In Volume 1 of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, he describes and interviews the great variety of street sellers. Volume 2 might be entitled “occupations” as he explains the various occupations practiced in the streets from old clothes entrepreneur to crossing sweeper.
Volume 3 begins with entertainment and ends with the most abject poverty. First, the entertainment. Entertainers include Punch show operators, conjurors, salamanders (fire eaters), clowns, Irish pipers, English and German street bands, bagpipe players, Scotch pipers, photographers. Mayhew tells you how the people live, how much or little they earn and how they feel about it. A clown speaks:
I must own that the street clowns like a little drop of spirits, and occasionally a good deal. They are in a measure obligated to it. I can’t fancy a clown being funny on small beer; and I never in all my life knew one who was a teetotaller. I think such a person would be a curious character, indeed.
After sections on makers and sellers of dolls’ eyes and drivers of omnibuses, he finishes with “Characteristics of the Various Classes of Vagrants.” By vagrants, he means those who roam the roads, unemployed and often engaged in petty crime. Some claim that those seeking work are the minority. “The remainder consisted of youths, prostitutes, Irish families, and a few professional beggars.” When desperate they seek relief in the workhouses and asylums for “Houseless Poor.” Deserving or not, the conditions of the poor are appalling.
His clothes which were fustian and corduroy, tied close to his body with pieces of string, were black and shiny with filth, which looked more like pitch than grease. He had no shirt, as was plain from the fact that, where his clothes were torn, his bare skin was seen. The ragged sleeves of his fustian jacket were tied like the other parts of his dress, close to his wrists with string. This was clearly to keep the bleak air from his body.
When a worker is laid off or unable to work because of illness and injury, he sells his clothing for food. Then he can no longer get work because of his miserable appearance. Also, the Irish have come in great numbers as a result of the potato famine.
We are all starving. We are all willing to work, but it ain’t to be had. This country is getting very bad for labour; it’s so overrun with Irish that the Englishman hasn’t a chance in his own land to live. Every since I was nine years old I’ve got my own living, but now I’m dead beat, though I’m over twenty-eight next August.
The title of Mayhew’s book is significant when you consider that to be part of London labor is to be always under threat of becoming one of the London poor. There is no safety net. Lose your footing in the struggle to survive and you can fall rapidly to the bottom.