Saturday, October 22, 2011

Henry Mayhew - London Labour and the London Poor

Henry Mayhew's classic text, London Labour and the London Poor is a powerful and fascinating study of life on the streets during the later half of the nineteenth century. This new edition comes with a very useful introduction which puts Mayhew's life and work into the context of the times.

Victorian attitudes to the poor varied considerably, but the majority opinion seems to be that they were lazy, feckless or represented some sort of unemployable section of society that could never make good. While clearly having great sympathy with his subjects, Mayhew does reflect these sentiments occasionally. His four part classification (Those that will work, Those that cannot work, Those that will not work and Those that need not work) summing this up well. But Mayhew doesn't try and explain the situation, he wants to report it, and his interviews capture the lives of those trapped in poverty at the bottom of society. Through the voices of the individuals he meets, we see that often their poverty is the result of mishap, old age or family circumstance.

Some of the tales are extraordinary. To take one example, the young man, turned burglar, whose succession of jobs are ruined by his brother who pressurises him to steal money or materials from each business, eventually leading him into unemployment and a life of crime. Here is one of Mayhew's common themes, the idea of a fall from grace leading to criminality or life on the edge of society. Occasionally Mayhew's generalities can seem annoying to the modern reader

"The chimney-sweepers generally are fond of drink, indeed their calling, like that of dustmen, is one of those which naturally lead to it."

But such statements reflect the prejudices of the time, rather than any attempt to understand life at the bottom. Is it any wonder that men, who, Mayhew is told have "vomited balls of soot" like to have a good drink?

Mayhew's reportage was immensely popular at the time. This seems slightly strange. Many of the people who bought and read these tales, must have seen this life all around them. But what may have been attractive to them are the lives that are led behind the scenes - the small tricks of the trade - how the pickpockets learnt to steal, or the life of "Old Sarah" the blind hurdy-gurdy player who in her forty years on the streets had gone through "four guides and worn out three instruments" until struck by a cab and left unable to play, finally died alone. The modern fascination for tricksters and swindlers shown by the popular program, The Real Hustle, is no different to Mayhew's detailed accounts of the tricks of beggars, or the activities of burglars and other criminals.

Many of the jobs are forgotten today - some are unnecessary - the crossing sweepers, who cleared the horse-shit and rubbish from the road when higher class people wanted to cross the road are one example. These young men created their own organisation, with code-words and slang, nicknames for particular police men and strict codes of conduct for who could lay claim to particular individuals that approached. They would encourage charity and employment by turning cart-wheels, and presumeably, like all young boys, boast to Mayhew about being the best at particular tumbles. But there are more oddities. Then man who earns a living by imitating farmyard animals, another who gets a few coins allowing people to look through his microscope and so on.

Mayhew is not afraid of the poverty or the people. He paints a picture of a society dominated by the lack of wealth, struggling to survive. But despite the poverty, a strong sense of solidarity comes through. While crime was rife and people thought nothing of cheating a customer (the photographers are a particularly amusing example of this - most people had never seen their own image, so the pictures often weren't even of the subject) people did help each other. Unlike some Victorian writers, Mayhew doesn't hide things that he doesn't approve of. Prostitution was part and parcel of the life he was documenting, and while he doesn't go into great detail, his interviews with prostitutes of different ages show that the reality was far from the lives documented in a few recent fictional depictions of life on the streets at the time.

Some of the book seems dated and Mayhew's methodology may be suspect - he has suspiciously accurate figures for the amount of rubbish discarded (2,240 lbs of cigar ends annually) for instance. But these stories (and this new edition from OUP is but a selection of the much larger Mayhew collection) are a wonderfully evocative taste of life in Victorian London.

The patter of the street seller who, in the 1800s encouraged his onlookers to purchase his goods like this:

"Well, then say 17,16,15,14,13,12,11, 10 shillings; what, none of you give ten shillings for this beautiful article? See how it improves a man's appearance'....'Any young man here present wearing this chain will always be show into the parlour instead of the tap-room; into the best pew in church,.... But I'll ruin myself for your sakes... Say 9s. for this splendid piece of jewellery - 8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 -a shilling.... will anyone give me a shilling...."

He could be transported to street markets the length and breadth of the British Isles today and find his pitch and sell his gear. In many respects, despite the lack of crossing-sweepers and animal impersonators, very little has changed.

Related Reviews

Fishman - East End 1888
Wise - The Blackest Streets

No comments: