The four volumes of Henry Mayhew’s great work of the 1850s, London Labour and the London Poor, contain 2000 pages of interviews and reporting. I have been reading the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Victor Neuberg, which excerpts some 189 pages from Volume I.
This book is not what I expected. I undertook it as a sort of sociological duty, knowing its reputation and wanting more background on the London of Dickens. I expected statistics and anguish over the situation of the poor. What I find is first-class journalism. Mayhew doesn’t do his research in a library or with Google. He visits the markets and neighborhoods, he counts, he interviews, and he brings the people to life.
Volume I is devoted to people who sell things on the street. Mayhew classifies and analyzes. No, it is not good that children are selling oranges rather than going to school, but why are these children there? Because of the actions of their parents, because this is all they know, because they are following their parents’ occupation, because they are orphans and friendless.
Are they ignorant? One of them speaks:
No; I never heerd about this here creation you speaks about. In coorse God Almighty made the world, and the poor bricklayers’ labourers built the houses afterwards — that’s my opinion; but I can’t say, for I’ve never been in no schools, only always hard at work, and knows nothing about it. I have heerd a little about our Saviour,– they seem to say he were a goodish kind of a man; but if he says as how a cove’s to forgive a feller as hits you, I should say he knows nothing about it.
Again and again we hear the street sellers speak, but from a background Mayhew delineates of the types of people he meets and the types of work that they do. Who sells what? How do they do it and where, and where do they live, and what do they eat, and do they have shoes? What does it cost to set yourself up to sell baked potatoes on the street? It’s all here in wonderful variety, yet building a pattern of chronic want and the ways the poor go on, improvising a living from day to day.
Some of the street sellers leave London. They are restless. They pick hops. They hope to sell at fairs and races and hangings. When cold weather comes, most of them return to the city. Some achieve small successes. Mayhew admires the “patterers,” those with the silver tongue who can persuade by enticing.
I sell to women of all sorts. Smart-dressing servant-maids, perhaps, are my best customers…. I sold one of my umbrellas to one of them just before you spoke to me… “Look here, ma’am,” said I, “this umbrella is much bigger you see, and will carry double so when you’re coming from church of a wet Sunday evening, a friend can have share of it, and very grateful he’ll be, as he’s sure to have his best hat on. There’s been many a question put under an umbrella that way that’s made a young lady blush, and take good care of her umbrella when she was married, and had a house of her own.”
The strength of Mayhew is like the strength of Dickens. He recognizes ignorance and privation and bemoans the injustice done to those who labor with little reward. At the same time he recognizes their strength to endure and to enjoy what pleasures their lives offer them.