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Henry Mayhew, The London Vagabond

March 21, 2018
by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson introduces his new biography of Henry Mayhew, The London Vagabond

When Henry Mayhew died in 1887, one newspaper noted ‘The chief impression created in the public mind was one of surprise that he should still be alive.’ Yet nearly forty years earlier, his London Labour & the London Poor had gripped the country, confronting it with the voices of those who had been overlooked. His masterwork began as a series of ‘Letters’ commissioned by The Morning Chronicle and, from 1849 onwards, these grew into a panoramic survey of London’s poorest workers, a long exposure snapshot of mid-nineteenth century life.

The Spitalfields silk weavers were the first group of the working poor Mayhew reported on. Descended from Huguenot refugees, their livelihood was undermined by free trade after the abolition of import tariffs on French silk. Their experience was common among many highly-skilled London workers, as their quality of life deteriorated from the early years of the century, eroded by technological and social change. Late at night, in a narrow Shoreditch street, Mayhew mounted the stairs to a top floor room and visited an old weaver, sick in bed. The weaver lived and worked in a shared top floor room, cobwebbed with sagging clothes lines, where three looms jostled among several beds. The old man asked his daughter, Tilly, to pull up a chair for Mayhew, then began his tale.

“Yes, I was comfortable in ’24. I kept a good little house and I thought, as my young ones growed up – why I thought as I should be comfortable in my old age, and ‘stead of that, I’ve got no wages. I could live by my labour then, but now, why it’s wretched in the extreme. Then I’d a nice little garden and some nice tulips for my hobby, when my work was done. … As for animal food, why it’s a stranger to us. Once a week, may be, we gets a taste of it, but that’s a hard struggle, and many a family don’t have it once a month … Tilly, just turn up that shell now and let the gentlemen see what beautiful fabrics we’re in the habit of producing – and then he shall say whether we ought to be in the filthy state we are. Just show the light, Tilly! That’s for ladies to wear and adorn them. And make them handsome’”

(It was an exquisite piece of maroon coloured velvet. That, amidst all the squalor of the place, seemed marvellously beautiful, and it was a wonder to see it unsoiled amid all the filth that surrounded it).

Mayhew formed a close bond with the Spitalfields silk weavers. Yet The Morning Chronicle fired him after a year – for asking for more work, they said – for speaking up for the workers, Mayhew said. He revived the Letters as his own weekly serial, entitled London Labour & the London Poor. Increasingly, he focused on street folk, costers and other itinerant traders, yet he continued to support the silk weavers cause, even after London Labour ended abruptly in court over unpaid printer’s bills.

On Tuesday 4th May 1852 at the school room, St John’s St, Brick Lane, The Trade Society for the Protection of Native Industry convened a mass meeting to ‘adopt resolutions condemnatory of the present unregulated and stimulated system of competition, which is reducing the working classes of this country to the continental level’. Mayhew came on stage to loud cheering. He told how he had commenced his ‘inquiries into the state of the working classes, being at the time an inveterate Free-trader’ with The Morning Chronicle, but his research among the poor had converted him to protectionism.

Mayhew returned to Spitalfields for a very different occasion four years later, as part of his second major series, The Great World of London. On the evening of 8th April 1856, he summoned a gathering of professional villains, the ‘Swell Mobsmen’ at the White Lion Tavern, Fashion St. Entry was by ticket only, signed by Mayhew and stating the police were barred. A hundred crooks gathered in the well-lit, comfortable room where a ‘free and easy’ atmosphere prevailed.

“A stranger would have had no suspicion that the men there assembled were at war with society. They one and all appeared well fed, well clad, and at ease with themselves. In the course of the evening several showily-dressed youths, who were evidently the ‘aristocracy’ of the class, walked into the room. These were mainly habited as clerks or young men in offices, some wearing gold guard chains, others with pistol keys dangling from their waistcoat pockets, and having diamond pins in their cravats. They were, however, all ‘mobsmen,’ as they are called – men who in some instances, we are assured, are gaining their £10 or even £20 a week by light-fingered operations. Indeed, several present were pointed out as ‘tip-top sawyers,’ ‘moving in the best society and doing a heavy business’. Beside those there were a few notorious ‘cracksmen’ (house-breakers) and one or two ‘fences’ (receivers of stolen goods), who were said to be worth their weight in gold.”

