London Labour and the London Poor
is a work of Victorian
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...
journalism by Henry Mayhew
Henry Mayhew was an English social researcher, journalist, playwright and advocate of reform. He was one of the two founders of the satirical and humorous magazine Punch, and the magazine's joint-editor, with Mark Lemon, in its early days...
. In the 1840s he observed, documented and described the state of working people in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...
for a series of articles in a newspaper, the Morning Chronicle
The Morning Chronicle was a newspaper founded in 1769 in London, England, and published under various owners until 1862. It was most notable for having been the first employer of Charles Dickens, and for publishing the articles by Henry Mayhew which were collected and published in book format in...
, that were later compiled into book form.
The articles go into deep, almost pedantic detail concerning the trades, habits, religion and domestic arrangements of the thousands of people working the streets of the city. Much of the material comprises detailed interviews in which people candidly describe their lives and work: for instance, Jack Black
Jack Black was rat-catcher and mole destroyer by appointment to Her Majesty Queen Victoria during the middle of the nineteenth century. Black cut a striking figure in his self-made "uniform" of scarlet topcoat, waistcoat, and breeches, with a huge leather belt inset with cast-iron rats.He is known...
talks about his job as "rat and mole destroyer to Her Majesty", remaining in good humour despite his experience of a succession of near-fatal infections from bites.
Beyond this anecdotal material, Mayhew's articles are particularly notable for attempting to justify numerical estimates with other information, such as census data and police statistics. Thus if the assertion is made that 8,000 of a particular type of trader operate in the streets, Mayhew compares this to the total number of miles of street in the city, with an estimate of how many traders operate per mile.
The articles were collected and published in three volumes in 1851. A fourth "Extra Volume", published in 1861 , was co-written with Bracebridge Hemyng, John Binny and Andrew Halliday
Andrew Halliday [formerly Andrew Halliday Duff] was a Scottish journalist and dramatist.He was educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in 1849 he went to London, and discarding the name of Duff, devoted himself to literature...
, covered the lives of streetwalkers, thieves and beggars, though it departed from the interview format to take a more general and statistical approach to its subject.
London in the 1840s was more like a 21st-century Third world
The term Third World arose during the Cold War to define countries that remained non-aligned with either capitalism and NATO , or communism and the Soviet Union...
A megalopolis is typically defined as a chain of roughly adjacent metropolitan areas. The term was used by Oswald Spengler in his 1918 book, The Decline of the West, and Lewis Mumford in his 1938 book, The Culture of Cities, which described it as the first stage in urban overdevelopment and...
than a 20th-century city. A significant portion of the population had no fixed place of work, and indeed many had no fixed abode
No fixed abode or without fixed abode is a legal term generally applied to those who do not have a fixed geographical location as their residence...
. In classic fashion, the city teemed with outsiders, migrants from other parts of Britain and even Europe.
Items of commerce – food, drink, textiles, household goods – were distributed, not by trucks but by an army of carts and wagons. While goods were sold from storefronts, there were also thousands upon thousands of street-traders, generally lumped together as costermonger
Costermonger, or simply Coster, is a street seller of fruit and vegetables, in London and other British towns. They were ubiquitous in mid-Victorian England, and some are still found in markets. As usual with street-sellers, they would use a loud sing-song cry or chant to attract attention...
s. Alongside these relatively familiar forms of trade in consumer goods and services, Mayhew's work describes lesser-known trades driven by now-obsolete markets and by sheer poverty, such as gathering of snails for food, and the extreme forms of recycling
Recycling is processing used materials into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution and water pollution by reducing the need for "conventional" waste disposal, and lower greenhouse...
practised by 'pure finders' (who collected dog dung for tanneries
Tanning is the making of leather from the skins of animals which does not easily decompose. Traditionally, tanning used tannin, an acidic chemical compound from which the tanning process draws its name . Coloring may occur during tanning...
) and 'sewer-hunters' (who searched the sewer
A sanitary sewer is a separate underground carriage system specifically for transporting sewage from houses and commercial buildings to treatment or disposal. Sanitary sewers serving industrial areas also carry industrial wastewater...
s for scrap metal and other valuables).
The articles comprising London Labour and the London Poor
were initially collected into three volumes in 1851; the 1861 edition included a fourth volume, co-written with Bracebridge Hemyng, John Binny and Andrew Halliday, on the lives of prostitutes, thieves and beggars. This Extra Volume took a more general and statistical approach to its subject than Volumes 1 to 3.
