During 1849-50, the author and journalist Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) set about anatomizing the lives of the London poor in a series of 82 articles for the Morning Chronicle, which would eventually lay the groundwork for the greatest study of the English poor ever written, the four-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851-65).
In meeting with and interviewing hundreds of men, women, and children throughout the city and recording what William Makepeace Thackeray called their “wondrous and complicated misery,” Mayhew’s “earnest hope,” as he said, was “to give the rich a more intimate knowledge of the sufferings, and the frequent heroism . . . of the poor—that it may teach those . . . to look with charity on the frailties of their less fortunate brethren.”
In this latest abridgment, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, we can see that “earnest hope” in all its large-hearted fellow-feeling. In one section, Mayhew meets with an elderly female street seller, whom he hears has been tending to her sick husband for many years:
The poor creatures lived in one of the close alleys at the east end of London. On inquiring at the house to which I had been directed, I was told I should find them in “the two-pair back.” I mounted the stairs, and on opening the door of the apartment I was terrified with the misery before me. There, on a wretched bed, lay an aged man in almost the last extremity of life. At first I thought the poor old creature was really dead, but a tremble of the eyelids as I closed the door, as noiselessly as I could, told me that he breathed. His face was as yellow as clay, and it had more the cold damp look of a corpse than that of a living man. His cheeks were hollowed in with evident want, his temples sunk, and his nostrils pinched close. On the edge of the bed sat his heroic wife, giving him drink with a spoon from a tea-cup. In one corner of the room stood the basket of tapes, cottons, combs, braces, nutmeg-graters, and shaving-glasses, with which she strove to keep her old dying husband from the workhouse.
Here was the sort of heroism that Mayhew had in mind. And yet, as Thackeray attested, the suffering that made it necessary “had been lying by your door and mine since we had a door of our own. We had but to go a hundred yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did.” Why? Thackeray could not have been more categorical: “We are of the upper classes; we have had . . . no community with the poor.”
Mayhew’s claim to be one of Great Britain’s best social historians has not always been acknowledged. Too often he is treated as a proto-sociologist whose real aspiration was to write the sort of pseudo-scientific history that came into vogue in the late 19th century. It is true that the author of London Labour can be excessively fond of statistics; but he was first and foremost a reporter who never let his regard for the quantifiable stand in the way of his deep sympathy for the poor.
Moreover, Mayhew was a truthteller. At a time when so many of his contemporaries were celebrating that paean to material progress the Great Exhibition of 1851, Mayhew was content to study the direst poverty imaginable, in rookeries and alleyways where respectable Londoners seldom, if ever, ventured.
What gives London Labour so much of its life are the voices that rise from its pages like ghosts, such as when the old woman caring for her husband tells Mayhew: “If God takes him, I know he’ll sleep in heaven. I know the life he’s spent, and am not afraid; but no one else shall take him from me—nothing shall part us but death in this world.” Similarly, when Mayhew encounters an old strumpet in the Haymarket, nothing he reports about her tragic life can match her own pungent account: “You folks as has honor, and character, and feelings, and such, can’t understand how all that’s been beaten out of people like me. I don’t feel. I’m used to it.”
Then again, when he falls among the “duffers,” or peddlers of pretended smuggled goods, an informant tells him:
It is really astonishing . . . how these men ever succeed, for their look denotes cunning and imposition, and their proceedings have been so often exposed in the newspapers that numbers are alive to their tricks, and warn others when they perceive the “duffers” endeavoring to victimize them; but, as the thimble--men say, “There’s a fool born every minute.”