Stephen Carver take a look at Henry Mayhew

THE REAL HENRY MAYHEW PART TWO: London Labour and the London Poor.

The sums involved in printer George Woodfall’s chancery suit against Henry Mayhew that killed off London Labour and the London Poor mid-flow were trivial. He made several attempts to arrive at a settlement, but Mayhew ignored him. This was a common pattern of behaviour in Mayhew’s life, going back to his departure from school, which came about over a minor matter after he had won a Latin prize but neglected to carry out some Greek homework. Often on the verge of success, Mayhew would either walk away or actively self-sabotage through his own inability to deal with financial affairs and general life administration. This had scuppered his fledgling career as a merchant seaman, caused the mistake at his father’s firm, and contributed to his bankruptcy, and his resignation from the Chronicle, which could have been avoided had he given some ground to his editors. Even his marriage eventually fell apart over his serial disorganisation and financial indifference – he invariably left the long-suffering Jane to deal with his creditors. He was not short of ideas and projects and he always hit the ground running, but then failed to maintain momentum, giving up out of boredom, exhaustion or both. As his friend Henry Vizetelly once said of him, ‘he would scheme and ponder all day long, but he abominated the labour of putting his ideas into tangible shape’, and M.H. Spielmann, while praising Mayhew’s genius, resourcefulness and humour, concluded that ‘indolence was his besetting sin, and his will was untutored’ (Spielmann: 1895, 268). The Victorians saw laziness, but it may also be that his overbearing father had instilled in Mayhew a lifelong depression and anxiety that made it very difficult to face life outside the bubble of his research. It is notable, after all, how easy he found it to talk to members of the labouring classes over his own family.

This tendency is apparent in the ultimate completion of London Labour, which was as rushed as the first volume was meticulous. Four years after it was abandoned, Mayhew, working with his brother Augustus, began compiling material for second and third volumes, using unpublished work bulked out by recycling the Chronicle letters, often verbatim. Having given up on his intended study of the working and underclasses in all their forms across the metropolis, he had resolved to at least finish the work on the street folk. Compared to the first volume, these would be masterpieces of concision, which would suggest the editorial process was rushed, both volumes were advertised as going to print in November 1856. This never happened, Mayhew’s new publisher, David Bogue, died that month instead. Mayhew made no attempt to find another publisher and turned instead to other projects, most notably the survey The Criminal Prisons of London, which was never completed and not published until 1862. London Labour in its entirety did not, in fact, see publication until the Griffin, Bohn & Co. edition of 1861, by which time the city had changed so much that while the books turned a modest profit, enough to warrant a reprint in 1865, they no longer had any real social relevance or political impact.

The books also felt different. Volume II relied much more heavily on individual testimony and the life stories told are as vivid as ever, but there is little of the social science of the earlier work, the analysis and linking remarks that had held the first volume together. Volume III, meanwhile, feels unstructured and incomplete, almost random at times, often reprinting Chronicle letters with new material tacked onto the end and little attempt to set up or contextualise, or to integrate them smoothly into the text. Mayhew’s presence is prominent in the interviews, but much less so in the editorial process. Mayhew scholar Anne Humpherys theorises that he had either not finished the manuscript, was incapable of supervising its completion by others, or that he had simply lost interest in the project before it was published, as he often seemed to do. ‘The last half of the volume,’ she writes, ‘is a hodge-podge’ (Humpherys: 1977, 109).

A fourth volume was compiled and published in 1862, when Mayhew was mostly living in Germany, covering ‘Those that will not work’ – ‘Prostitutes, Thieves, Swindlers and Beggars’ – largely written by the Scottish reformer Sir Andrew Halliday, the mysterious John Binny (about whom nothing is known other than he also co-wrote The Criminal Prisons of London), and a young barrister called Bracebridge Hemyng (writing the longest section, on prostitution), who went on to author the ‘Jack Harkaway’ stories, the quintessential ‘Boy’s Own’ Victorian hero. The style had changed again, with more emphasis on overviews, facts and figures than interviews, although Hemyng’s contribution still contains some striking first-person accounts, for example, the ‘shrewd and clever’ girl from the Haymarket, who painted a very different picture to the usual Victorian vision of the ‘fallen woman’:

Strange things happen to us sometimes … the other day a lady friend of mine met a gentleman at Sam’s, and yesterday morning they were married at St. George’s, Hanover Square. The gentleman has lots of money … we often do marry, and well too; why shouldn’t we, we are pretty, we dress well, we can talk and insinuate ourselves into the hearts of men by appealing to their passions and their senses. (Mayhew: 1862, 219).

…and the typographer’s assistant who had ‘hooked many a man by showing my ankle on a wet day’ (Mayhew: 1862, 256). This was a long way from Dickens’ Nancy and the doomed Esther in Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton, but this was always the strength of Mayhew’s project. Unlike the majority of Victorian novelists and reformers, London Labour never sentimentalised the working class.

In its massive entirety – almost 2,000 double-columned pages and approximately 2 million words – London Labour and the London Poor remains an often-disorganised and poorly edited fragment of Mayhew’s original vision, rather than the complete and polished project its reputation implies. But this does not make it any less of a masterpiece, probably because, rather than despite, the contradictions within it, as well as those of its author.

Mayhew the statistician and self-styled social scientist and Mayhew the chaotic and rebellious creative come together to produce the most honest, raw and vivid evocation of early-Victorian London – or, indeed, any nineteenth-century city – ever committed to the page, revealing a fluid and chaotic pageant of humanity. Like the inhabitants of a contemporary third-world megacity, a significant portion of the population had no fixed place of work, and often no fixed abode either. Industrialisation and commerce had brought economic migrants from all over the country and, indeed, the empire, while persecution and famine respectively had driven thousands of European Jews and Irish families into east-end ghettos. Britain was the first country in history in which the urban population exceeded the rural, with London’s population doubling in a generation. Attempting to ‘read’ this unique environment in its entirety was always going to be an impossible task, but nonetheless Mayhew produced a remarkable and comprehensive panorama of what it was actually like to live, and die, in the world’s greatest city for a wide range of underprivileged and working-class people, from skilled tradesmen to labourers, pedlars, whores, hustlers, beggars and thieves. His writing is still plundered today, in order to recreate mid-nineteenth century London in history and costume drama. Like the Dublin of Joyce’s Ulysses, it is possible to rebuild the city as it was from the pages of Mayhew’s book.

Ultimately, Mayhew was a pioneering oral historian. This sets him apart from the other great social investigator of his era, Friedrich Engels. In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), it was the physical environment of the Manchester slums that preoccupied Engels:

Below Ducie Bridge the only entrance to most of the houses is by means of narrow, dirty stairs and over heaps of refuse and filth … At the bottom flows, or rather stagnates, the Irk, a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of débris and refuse, which it deposits on the shallower right bank. In dry weather, a long string of the most disgusting, blackish-green, slime pools are left standing on the bank, from the depth of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the surface of the stream … Above the bridge are tanneries, bone mills, and gasworks, from which all drains and refuse find their way into the Irk, which receives further the contents of all the neighbouring sewers and privies. It may be easily imagined, therefore, what sort of residue the stream deposits (Engels: 1887, 34).

But for Mayhew, it was always about the people, to whom he showed a tremendous amount of respect and sensitivity, unencumbered by judgement, ideology or delusions of philanthropy. ‘There is but one way of benefitting the poor,’ he wrote, ‘by developing their powers of self-reliance, and certainly not in treating them like children. Philanthropists always seek to do too much, and in this is to be found the main cause of their repeated failures. The poor are expected to become angels in an instant, and the consequence is, they become hypocrites’ (Mayhew: 1861, II, 298).

Through him, the people spoke, in their own voices, sharing their toils, hopes, fears, grievances, entertainments, habits and beliefs. And to the horror of many bourgeois Christian readers, their grasp of the faith was often tenuous to say the least. As coster-girl selling apples explained:

Father has told me that God made the world, and I’ve heerd [sic] him talk about the first man and woman as was made and live – it must more than a hundred years ago … It seems very wonderful indeed how all this world was done so quick. I should have thought that England alone would have took double the time, shouldn’t you sir? (Mayhew: 1851, 48).