Mayhew proposed a society to help these people to go straight. In the event, most of the Swell Mobsmen seemed appreciative but unpersuaded.

“A few candidly stated ‘they didn’t seem to care’ about reforming themselves, but they would gladly assist any of their body who was desirous of so doing.”

A unique exploration of working Londoners, London Labour & the London Poor influenced an entire generation of writers, Charles Dickens among them. A pioneering work of social science, criminology and oral history, it was a century ahead of its time, yet within a few years of Mayhew’s death the work was all but forgotten, along with its author.

Only when the great metropolis that Mayhew loved lay in ruins after the Blitz did London Labour & the London Poor resurface. By the late sixties, all four volumes were available once more, riding the wave of a Victorian revival. ‘It is a book’, wrote W. H. Auden in 1968, ‘in which one can browse for a lifetime without exhausting its treasures.’ Yet a veil remained over Mayhew and, by the seventies, as academics fought over the meaning of his legacy, the historian E. P. Thompson observed:

“He was the subject of no biography and there is something like a conspiracy of silence about him in some of the reminiscences and biographies of his contemporaries … Mayhew remains a puzzling character and some final clue seems to be missing.”

By the eighties, when London Labour & the London Poor had become established as a fixture on the reading list for courses on literature, history, criminology, culture studies and more, the Penguin edition could still open with, ‘It is strange that not more is known about the life of Henry Mayhew.’ Today, Mayhew crops up on the National Curriculum, feted as a philanthropist. His work inspires novels and films exploring the lost world of Victorian London. Terry Pratchet dedicated his final novel, Dodger, to Mayhew. Even so, his life has remained shrouded – until now.

Born into a wealthy family, Mayhew’s public school years were cut short and he was shipped off to Calcutta as a midshipman. Taken on at his father’s law firm upon his return, he left when – absentmindedly – he got his father arrested. Then he became a journalist and dramatist in eighteen-thirties London, neither considered respectable occupations, crowning the decade by founding Punch. It became the most successful magazine of the century and should have set him up for life.

Instead, his path led to bankruptcy and prison. He spent years in exile in Guernsey and Germany. In between, he became famous for his revelations about the poor and brought out London Labour & the London Poor in 1851. He was a respected children’s author, a popular comic novelist, a criminologist who gave evidence to Parliamentary Select committees and a war correspondent. He wrote for the stage, tried to enter politics, the darling of both radicals and conservatives for attacking the liberal mantra of Free Trade. He was known as a philosopher and as a scientist, who revered his friend Michael Faraday, and sought to bring electric lighting to London decades before it arrived.

Mental illness haunted him though, his periodic peaks alternating with deep troughs. He mixed with Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and stood at the centre of the burgeoning literary world, met with government ministers to advocate social reforms, and mingled with costers, dockers and the underworld too, keeping an open house for thieves and paroled prisoners. His closeness to some of them backfired in blackmail and death threats. His wife, Jane Jerrold, who dealt with the bailiffs for him and secretly co-wrote much of his work, left him when their children had grown up and insisted on being buried under her maiden name. Forgotten, Henry Mayhew spent his last decades moving from one Bloomsbury bedsit to another, plotting new schemes and new books, even until the very last.

The Oyster Stall. “I’ve been twenty years and more, perhaps twenty-four, selling shellfish in the streets. I was a boot closer when I was young, but I had an attack of rheumatic fever, and lost the use of my hands for my trade. The streets hadn’t any great name, as far as I knew, then, but as I couldn’t work, it was just a choice between street selling and starving, so I didn’t prefer the last. It was reckoned degrading to go into the streets – but I couldn’t help that. I was astonished at my success when I first began, I made three pounds the first week I knew my trade.  I was giddy and extravagant. I don’t clear three shillings a day now, I average fifteen shillings a week the year through. People can’t spend money in shellfish when they haven’t got any.”

