London Labour and the London Poor, By Henry Mayhew

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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.