Oxford £8.99 (472pp). £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

London Labour and the London Poor, By Henry Mayhew

Originally published as a Victorian periodical, London Labour and the London Poor "would have been an extraordinary achievement no matter who had written it," notes Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in his astute introduction. "Coming from Mayhew, it was close to a miracle."

A man of fleeting enthusiasms, Mayhew engaged in projects including the editorship of Punch during its earliest days. None lasted until he was asked in 1849 by the liberal Morning Chronicle to investigate the cholera-ridden slums of Bermondsey. The success of this pungent account led to him establishing his own journal, London Labour and the London Poor, about characters scraping a living on the capital's street - or below, in the case of the "sewer-hunters".

The result was two million words in which, as Douglas-Fairhurst notes, "there is scarcely a paragraph that does not contain an eye-opening or ear-catching bit of information." Like his contemporary Dickens, Mayhew was not averse to including a seasoning of humour in his accounts of the lower depths. Reporting on the gatherers of cigar ends, he conjectures on the re-cycling of their haul into the "best Havannahs": "It is supposed... they are worked up again to be again cast away, and again collected by the finders, and so on perhaps until the millennium comes."

The stars of this edited edition include a street pieman ("People, when I go into houses, often begin crying, 'Mee-yow' or 'Bow-wow-wow' at me") and a rat-killer, who insists his dog "wouldn't hurt nobody, Sartainly he killed a cat the t'other afternoon but he couldn't help that." Mayhew peers in fascination at ratting matches, maimed beggars, pick-pockets and bone-grubbers, though he admits that the effect of a collection of false human eyes made as a sideline by a doll's eye maker is "peculiar and far from pleasant".

Exploring his influence, Douglas-Fairhurst cites recent novels such as Charles Palliser's The Quincunx and Louis Bayard's Mr Timothy but journalistic successors go unmentioned. In fact, writers on the New Yorker magazine adapted both Mayhew's fascination with overlooked urban characters and his human-tape-recorder technique. By applying the approach of London Labour and the London Poor in another great metropolis, Lillian Ross, John McGhee and, most particularly, Joseph Mitchell produced some of the finest journalism of the 20th century.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living