The four volumes of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor were originally published between 1861 and 1862. The work serves as a remarkable documentation of life in London before the advent of the Welfare State. It is part grim statistical analysis, part record of eccentric micro cultures, and a key historical document of London’s often voiceless majority. Most interestingly, echoes of what’s described can still be found in London today.
Mayhew was an eccentric, an individual almost worthy of inclusion in the work himself. Friends and associates of the man describe someone rarely capable of completing a project. He had dabbled in trying to manufacture diamonds. His house was awash with half written articles and essays that would never be completed. In 1841 he helped found Punch magazine, before being ousted as editor a few months later.
At this point the chances of him achieving success, let alone influencing the likes of Charles Dickens and Phillip Larkin, seemed slim. In 1849 he was sent by the Morning Chronicle to document a devastating cholera outbreak in Bermondsey, South London. Within a month he had been commissioned to write a series of articles on the poor throughout London. He began interviewing everyone from sandwich sellers to chimney sweeps for their thoughts, opinions and stories.
In the context of Victorian London, the impact of Mayhew’s work cannot be underestimated. Despite the saturation of slums, middle class and wealthy Londoners kept a complete detachment from the lives of the poor majority. Mayhew was able to present directly and explicitly the tragedy and triumphs of London’s poor.
London Labour and the London Poor is so successful because it humanises impoverished Londoners – individuals stuck in the bind between a life of crime and its risk of severe punishments, or working horrifically long hours in a degrading job for minimal pay. The books obviously contain a lot of statistical data, but the focus is on the stories of individuals.
For modern readers it acts as a fascinating folk history of the people of Victorian London, those that until Mayhew were simply ignored. He created an image like a Hieronymous Bosch painting, a dense, chaotic and diverse canvas.
“Among the street folk there are many distinct characters of people –people differing as widely from each in tastes, habits thoughts and creed, as one nation from another.”
The reader is treated to tales of men who collected cigar butts for a living, tediously assembling them into new cigars to be discarded again. There are accounts from people making a living as rat killers, and touring circus entertainers struggling to find accommodation for a bear. They range from heart warming humour to tragedy, such as the account from a recently raped woman that ended up as the epitaph to Larkins ‘Deceptions.’
If you have ever spent time in London, you will have likely found echoes of the book in parts of the city today. The sense of overpopulation remains, as well as some of the city’s distinct dialects. Anyone who has lived in a major city will likely have experience of traders selling wares with fake brand names attached-something else featured in Mayhew’s books.
At the time of publication Mayhew’s massive Cyclopedia begun to change attitudes towards the poor in London, and directly influenced the work of Christian Socialists and other philanthropists. For modern audiences, it provides a vivid insight into the diverse personalities of Victorian London.
London Labour and the London Poor
A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, Vol. 1
by Henry Mayhew