'London Labour and the London Poor': Sociology at its most Dickensian

By Michael Dirda
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 6:46 PM

First published in 1850-52 in periodical form and eventually collected in four volumes in 1861-62, Henry Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor" takes the fascinated and appalled reader deep into the world of the Victorian underclass. In Mayhew one encounters the real-life equivalents of such Charles Dickens characters as Fagin, the Jewish receiver of stolen goods; Krook, the rag-and-bottle-merchant; Jo, the sickly crossing sweeper; and the Artful Dodger, leader of a band of youthful pickpockets. In the words of its title page, this journalistic classic focuses on "Those That Will Work,Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work."

As Robert Douglas-Fairhurst notes in the superb introduction to this volume of selections, "London Labour and the London Poor" was "originally advertised as a 'cyclopaedia' of street life, implying that the finished work would be a compendium of facts for dipping into rather than a book to be read from cover to cover, and it certainly lived up to its billing. In its 2,000-odd cramped pages, totaling close to 2 million words, there is scarcely a paragraph that does not contain an eye-opening or ear-catching piece of information. . . . London Labour and the London Poor was not only the first major work of sociology (a word first coined in the 1840s). It was also the greatest Victorian novel never written."

Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was himself a Grub Street hack, who cranked out romances and plays, edited short-lived periodicals and helped found the comic magazine Punch. Here, though, he brilliantly combined interviews with lists and statistics, packed on the local color and wrote as vividly about London as any novelist. He once called himself a "traveller in the undiscovered country of the poor" and said his aim was to give "a literal description of [the people's] labour, their earnings, their trials, and their sufferings, in their own 'unvarnished' language."

His usual procedure was first to define a category - for instance, "street sellers" or "street performers, artists and showmen" - and then to zero in on the various professions comprised under that rubric. Whether discussing sewer scavengers or dustmen, beggars or prostitutes, he would begin by carefully noting their physical appearance and often idiosyncratic garb:

"The rat-catcher's dress is usually a velveteen jacket, strong corduroy trousers, and laced boots. Round his shoulder he wears an oil-skin belt, on which are painted the figures of huge rats, with fierce-looking eyes and formidable whiskers. His hat is usually glazed and sometimes painted after the manner of his belt. Occasionally . . . he carries in his hand an iron cage in which are ferrets, while two or three crop-eared rough terriers dog his footsteps. Sometimes a tamed rat runs about his shoulders and arms, or nestles in his bosom or in the large pockets of his coat. When a rat-catcher is thus accompanied, there is generally a strong aromatic odour about him, far from agreeable; this is owing to his clothes being rubbed with oil of thyme and oil of aniseed, mixed together. This composition is said to be so attractive to the sense of the rats . . . that the vermin have left their holes and crawled to the master of the powerful spell."

Mayhew brilliantly describes the tohu bohu of the Covent Garden flower and vegetable market, takes us along Petticoat Lane with its myriad street vendors of secondhand goods, and reveals the multiple uses for a piece of castoff wool clothing. One learns about the "pure" pickers who collect dung, of the "mud-larks" who wade into the Thames ooze searching for salable detritus, of how a performer practices to swallow a live snake and how a pickpocket learns his trade. "A coat is suspended on the wall with a bell attached to it, and the boy attempts to take the handkerchief from the pocket without the bell ringing." Shades of Oliver Twist!

Powerful as his own descriptions are, Mayhew can't compete with the quiet horror of his transcribed testimonies. A legless man hawks nutmeg graters, a blind man lives by selling bootlaces, and an 8-year-old peddles watercresses. "I ain't a child," says the last, "and I shan't be a woman till I'm twenty, but I'm past eight, I am." Yet even among the most desperate, Victorian class awareness remains. " 'We are the haristocracy of the streets,' was said to me by one of the street-folks, who told penny fortunes with a bottle. 'People don't pay us for what we gives 'em, but only to hear us talk. We live like yourself, sir, by the hexercise of our hintellects - we by talking, and you by writing.' "

Listen, then, to the bravura patter of a street-corner salesman:

"I've not come here to get money; not I; I've come here merely for the good of the public, and to let you see how you've been imposed upon by a parcel of pompous shopkeepers, who are not content with less than 100 per cent for rubbish. They got up a petition - which I haven't time to read to you just now - offering me a large sum of money to keep away from here. But no, I had too much friendship for you to consent, and here I am. . . . I've in this cart a cargo of useful and cheap goods; can supply you with anything, from a needle to an anchor. Nobody can sell as cheap as me, seeing that I gets all my goods upon credit, and never means to pay for them. Now then, what shall we begin with? Here's a beautiful guard-chain."

Mayhew talks to anyone - vagrants, swindlers, omnibus drivers, wandering purveyors of joke books, even a provider of artificial eyes. He learns how old horses are killed for dog food and how ashes from coal fires are collected and sifted to be turned into bricks. At times he pauses to compute the cost of this and the amount of that. "The information collected shows that the expenditure in ham-sandwiches, supplied by street-sellers, is 1,820 [pounds sterling] yearly, and a consumption of 436,800 sandwiches."

A rather sullen prostitute once called Mayhew "a very inquisitive old party." No doubt he was -to our benefit. Of manageable length, this "selected edition" of "London Labour and the London Poor" includes contemporary illustrations and notes explaining Victorian terms. It's a book you'll want to keep as well as reread.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday.


A Selected Edition

By Henry Mayhew

Edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Oxford. 472 pp. $24.95

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