[Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from the book under review, and all illustrations are taken from Mayhew's London: Being Selections from London Labour and the London Poor (Spring Books, n.d.), available at the Internet Archive. Click on the thumbnails for larger images.]

Cover of the book under review, showing a scavenger — maybe a "rag-picker" or a "bone-grubber."

One of the well-known ironies of Victorian life and letters is that while England became increasingly rich and prosperous with the growth of industrialisation and its extensive empire, large sections of its population lived in abject poverty and destitution. Political theorists and social scientists like Engels in his Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 addressed themselves to this glaring injustice. But their work was mainly of a theoretical and abstract nature. English novelists and journalists, however, gave a more poignant account of the lives of the poor, with a call for humanitarian action that touched the heart.

Henry Mayhew, engraved from a daguerreotype by the London photographer Richard Beard. (This was the frontispiece to the first volume of the book, in 1861; it is also the frontispiece to Mayhew's London.)

Pre-eminent among the journalists was Henry Mayhew (1812-1887). In his useful introduction to this new selection of Mayhew’s most famous work, London Labour and the London Poor, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst gives a comprehensive account of his life. The son of a successful solicitor, Mayhew refused to follow his father’s profession and ran away to India, where he worked in the East India Company for a few years. After that he first went to France and then returned to England. He tried his hand at law in Wales, but soon gave it up and became a journalist, founding and editing a popular journal, Figaro (based on the French Le Figaro which he had encountered during his stay in France). He also turned to the stage and wrote, or co-wrote, unmemorable plays like The Wandering Minstrel and But However — he produced a couple of novels, too. But he felt that journalism was more his forte, and started writing for various journals. His most remarkable journalistic enterprise was the founding of Punch which he co-edited with Mark Lemon and Stirling Coyne. But he left it after only a year, surviving on miscellaneous writings again. There were false starts in his personal life as well: he married the journalist Douglas Jerrold’s daughter Jane in 1844, but this marriage broke up, largely because of his lavish housekeeping. This, together with the failure of the railway journal Iron Times, which he had recently started, led to his bankruptcy.

His breakthrough came in September 1849 when the Morning Chronicle, a liberal newspaper that chronicled ordinary life (and had previously published Dickens’s Sketches by Boz) asked him to write on the outbreak of cholera in Bermondsey. Thousands of people had died of the disease within months and Mayhew vividly painted the unhygienic living conditions of the poor which had caused the outbreak. His article, "A Visit to the Cholera Districts of Bermondsey" 1949, was a great success, and the editors of the journal announced a new series of articles which would give "a full and detailed description of the moral, intellectual and material, and physical condition of the industrial poor throughout England" (xx). Mayhew was appointed its Metropolitan Correspondent in October 1849, and he was asked to cover the different parts of the London metropolis. He wrote two or three "reports" a week for the next year. In 1850, the Chronicle closed down for various reasons. But by then Mayhew had established his own office in London and published the first number of London Labour and the London Poor. Two "reports" a week appeared in this series from December 1850 until February 1852, when it abruptly came to a close. Mayhew continued to write on this subject of the poor in London, and on various other themes. In 1861, he decided to collect all his relevant articles, including the ones he had written for the Morning Chronicle, and published London Labour and the London Poor as a single work in three volumes (a fourth volume, mainly written by others, came out later).

Douglas-Fairhurst's one-volume selected edition, which includes a useful scholarly apparatus, manages to show the range and variety of Mayhew’s original enterprise. The introduction is followed by a Select (but ample) bibliography, and a detailed chronology in which Mayhew’s life is set in the context of the major historical and cultural events of the times. Douglas-Fairhurst’s annotations are equally thorough, explaining much that would be lost on modern readers, whether because of out-dated slang, or because of topical references. He has also kept the flavour of the original edition by including facsimiles of the title page and Preface of the first volume of 1861, and some of the "numerous illustrations from photographs" originally published at the beginning of each number. The 1861-62 volumes provided him with his basic text.

Left to right: (a) A Cab Driver, such as those that Mayhew had "at his call" (p.529). (b) A Baked Potato Seller working in the Haymarket (p. 69). (c) A Bird's- Nest Seller (p. 231). (d) A (young) Street-Seller of Grease-Removing Composition (p. 166).

The bottom of the barrel. Left to right: (a) The London Sweep (p.332). (b) The London Dustman (p.331). (c) The Boy Crossing-Sweepers (p.430). (d) A Mudlark (p. 264).

