Books

Book Review: London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

London Labour and the London PoorTitle: London Labour and the London Poor
Author: Henry Mayhew
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Date: 2012 (1861)
Genre: Non-Fiction / Journalism
Summary: By turns alarming, touching, and funny, the pages of London Labour and the London Poor exposed a previously hidden world. Henry Mayhew conducted hundreds of interviews that provided a first-hand account of costermongers and street-sellers, of sewer-scavengers and chimney-sweeps, creating an intimate and detailed portrait that offered unprecedented insight into their day-to-day struggle for survival. Combined with Mayhew’s comprehensive data gathering, these stories have an immediacy that owes much to his sympathetic understanding and effective literary style.


I read this book as part of the Classics Club Challenge and the Classics Spin #26. You’re all lucky because I was going to turn this review into a research-style post about poverty and the treatment of the working-class in nineteenth-century Britain but I restrained myself and I’m saving that post for another day.

Okay, on with the review…

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I found aspects of this book absolutely fascinating. It’s technically a collection of newspaper articles written by journalist Henry Mayhew about the various jobs that people worked in London, specifically the poorest people living and working in London in the 1840s. As I said, these articles were originally published weekly but then they were collected into four volumes — the first three were published in 1861 and the fourth was published in 1862 — which have been collected into a single volume by our friends over at Oxford University Press (and probably other publishers too). Volumes one to three were written entirely by Mayhew but volume four featured contributions from Bracebridge Hemyng (what a name!), John Binny, and Andrew Halliday.

This edition is a selection of Mayhew’s articles rather than a reproduction of all four volumes of the original book (which is why it’s only 472 pages long) but it’s still a fairly long read. It took me a few weeks to finish it so I dread to think how long it would take me to read the original. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t find it boring or dull (although some Coster girlparts were a bit dry) but I had to put it down fairly frequently just to process the few sections that I had read. If you want to read the entire thing then all four volumes are available on Project Gutenberg.

Other features of this edition are: illustrations, an explanation of money and the cost of living, a map of London c.1848, and Mayhew’s 1849 article about visiting the cholera districts of Bermondsey. The illustrations (some of which are featured in this review) are technically woodcuts of photographs or daguerreotypes taken by Richard Beard, one of only 51 professional photographers working in London in the 1840s and 1850s. These woodcuts were originally featured in the 1861 edition of London Labour and the London Poor.

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The writing is exactly what you’d expect from a well-educated nineteenth-century journalist who is writing about poor people: well-meaning but condescending. It’s journalism. It’s supposed to evoke certain feelings within the reader and I imagine that it worked to some degree because certain stories tugged on my heartstrings. This topic was incredibly popular at this time as the class divide in Britain was becoming increasingly prominent and some members of the middle- and upper-classes decided that they wanted to take up the cause of the poor. We can still see this happening in Britain today. I know from the background research that I’ve done that some of the people featured within the book, or people who did the same jobs as those featured in the book, did not care for how they were presented but these articles were meant to ‘reveal’ the ‘hidden’ lives of the poor people.

Baked PotatoThere’s a mixture of articles within the book as some focus on individual people, such as ‘Watercress Girl’ and ‘Of the Experience of a Ham-Sandwich-Seller’, while others give a generalised overview of a job or collection of jobs. Some articles really stood out to me, either because they were horrific or because they revealed more about the working-class than Mayhew probably intended, but the collection as a whole gives us an insight into the lives of Victorian London’s working-class people.

Some articles are, to me and possibly other modern readers, truly disgusting – especially the section about cats’ and dogs’-meat dealers (note: they’re not selling cats and dogs to eat, they’re selling cat and dog food and the process to make that food is awful) – but that was, and possibly still is, the reality for people who work in these jobs around the world. There’s also one very detailed account of amputation that will stay with me for a long time. However, there are also some less horrifying articles and I really enjoyed the sections on ‘costermongers’, ‘street-sellers of stationery, literature, and the fine arts’, and ‘street exhibitors’. You learn about everyone from chimney-sweepers to street clowns to people who bought waste paper.

The section focused on ‘costermongers’ is one of those sections that reveal more about the working-class people of London than Mayhew probably expected. One unnamed man, who Mayhew states was ‘the most intelligent man [he] met with among them’, talks about the parts of Hamlet and Macbeth that the costermongers enjoy. Here’s what he supposedly told Mayhew:

Of Hamlet we can make neither end nor side; and nine out of ten of us—ay, far more than that—would like it to be confined to the ghost scenes, and the funeral, and the killing off at the last. Macbeth would be better liked, if it was only the witches and the fighting. The high words in a tragedy we call jaw-breakers, and say we can’t tumble to that barrikin. We always stay to the last, because we’ve paid for it all… (p.21)

As someone who has frequently worked with these two Shakespeare plays, and others, I respect this man’s opinion. I, too, would prefer it if Hamlet were confined to those scenes (and maybe the scene about clouds). These people lived difficult lives in a London that we would barely recognise today but they were clearly intelligent, witty, and full of life Coffee stalltoo. Mayhew probably exaggerated some aspects of their lives but these were real people just going about their lives, trying to make a living in the best way that they could.

Volume four, entitled ‘Those That Will Not Work’, was rather different to the first three volumes. This, in my opinion, was both due to the jobs that were being covered and the fact that each section in the fourth volume was written by a different person. Bracebridge Hemyng covered ‘Prostitution in London’, a very short section which revealed aspects of the lives of women who enjoyed their profession and those who did not, while John Binny focused on ‘Thieves and Swindlers’ and Andrew Halliday wrote about ‘Beggars and Cheats’. These sections were very interesting but many of the stories lacked the sympathy of the three earlier volumes.

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There are racial slurs within this book and I was shocked by them even though I shouldn’t have been. The articles were written in the 1840s and that’s how people talked. Some slurs were even used in brand names. I just wanted to include this warning because although these slurs are used pretty infrequently it’s very jarring to read them.

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Overall, I thought this book was interesting and I feel like Mayhew tried to (somewhat) accurately represent the lives of Victorian London’s working-class people. I’ll definitely read the entire book one day, when I have more time, but this collection by OUP is a good introduction to the topic and to Mayhew’s writing style.

The StoryGraph | Bookshop.org UK*


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Images:
1. The Coster-Girl – From a Daguerreotype by Beard
2. The Baked Potato Man – From a Daguerreotype by Beard
3. The London Coffee-Stall – From a Daguerreotype by Beard

3 thoughts on “Book Review: London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

  1. This sounds like great back ground reading for the ‘classics’, I can imagine them not having much sympathy for ‘those who will not work’! I’ll add it to my reading list, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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