He wrote in volume one: "I shall consider the whole of the metropolitan poor under three separate phases, according as they
will work, they
can't work, and they
He interviewed everyone—beggars, street-entertainers (such as Punch and Judy
Punch and Judy is a traditional, popular puppet show featuring the characters of Mr. Punch and his wife, Judy. The performance consists of a sequence of short scenes, each depicting an interaction between two characters, most typically the anarchic Punch and one other character...
men), market traders, prostitutes, labourers, sweatshop
Sweatshop is a negatively connoted term for any working environment considered to be unacceptably difficult or dangerous. Sweatshop workers often work long hours for very low pay, regardless of laws mandating overtime pay or a minimum wage. Child labour laws may be violated. Sweatshops may have...
workers, even down to the "mudlark
A Mudlark is someone who scavenges in river mud for items of value, especially in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries.Mudlarks would search in the muddy shores of the River Thames during low tide, scavenging for anything that could be resold and sometimes, when occasion offered,...
s" who searched the stinking mud on the banks of the River Thames
The River Thames flows through southern England. It is the longest river entirely in England and the second longest in the United Kingdom. While it is best known because its lower reaches flow through central London, the river flows alongside several other towns and cities, including Oxford,...
for wood, metal, rope and coal from passing ships, and the "pure-finders" who gathered dog faeces to sell to tanners. He described their clothes, how and where they lived, their entertainments and customs, and made detailed estimates of the numbers and incomes of those practicing each trade. The books make fascinating reading, showing how marginal and precarious many people's lives were, in what, at that time, must have been the richest city in the world.
Mayhew's perception as an observer is unsurpassed in early descriptions of London's street scenes. His richly detailed descriptions are able to give an impression of what the street markets of his day were like. Here is a typical description by Mayhew:
- 'The pavement and the road are crowded with purchasers and street-sellers. The housewife in her thick shawl, with the market-basket on her arm, walks slowly on, stopping now to look at the stall of caps, and now to cheapen a bunch of greens. Little boys, holding three or four onions in their hand, creep between the people, wriggling their way through every interstice, and asking for custom in whining tones, as if seeking charity. Then the tumult of the thousand different cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time, is almost bewildering. “So-old again,” roars one. “Chestnuts all‘ot, a penny a score,” bawls another. “An ‘aypenny a skin, blacking,” squeaks a boy. “Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy-- bu-u-uy!” cries the butcher. “Half-quire of paper for a penny,” bellows the street stationer. “An ‘aypenny a lot ing-uns.” “Twopence a pound grapes.” “Three a penny Yarmouth bloaters.” “Who‘ll buy a bonnet for fourpence?” “Pick ‘em out cheap here! three pair for a halfpenny, bootlaces.” “Now‘s your time! beautiful whelks, a penny a lot.” “Here‘s ha‘p‘orths,” shouts the perambulating confectioner. “Come and look at ‘em! here‘s toasters!” bellows one with a Yarmouth bloater stuck on a toasting-fork. “Penny a lot, fine russets,” calls the apple woman: and so the Babel goes on.' Mayhew.
Use by Larkin
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...
Philip Arthur Larkin, CH, CBE, FRSL is widely regarded as one of the great English poets of the latter half of the twentieth century...
referenced an extract from London Labour and the London Poor
for his poem "Deceptions". The extract details a rape: "Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain consciousness until the next morning. I was horrified to discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt."
The Big City or the New Mayhew
In the early 1950s, Punch
Punch, or the London Charivari was a British weekly magazine of humour and satire established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and engraver Ebenezer Landells. Historically, it was most influential in the 1840s and 50s, when it helped to coin the term "cartoon" in its modern sense as a humorous illustration...
published a series of articles based upon and to some extent parodying London Labour and the London Poor
. Although these articles were humorous, their purpose was still to document and describe the lives of working people in London. In 1953 the articles, which were written by Alex Atkinson
Alex Atkinson was an English journalist, novelist and playwright who is best remembered for his collaborative works with the illustrator Ronald Searle....
and illustrated by Ronald Searle
Ronald William Fordham Searle, CBE, RDI, is a British artist and cartoonist, best known as the creator of St Trinian's School. He is also the co-author of the Molesworth series....
were published in a single volume under the title The Big City or the New Mayhew
- London Labour and the London Poor, at Internet Archive
The Internet Archive is a non-profit digital library with the stated mission of "universal access to all knowledge". It offers permanent storage and access to collections of digitized materials, including websites, music, moving images, and nearly 3 million public domain books. The Internet Archive...
and Google Books (scanned books original editions color illustrated: PDF, HTML, plain text)
- Volume 1: E-Text
- Volume 2: E-Text
- Volume 3: E-Text
- Extra Volume: E-Text