The Irish Street-Seller. “I was brought over here, sir, when I was a girl, but my father and mother died two or three years after. I was in service, I saved a little money and got married. My husband’s a labourer, he’s out of worruk now, and I’m forced to thry and sill a few oranges to keep a bit of life in us, and my husband minds the children. Bad as I do, I can do a penny or tuppence a day better profit than him, poor man! For he’s tall and big, and people thinks, if he goes round with a few oranges, it’s just from idleniss.”

The Groundsel Man. “I sell chickweed and grunsell, and turfs for larks. That’s all I sell, unless it’s a few nettles that’s ordered. I believe they’re for tea, sir. I gets the chickweed at Chalk Farm. I pay nothing for it. I gets it out of the public fields. Every morning about seven I goes for it. I’ve been at business about eighteen year. I’m out till about five in the evening. I never stop to eat. I am walking ten hours every day – wet and dry. My leg and foot and all is quite dead. I goes with a stick.”

The Baked Potato Man. “Such a day as this, sir, when the fog’s like a cloud come down, people looks very shy at my taties. They’ve been more suspicious since the taty rot. I sell mostly to mechanics, I was a grocer’s porter myself before I was a baked taty. Gentlemen does grumble though, and they’ve said, “Is that all for tuppence?” Some customers is very pleasant with me, and says I’m a blessing. They’re women that’s not reckoned the best in the world, but they pays me. I’ve trusted them sometimes, and I am paid mostly. Money goes one can’t tell how, and ‘specially if you drinks a drop as I do sometimes. Foggy weather drives me to it, I’m so worritted – that is, now and then, you’ll mind, sir.”

The London Coffee Stall. “I was a mason’s labourer, a smith’s labourer, a plasterer’s labourer, or a bricklayer’s labourer. I was for six months without any employment. I did not know which way to keep my wife and child. Many said they wouldn’t do such a thing as keep a coffee stall, but I said I’d do anything to get a bit of bread honestly. Years ago, when I as a boy, I used to go out selling water-cresses, and apples, and oranges, and radishes with a barrow. I went to the tinman and paid him ten shillings and sixpence (the last of my savings, after I’d been four or five months out of work) for a can. I heard that an old man, who had been in the habit of standing at the entrance of one of the markets, had fell ill. So, what do I do, I goes and pops onto his pitch, and there I’ve done better than ever I did before.”

Coster Boy & Girl Tossing the Pieman. To toss the pieman was a favourite pastime with costermonger’s boys. If the pieman won the toss, he received a penny without giving a pie, if he lost he handed it over for nothing. “I’ve taken as much as two shillings and sixpence at tossing, which I shouldn’t have done otherwise. Very few people buy without tossing, and boys in particular. Gentlemen ‘out on the spree’ at the late public houses will frequently toss when they don’t want the pies, and when they win they will amuse themselves by throwing the pies at one another, or at me. Sometimes I have taken as much as half a crown and the people of whom I had the money has never eaten a pie.”

The Street- Seller of Nutmeg Graters. “Persons looks at me a good bit when I go into a strange place. I do feel it very much, that I haven’t the power to get my living or to do a thing for myself, but I never begged for nothing. I never thought those whom God had given the power to help themselves ought to help me. My trade is to sell brooms and brushes, and all kinds of cutlery and tinware. I learnt it myself. I was never brought up to nothing, because I couldn’t use my hands. Mother was a cook in a nobleman’s family when I was born. They say I was a love child. My mother used to allow so much a year for my schooling, and I can read and write pretty well. With a couple of pounds, I’d get a stock, and go into the country with a barrow, and buy old metal, and exchange tinware for old clothes, and with that, I’m almost sure I could make a decent living.”

