London Labour and the London Poor

Henry Mayhew’s record of Dickensian squalor is both a superb work of investigative journalism and a

Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor is a collection of some of the best descriptive writing in the English language. The articles from which it is composed consider the working lives of the doomed and dispossessed underclass of the 19th-century capital in brutally stark terms. In the words of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, who contributes an elegant introduction, the author's "ear catches the unique accent" of the mean streets with compelling clarity. And accounts of what passed for amusement in the dark back-alleys are offered in a way that adds to the picture of misery and gloom.

Mayhew bridged the gap between journalism and literature in what amounts to a sociological investigation into the abject, degrading poverty that lay submerged beneath the glory and grandeur of Victorian Britain. The vivid realism of his reporting makes the reader pause before turning a page. Few people want to end their evening by reading about a baby's corpse, rotting in the corner of a hovel, or the brutality of rat-catching contests: "Killing to commence at half past 8 precisely."

He recounts the horrors of life in the lower depths with a chilling objectivity that sometimes offends the tender conscience. Yet the absence of either overt sympathy or sentimentality is London Labour and the London Poor's greatest strength. The pity is in the prose. Only the hardest-hearted subscribers to the Morning Chronicle - the paper in which these studies first appeared - could have remained unmoved by his portrait of those families that lived in Jacob's Island, "the very capital of Cholera . . . the Venice of drains". Their lives in "narrow closed courts where the sun never shone" are summed up in a single brilliant phrase which, by describing their complexions, shows the nature of their whole existence: Jacob's Island people are as "white as vegetables grown in the dark".

Many of Mayhew's dramatis personae are familiar from more popular works. One chapter brings Charles Kingsley up to date: "The washing among chimney sweepers of the present day, when there are scarcely any climbing boys, is so much an individual matter that it is not possible to speak with any degree of certainty on the subject." Mayhew then adds, as a simple statement of fact, that "many of these men still suffer, I am told, from chimney-sweeper's cancer". The crossing sweepers are more colourful but no less pathetic than Jo in Dickens's Bleak House. The "Negro Crossing Sweeper, who had lost both his legs", is embittered by the failure "of the owner of the ship in which his legs were burnt off" to pay his wages. "The King of the Tumbling-Boy Crossing Sweepers" admits to an inability to "tumble backwards" but thinks that he more than compensates for that shortcoming by cartwheeling "twelve or fourteen times running". Crossing-sweeping, the author concludes, "seems to be one of those occupations which are resorted to as an excuse for begging" or, as the practitioners would claim, "the last chance of earning an honest crust".

Douglas-Fairhurst speculates about the relationship between Mayhew and Dickens, and even suggests that London Labour and the London Poor was intended to give "factual support to ideas that Dickens was trying to work through in his fiction". The two men did know each other. Mayhew appeared in one of Dickens's amateur theatricals. But although all sorts of Dickens characters were duplicated in the Morning Chronicle articles - the clown who joked as he was dying, the rag-and-bone-shop proprietor, the ballad seller and the Thames bank scavenger - Mayhew was explicitly critical of what he saw as the novelist's maudlin sentimentality about working-class life.

The idea of a working connection between the two men is almost certainly fanciful. Victorians constantly examined the life of the labouring poor without doing much to improve it - most notably Friedrich Engels in 1844, Charles Booth in 1889 and William Booth, in slightly more evangelical form, a year later. All of the surveys were packed with what might be called "Dickensian" characters, just as earlier examinations of the slums contained characters it is tempting to label "Hogarthian". It was the result of neither imitation nor co-operation. They all depicted what they saw.
Mayhew described the world around him for no better reason than that journalism was how he earned his living. He was one of the founder editors of Punch. The magazine was a great success, but Mayhew was not and left after a year. In September 1849, he was invited to write a single article - "A Visit to the Cholera District of Bermondsey" - for the Morning Chronicle. It was an assignment with immediate, and therefore transient, interest.

At the time, London society was panicked by the fear that an epidemic would sweep west from the unsanitary hovels of the East End and infect the stately mansions of Belgravia. The piece was such a success that Mayhew became the paper's "Metropolitan Correspondent", with a mandate to write about parts of London that other journalists ignored.

For years he wrote three pieces a week - averaging 3,500 words weekly over the whole series. To write so much so quickly, and yet so well, makes him something approaching a literary genius. However, the importance of Mayhew's content has obscured the grace of his style. His narrative is a model of straightforward prose:

In Church Lane we found two lodging houses, the kitchens of which are entered from the street by a descent of a few steps, leading underground to a basement. Here we found numbers of people clustered around tables, some reading newspapers, others supping on fish, bread and tea, and potatoes, and some lying half asleep in unimaginable positions. These, we were told, had just returned from hopping in Kent, had walked long distances and were fatigued.

And the dialogue complementing his descriptions has an immediacy that seems to confirm that, somehow, he recorded the conver­sations verbatim. "It's a very jolly life strolling and I wouldn't leave it for any other," a street entertainer tells him. "At times it's hard, but for my part I prefer it to any other . . . If you can make up your mind to sleep in the booth, it ain't such bad pay."

Yet, although Mayhew undoubtedly excelled at what we would call "investigative journalism", it is hard to enjoy reading London Labour and the London Poor. Despite the indomitable cheerfulness of so many of its characters and the heroic resilience with which they faced the horrors of their daily lives, theirs is a story with few redeeming features. In a city that thought itself the centre of the world, thousands of families lived in a squalor that the politicians of the time regarded as the necessary outcome of an economic system which provided prosperity for the more fortunate members of society. The only uplifting feature of London Labour and the London Poor is the certainty that we have become a more gentle and compassionate country. Anyone who believes that Victorian England was the flowering of Christian civilisation should grit their teeth and read it.

London Labour and the London Poor
Henry Mayhew, edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Oxford University Press, 528pp, £12.99

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92. His most recent book is "David Lloyd George: the Great Outsider" (Little, Brown, £25)

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?