Like many of Mayhew’s subjects, this girl was no more than a child, already working very long and very cold days, like his famously poignant ‘Watercress Girl’ – often cited in anthologies – who, at 8-years-old, her features ‘scarcely formed’, talked ‘of the bitterest struggles of life, with the calm earnestness of one who had endured them all’. (Mayhew: 1851, 157). As Mayhew showed, for the children of the poor, the options were back-breaking labour for very low pay, begging, scavenging, crime, prostitution or starvation. He interviewed a young crossing sweeper, brushing horse shit out of the way of middle class pedestrians in the hope of a tip, and a ‘mudlark’, a child wading in the filthy water of the Thames searching for anything he could use or sell: old nails, lumps of coal, scrap iron, rope or bones. Some, explained Mayhew, scavenged for easier pickings, such as cigar ends, which could be shredded into tobacco, or became ‘pure-finders’, collecting dog dirt to sell to the tanneries:

Dogs’ dung is called ‘Pure,’ from its cleansing and purifying properties … The pure-finders meet with a ready market for all the dogs’ dung they are able to collect, at the numerous tan yards in Bermondsey, where they sell it by the stable-bucket full, and get from 8d. to 10d. per bucket, and sometimes 1s. and 1s. 2d. for it, according to its quality. The ‘dry limy-looking sort’ fetches the highest price at some yards, as it is found to possess more of the alkaline, or purifying properties; but others are found to prefer the dark moist quality. (Mayhew 1861, 142).

Working or not, many of the kids slept rough, or in unsanitary and overcrowded lodgings if they were lucky. Pure-finders kept their buckets with them at all times. Life was likely to be short, and unlike Oliver Twist, Mayhew teaches us that in the brutal Darwinism of the London streets, there were no benevolent Mr. Brownlows reaching down, like God, to save them. For the apple-seller, the outlook was apocalyptic: ‘No, I don’t think this world could well go on forever’ (Mayhew: 1851, 48).

And, of course, it didn’t. By the time the full edition of London Labour was published, the slums were beginning to be cleared, while the hopeful, chaotic exuberance of the 1840s, no longer Regency yet not quite Victorian, had been replaced by industry, piety and sobriety.

For Mayhew, too, his best work was behind him, although he continued to write until the end of his life, outliving all his brothers. He died of bronchitis on July 25, 1887, seven years after the death of his estranged wife. His obituary in the Illustrated London News poignantly summed up his final years: ‘If the author of London Labour and the London Poor had died earlier, many people would have been present at his funeral in Kensal-Green Cemetery on Saturday last. As it was, those for whose causes he had so valiantly contended seem to have forgotten him’ (Qtd. in Bradley: 1965, xxxii). And this was largely true, London Labour falling out of favour as outdated and ‘unscientific’ until it was rediscovered and championed by academic historians and literary critics in the second half of the twentieth century, who was at the same time rehabilitating Dickens’ reputation as a serious and significant author.

As to what Mayhew himself thought about all this, his remarks in the second edition of London Characters make a fitting if ambivalent obituary:

It had fallen to my lot to be obliged to see some of the lowest forms of London life … I had made the study of poverty and crime a profession, and it had constantly become a duty on my part to scan every form of human wretchedness. In as few words as possible, I had been forced to examine the ugly sores of society for the same reason a medical man requires to attend to the several ghastly phases of physical and mental disease: simply because I made it my business to do so (Mayhew: 1874, 348-350).

There seems here neither pride nor bitterness, rather a sense of necessary vocation mixed with the tacit admission that he had fallen into this line of work. Somebody had to do this. As well him as another… But could anyone else have achieved such a tragic and beautiful record of the working-class soul in young Victoria’s capital? It was precisely because Mayhew was a slacker and an artist more than he was a scientist or sociologist that made London Labour and the London Poor such a transcendently successful social study. It is that good. For students of the nineteenth century, there is none better.

Stephen Carver


Bradley, J.H. (ed). (1965). Henry Mayhew: Selections from London Labour and the London Poor. Oxford: OUP.

Engels, Friedrich. (1887). The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Florence Kelley Wiscunewetzky (trans). New York: John W. Lovell.

Humpherys, Anne. (1977). Travels into The Poor Man’s Country. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Mayhew, Henry ‘And Others’. (1874). London Characters. Illustrations of the Humour, Pathos, and Peculiarities of London Life.London, Chatto and Windus.

Mayhew, Henry. (1851). London Labour and the London Poor; a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work. Vol I. London: G. Woodfall and Son.

Mayhew, Henry. (1861). London Labour and the London Poor. Vol. II. London: Griffin Bohn & Co.

Mayhew, Henry. (1862). London Labour and the London Poor. Vol. IV. London: Griffin, Bohn & Co.

Spielmann, M.H. (1895). The History of ‘Punch.’ New York: Cassell.