the voices of chimney-sweeps and refuse-collectors, street-acrobats and prostitutes.

London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

'Many a night I’ve slept under an arch of a railway when I hadn’t a penny to pay for my bed[…]. I’ve lost my health since I took to bone-picking, through the wet and the cold in the winter, for I’ve scarcely any clothes, and the wet gets to my feet through the old shoes…. – Bone-grubber.

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London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

'He had been three years mud-larking, and supposed he should remain a mud-lark all his life. What else could he be? For there was nothing else he knew how to do' – Mud-lark, nine years old.

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Early investigative journalism

Mayhew’s accounts started life as a series of articles in the newspaper the Morning Chronicle, for which paper Mayhew was given the role of ‘Special Correspondent to the Metropolis’ and instructed to provide descriptions of the ‘moral, intellectual, material and physical’ condition of the ‘industrial poor’. Mayhew’s distinctive blend of interviews and statistics proved extremely successful, and once he left the Chronicle he continued to publish in weekly pamphlets, and then in bound volumes, in the 1850s and 1860s.

1865 edition of London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

The bone-grubber, or bone-collector, in Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851).

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Mayhew’s technique of giving centre-stage to the poor themselves, and enabling them to tell their own stories, fascinated and overwhelmed the Victorian public. Suddenly a strange new world was opened up to them, right under their noses; in this, Mayhew played an important part in the development of investigative journalism. Influenced as he was by 19th-century urban fiction, many of Mayhew’s interviewees seem like characters by Dickens. In the voice of one boy street-seller who speaks to Mayhew, we hear the echo of illiterate, baffled Little Jo, the crossing-sweeper from Bleak House: ‘Didn’t know what happened to people after death, only that they was buried…Had heer’d of another world; wouldn’t mind if he was there hisself, if he could do better, for things was often queer here’ (ch. 56).

Footnotes

[1] William Thackeray, Punch, 9 March 1850, p.58.

  • Mary L Shannon
  • Dr Mary L Shannon is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the English & Creative Writing Department the University of Roehampton 2013-15, where she is working on a project about illustrated books in the Romantic Period. She is interested in the connections between literature, journalism, drama, and visual culture throughout the 19th-century, and also in London's cultural geography. Her first book, Dickens, Reynolds and Mayhew on Wellington Street: The Print Culture of a Victorian Street, is under contract with Ashgate.

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