The Crockery & Glass Wares Street-Seller. “A good tea service we generally give for a left-off suit of clothes, hat and boots. We give a sugar basin for an old coat, and a rummer for a pair of old Wellington boots. For a glass milk jug, I should expect a waistcoat and trowsers, and they must be tidy ones too. There is always a market for old boots, when there is not for old clothes. I can sell a pair of old boots going along the streets if I carry them in my hand. Old beaver hats and waistcoats are worth little or nothing. Old silk hats, however, there’s a tidy market for. There is one man who stands in Devonshire St, Bishopsgate waiting to buy the hats of us as we go into the market, and who purchases at least thirty a week. If I go out with a fifteen shilling basket of crockery, maybe after a tidy day’s work I shall come home with a shilling in my pocket and a bundle of old clothes, consisting of two or three old shirts, a coat or two, a suit of left-off livery, a woman’s gown maybe or a pair of old stays, a couple of pairs of Wellingtons, and waistcoat or so.”

The Blind Bootlace Seller. “At five years old, while my mother was still alive, I caught the small pox. I only wish vaccination had been in vogue then as it is now or I shouldn’t have lost my eyes. I didn’t lose both my eyeballs till about twenty years after that, though my sight was gone for all but the shadow of daylight and bright colours. I could tell the daylight and I could see the light of the moon but never the shape of it. I never could see a star. I got to think that a roving life was a fine pleasant one. I didn’t think the country was half so big and you couldn’t credit the pleasure I got in going about it. I grew pleaseder and pleaseder with the life. You see, I never had no pleasure, and it seemed to me like a whole new world, to be able to get victuals without doing anything. On my way to Romford, I met a blind man who took me in partnership with him, and larnt me my business complete – and that’s just about two or three and twenty year ago.”

The Street Rhubarb & Spice Seller. “I am one native of Mogadore in Morocco. I am an Arab. I left my countree when I was sixteen or eighteen years of age, I forget, sir. Dere everything sheap, not what dey are here in England. Like good many, I was young and foolish – like all dee rest of young people, I like to see foreign countries. The people were Mahomedans in Mogadore, but we were Jews, just like here, you see. In my countree the governemen treat de Jews very badly, take all deir money. I get here, I tink, in 1811 when de tree shilling pieces first come out. I go to de play house, I see never such tings as I see here before I come. When I was a little shild, I hear talk in Mogadore of de people of my country sell de rhubarb in de streets of London, and make plenty money by it. All de rhubarb sellers was Jews. Now dey all gone dead, and dere only four of us now in England. Two of us live in Mary Axe, anoder live in, what dey call dat – Spitalfield, and de oder in Petticoat Lane. De one wat live in Spitalfield is an old man, I dare say going on for seventy, and I am little better than seventy-three.”

The Street-Seller of Walking Sticks. “I’ve sold to all sorts of people, sir. I once had some very pretty sticks, very cheap, only tuppence a piece, and I sold a good many to boys. They bought them, I suppose, to look like men and daren’t carry them home, for once I saw a boy I’d sold a stick to, break it and throw it away just before he knocked at the door of a respectable house one Sunday evening. There’s only one stick man on the streets, as far as I know – and if there was another, I should be sure to know.”

The Street Comb Seller. “I used to mind my mother’s stall. She sold sweet snuff. I never had a father. Mother’s been dead these – well, I don’t know how long but it’s a long time. I’ve lived by myself ever since and kept myself and I have half a room with another young woman who lives by making little boxes. She’s no better off nor me. It’s my bed and the other sticks is her’n. We ‘gree well enough. No, I’ve never heard anything improper from young men. Boys has sometimes said when I’ve been selling sweets, “Don’t look so hard at ‘em, or they’ll turn sour.” I never  minded such nonsense. I has very few amusements. I goes once or twice a month, or so, to the gallery at the Victoria Theatre, for I live near. It’s beautiful there, O, it’s really grand. I don’t know what they call what’s played because I can’t read the bills. I’m a going to leave the streets. I have an aunt, a laundress, she taught me laundressing and I’m a good ironer. I’m not likely to get married and I don’t want to.”