Thanks to the Bermondsey paper, Mayhew knew how to go about this new project. But he was able to accomplish much more for the Morning Chronicle. This was well-endowed (its proprietors included the Duke of Newcastle and the wealthy Beresford Hope), and it provided him with ample resources and assistants to cover the enormous world of the poor and deprived in the Victorian London. In his Personal Recollections (1900), Sutherland Edwards recalled that for his work for the paper, Mayhew was "largely paid and, greater joy of all, had an army of assistant writers, stenographers, and hansom cabmen at his call" (60). In addition, as Mayhew himself acknowledged, he received substantial help from Henry Wood and Richard Knight, "gentlemen who have been engaged with me from nearly the commencement of my enquiries, and to whose hearty co-operation both myself and the public are indebted for a large increase of knowledge" (Preface 4). It was a collaborative enterprise, then.

Mayhew and his collaborators went round the deprived areas (he excluded the factory workers and miners) and actually spoke to the people of various professions and callings about their, life, working conditions and income. They covered a staggeringly large area of society in which most people lived from hand to mouth. Apart from street-sellers of various kinds of edibles like fruits and vegetable, Meat-Dealers, Sweet Piemen and sellers of Ices and Ice-Creams, Mayhew also gave accounts of the sellers of such manufactured articles as Nutmeg-Graters, Dog-Collars, Dolls and Poison for Rats. As for his descriptions of "Street-Folks" like Buyers of Waste and Refuse, Bone-Grubbers and Rag Gatherers, Cigar-End Finders and Beggars of various kinds, the Bodily Afflicted, those Subject to Fits, and Petty Trading Beggars, these scraped the very bottom of the social barrel. At this level there also were petty criminals like Pick-Pockets and Shop-Lifters, Swindlers, House-Breakers and Burglars and Thieves. All in all, it was hectic and clamorous life that Mayhew encountered and he felt that "until it is seen and heard, we have no sense of the scramble that is going on throughout London for a living" (16 ). His gift was to render it all so well in his articles that the reader gains a vivid picture of what is being described, and becomes emotionally involved with the people concerned.

The London Costermonger, bringing in his produce.

When Mayhew came to arrange his articles in book form, he divided them into distinct sections, like those mentioned above. Street Exhibitors, for example, includes the Strong Man, Knife-Swallower and Clown. A brief consideration of Mayhew’s several articles under the heading "Costermongers" will provide a fair sample of his method, scope, variety and achievement. "Costermonger" was a term that was widely applied to the sellers of all kinds of things from a barrow, fruits, vegetables, fish and several other items of domestic use. Mayhew starts by giving a vivid account of a Saturday night market scene where the costermongers plied their trade in "the pavement and roads [that were] crowded with purchasers and street-sellers" (14).There "are hundreds of stalls, and every stall has its one or two lights; either it is illuminated by the intense white light of the new self-generating gas-lamp, or else it is brightened up by the red smoky flame of the old-fashioned grease lamp." Its "pavement and the road are crowded with purchasers and street-sellers. The housewife in her thick shawl, with the market-basket in her arm walks slowly on stopping now to look at the stall of caps and now to cheapen [bid for] a bunch of greens"(14). The buyers and sellers of various kinds are all part of the chaotic scene.

The Old Vic, Waterloo Road, London SE1, today: it was designed in the early 19c. as a "house of melodrama."

Before going on to describe their "professional" life and activities later in the book, Mayhew paints a picture of the costermongers' (whom he soon began to call 'costers') general amusements and pastimes. They play cards. Their cards are "generally dirty, and sometimes almost illegible, from long handling and spilled beer" (17). They usually play for beer but sometimes they play for bets which excite the on-lookers. Their other amusements are skittles, boxing, and "Two-penny-hops" (i.e., explains Douglas-Fairhurst, the admission charges for "dancing rooms"). Their favourite sports are rat-killing and dog-fighting. They admire the pugilist because they regard fighting "to be a necessary part of boy' education" (23). They also go to the theatre and the "Penny concerts." Their visits are "almost entirely confined to the galleries of the theatres on the Surrey-side," 21). The more prosperous among them go there almost three times a week. Mayhew meets one such avid theatre-goer who tells him that he likes love and murder best and has special feelings for "deep tragedies." But he feels that some tragedies go on for too long. He cannot make 'either end nor side' (i.e. head or tail) of Hamlet, and would like it to be "confined to the ghost scenes, and the funeral, and the killing off at the last" (21). Mayhew devotes a separate section to his visit to the Coburg theatre, which was built in 1818. In 1833 it was renamed the Royal Victorian, after the then Princess Victoria, and is now popularly known as the Old Vic. He sees a huge crowd of costers starting to line up by the afternoon, much before the start of play. They are mostly boys and young men between twelve and twenty-three years of age. but young girls too "are very plentiful, only one-third of whom now take babies, owing to the new regulation of charging half-price for infants" (25). They scuffle, shout, sing and there is merriment all around. In fact there is such a din that the music played by the theatre orchestra is almost eclipsed: "Altogether the gallery audience do not seem to be of a gentle nature. One poor lad shouted out in a crying tone that, 'he could not see,' and instantly a dozen voices demanded 'that he should be thrown over.'" The costermongeres go to the play-house, not so much to enjoy a play as to enjoy the atmosphere of the theatre. They do not allow intervals between scenes, and if there is a slight delay they will shout, "referring to the curtain — 'Pull up that there winder blind!' or they will call to the orchestra, saying, 'Now then catgut-scrapers! Let's have a ha'purth of liveliness'" (27). The costers liked comic songs and dances best, and often they themselves would burst out into their own songs and choruses. Sometimes the actors took advantage of this, and on the night of Mayhew’s visit to the theatre, he found under one of the song titles printed in the bill, "assisted by the most numerous and effective chorus in the metropolis —' meaning the whole of the gallery" (28).

The Long-Song Seller (one of those in the superior "Fine Arts" bracket).

This lively, cheerful picture showed only one side of the costermongers' lives. According to Mayhew, their literacy level was very low. They were basically ignorant and uneducated. For instance, he gives an account of a costermonger who was about thirty years of age. The man was in poor circumstances now, but he boasted that in his better days he had served a better class of customers. One of his customers, he claimed, was the Prince of Naples. He had never met him nor did he know where Naples was: "it may be in France for anything I know may [sic] Naples, or in Ireland." He did not know who the Pope was: "I don’t know what the Pope is. Is he any trade? It's nothing to me, when he's no customer of mine." He had little knowledge of his own religion either: "I never was in a church. O, yes, I've heard of God; he made heaven and earth; I never heard of his making the sea" (29-30). Some "costers" did consider themselves better educated. In a later article, Mayhew describes one such man who was a street-seller of "Stationery, Literature, and the Fine Arts." He and his kind prided themselves on their special abilities because they "constitute principally the class of street-orators, known in these days as 'patterers,' and formerly termed 'mountebanks,' — people who, in the words of Strutt [Joseph Strutt, author of Sports and Pastimes of the People of England], strive to 'help off their wares by pompous speeches, in which little regard is paid either to truth or propriety'" (74-75). One of these street-folk who told penny fortunes told Mayhew, "People don’t pay us for what we gives 'em, but only to hear us talk. We live like yourself, sir, by the hexercise of our hintellects — we by talking, you by writing." Apparently, he was one of the ten people among them who was "just able to read" (28). On the whole, however, the educational level of the costermongers was abysmal. It prompted Mayhew to great indignation. That "a class numbering 30,000 should be permitted to remain in a state of brutish ignorance is a national disgrace" (30), he protested.

When Mayhew came to collect his articles in book form, he realized that it was unprecedented in several ways. In his Preface he explains that he is giving 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." He points out that he also portrays "the condition of their homes and their families by personal observation of their places, and direct communion with the individuals" (3). He ends with the hope that his portrayal of the London poor "may teach those who are beyond temptation to look with charity on the frailties of their less fortunate brethren — and cause those who are in 'high places,' and those of whom much is expected, to bestir themselves to improve the condition of the class of people whose misery, ignorance and vice, amidst all the immense wealth and great knowledge of 'the first city in the world,' is, to say the very least, a national disgrace to us" (5).

Headstone of William and Catherine Booth in Abney Park Cemetery, Stamford Hill, London N16.

How far he succeeded may perhaps be gauged from Douglas-Fairhurst’s Chronology. 1865, for instance, the year in which London Labour & The London Poor had its second printing, was also the year in which William Booth founded his Christian Mission (later called the Salvation Army) in Whitechapel, and this was followed in the next year by Dr Barnardo’s founding of a home for destitute children in the East End. Of course, Mayhew was one of a small army of humanitarian Victorians who pushed forward the cause of the poorest members of society — in his case, as he says, by revealing their lives largely through their own words.

Related Material


Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Ed. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 472 + li pp. �12.99. ISBN 978-0-19-956608-2.

Last modified 23 December 2016