The Grease-Removing Composition Sellers. “Here you have a composition to remove stains from silks, muslins, bombazeens, cords or tabarets of any kind or colour. It will never injure or fade the finest silk or satin, but restore it to its original colour. For grease on silks, rub the composition on dry, let it remain five minutes, then take a clothes brush and brush it off, and it will be found to have removed the stains. For grease in woollen cloths, spread the composition on the place with a piece of woollen cloth and cold water, when dry rub it off and it will remove the grease or stain. For pitch or tar, use hot water instead of cold, as that prevents the nap coming off the cloth. Here it is. Squares of grease removing composition, never known to fail, only a penny each.”

The Street Seller of Birds’ Nests. “I am a seller of birds’-nesties, snakes, slow-worms, adders, “effets” – lizards is their common name – hedgehogs (for killing black beetles),  frogs (for the French – they eats ‘em), and snails (for birds) – that’s all I sell in the Summertime. In the Winter, I get all kinds of of wild flowers and roots, primroses, buttercups and daisies, and snowdrops, and “backing” off trees (“backing,” it’s called, because it’s used to put at the back of nosegays, it’s got off yew trees, and is the green yew fern). The birds’ nests I get from a penny to threepence a piece for. I never have young birds, I can never sell ‘em, you see the young things generally die of cramp before you can get rid of them. I gets most of my eggs from Witham and Chelmsford in Essex. I know more about them parts than anybody else, being used to go after moss for Mr Butler, of the herb shop in Covent Garden. I go out bird nesting three times a week. I’m away a day and two nights. I start between one or two in the morning and walk all night. Oftentimes, I wouldn’t take ‘em if it wasn’t for the want of the victuals, it seems such a pity to disturb ‘em after they made their little bits of places. Bats I never take myself – I can’t get over ‘em. If I has an order of bats, I buys ‘em off boys.”

The Street-Seller of Dogs. “There’s one advantage in my trade, we always has to do with the principals. There’s never a lady would let her favouritist maid choose her dog for her. Many of ‘em, I know dotes on a nice spaniel. Yes, and I’ve known gentleman buy dogs for their misses. I might be sent on with them and if it was a two guinea dog or so, I was told never to give a hint of the price to the servant or anybody. I know why. It’s easy for a gentleman that wants to please a lady, and not to lay out any great matter of tin, to say that what had really cost him two guineas, cost him twenty.”

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

7 Responses leave one →
  1. David Tarrant permalink
    March 21, 2018

    Fascinating post. Wonderful illustrations. I especially appreciated the “tossing the pieman” wager!

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 21, 2018

    Is it actually any better, now?
    It was a lot better, when I was young, but now, we have beggars on the streets again & people scraping very thin livings

  3. Vince Quinlivan permalink
    March 21, 2018

    Mayhew is absolutely essential to any study of Victorian social history. His four volumes are in constant use here!

  4. Judith Baxter permalink
    March 21, 2018

    I want to tell you I have a very old copy of Mayhew’s London “Being Selections from ‘London Labour and the London Poor’’ which was first published in 1851″. I don’t know when my book was published. In pencil, on the flyleaf, it says “Mrs Beech. 2/- deposit”.
    I must admit I haven’t read it all, but it’s fascinating.

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    March 21, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for your moving tribute to Henry Mayhew. His name does ring a distant bell in British cultural history. He captured the story of his distressed subject so well while allowing them their dignity.

    The drawings are excellent, obviously by a number of artists with much attention to detail.

  6. Barbara McHugh permalink
    March 21, 2018

    I read London Labour and London Poor many years ago and found it fascinating. So pleased to hear there is a biography of this interesting man. Nice to know he supported the Hugeunot weavers as my great grandmother was Anna Maria Auvache. She came from a long line of Spitalfield weavers. Love these blogs. Thank you

  7. March 21, 2018

    I was fascinated by my Dad’s copy of Mayhew’s Characters when I was young. All of these strange looking people telling about jobs I couldn’t believe anyone would do. I think my interest in victorian London and love of the cobbled alleys and old brick buildings comes from here. London has always been more attractive for me when it’s dirty and unpolished. The honest old working class areas, old trades that have been overlooked and are almost gone now. In fact, most of the subject matter of this site.

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