9 min read

Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor

Life in Victorian London.

I've spent the last few weeks putting together a book proposal. This is not as fun as doing interviews, but it has given me some time to swim around in the relevant secondary literature.

Today, I want to talk about Henry Mayhew's (1812-1887) London Labour and the London Poor (1851), subtitled:

"A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings
Those That Will Work
Those That Cannot Work, AND
Those That Will Not Work"

Mayhew and his associates spent over a decade walking the streets of Victorian London, interviewing thousands of street sellers, market traders, beggars, thieves, prostitutes - anyone who might be said to work on the street. Initially, he gathered up his interviews and observations and put them in a weekly column for the Morning Chronicle newspaper. London Labour and the London Poor is a collection of some of those columns in four volumes, incorporating many other essays and interviews besides.

Mayhew categorised (there are eight types of street buyers, seven types of street performers, eight types of thief etc.) and counted (in 1847, there were 1,000 watercress sellers in London; and, in 1851, 3000 sewers were emptied by hydraulic pumps) with all the vim of a Victorian amateur scientist, which of course is exactly how he saw himself.

Interviews with jugglers and dustmen, ride-alongs with thieves and rat catchers, close descriptions of how cesspools are cleaned, all collide in a polyphonic din that's worthy of the chaotic London that it describes. London Labour is a staggering work of ethnography, sociology, and oral history, written before anyone really knew what those words meant. It's non-fiction Dickens, and it's brilliant.


'The Coster Girl', Project Gutenberg


Who was Mayhew? Think of him as a Victorian Orwell. Their lives rhyme, a century apart:

  • Both came from fairly ordinary bourgeois families.
  • Both went to public school (Mayhew to Westminster. Orwell to Eton). Both resented it. Mayhew ran away to sea aged 17. Orwell, aged 44, made his thoughts about boarding school clear by torching the very concept in his essay Such, Such Were the Joys (published in 1952, after his death).
  • Both eschewed university and found themselves in the Subcontinent. Orwell as a colonial policeman in Burma. Mayhew as a sailor in the East India Company.
  • Both came back (in 1828, in 1928) to Britain.
  • Both then fled their debts by escaping to Paris (where Orwell worked as a dishwasher, an experience recounted in Down and Out in Paris and London).
  • Both returned to London and struck out as journalists. Mayhew co-founded Punch, the satirical magazine which has found a lasting fame in supplying cartoons for GCSE history textbooks.
  • Both sought to understand poverty by spending time in amongst it. Mayhew recorded it. Orwell tried to live it; see e.g. Road to Wigan Pier and his writings on homelessness, for which, in the name of research, Orwell dressed up as a tramp so as to see hostels first hand.

a fly paper extract

Here's an interview with a boy selling fly papers. This'll give you a sense of the book.

The most intelligent and the most gentle in his demeanour was a little boy, who was scarcely tall enough to look on the table at which I was writing. If his face had been washed, he would have been a pretty-looking lad; for, despite the black marks made by his knuckles during his last fit of crying, he had large expressive eyes, and his features were round and plump, as though he were accustomed to more food than his companions.


“I’ve been longer at it than that last boy, though I’m only getting on for thirteen, and he’s older than I’m; ’cos I’m little and he’s big, getting a man. But I can sell them quite as well as he can, and sometimes better, for I can holler out just as loud, and I’ve got reg’lar places to go to."

"I was a very little fellow when I first went out with them, but I could sell them pretty well then, sometimes three or four dozen a-day. I’ve got one place, in a stable, where I can sell a dozen at a time to countrypeople.

“I calls out in the streets, and I goes into the shops, too, and calls out, ‘Ketch ’em alive, ketch ’em alive; ketch all the nasty black-beetles, blue-bottles, and flies; ketch ’em from teazing the baby’s eyes.’ That’s what most of us boys cries out. Some boys who is stupid only says, ‘Ketch ’em alive,’ but people don’t buy so well from them.

“Up in St. Giles’s there is a lot of fly-boys, but they’re a bad set, and will fling mud at gentlemen, and some prigs the gentlemen’s pockets. Sometimes, if I sells more than a big boy, he’ll get mad and hit me. He’ll tell me to give him a halfpenny and he won’t touch me, and that if I don’t he’ll kill me.

"Some of the boys takes an open fly-paper, and makes me look another way, and then they sticks the ketch ’em alive on my face. The stuff won’t come off without soap and hot water, and it goes black, and looks like mud."

"One day a boy had a broken fly-paper, and I was taking a drink of water, and he come behind me and slapped it up in my face. A gentleman as saw him give him a crack with a stick and me twopence. It takes your breath away, until a man comes and takes it off. It all sticked to my hair, and I couldn’t rack (comb) right for some time. Like mud."


“The police is very kind to us, and don’t interfere with us. If they sees another boy hitting us they’ll take off their belts and hit ’em. Sometimes I’ve sold a ketch ’em alive to a policeman; he’ll fold it up and put it in his pocket to take home with him. Perhaps he’s got a kid, and the flies teazes its eyes.

This street work is casual in its true sense, in that it is subject to chance. You go out in the morning with a small amount of money and you hope that you earn enough money to pay for that day's food and board. If it rains, you won't earn enough. If there aren't many flies that summer, again, you won't earn enough. It's a hunter-gatherer existence.

Living like that restricts your sense of time. Why plan or invest in ways that will benefit you in a year's time when you aren't sure whether you'll earn enough to get through the week?

There's quite a striking difference here with rural Victorian poverty, which runs on a different timeline. In the countryside, if you have a series of hard frosts in May, or you find blight on the crops in July, at that point you know you'll be in for a difficult winter. The threat of starvation is large and obvious, a black cloud that looms for months. This is different to the risk of hunger in the cities, which is smaller but more urgent and less predictable. I'm not sure which is worse, but it's telling that the nineteenth century was defined by millions of people (and likely many of Mayhew's interviewees) fleeing hunger in the countryside to take their chances in the city.

This precarity and touch-and-go living repeats in almost every Mayhew interview, whether with the buyers and sellers (of oysters, birds' nests, milk, rhubarb, matches, candles, flowers, bird feed, vegetables) or with the providers of services (the cab drivers, lightermen, tinkers, prostitutes, sweepers - both chimney and street). Each day is different and each day could be your last, so everyone commits themselves entirely to their work. There's a grim dynamism to it all. A casual economy that is always wheeling and shifting, like a murmuration.


'Jack Black, Her Majesty's Rat Catcher', Project Gutenberg

what would Mayhew think?

What would Mayhew think if he repeated his experiment today?

He'd find the streets of modern London to be awfully quiet these days, for all of the obvious reasons:

  • The twin miracles of the welfare state and modern capitalism mean that London's economy can provide accommodation and formal employment / benefits to the vast majority of its residents.
  • Cars have been given priority.
  • Refrigeration, supermarkets, containerisation: we're so good at logistics now that we no longer require an army of underpaid people to walk around distributing goods.
  • There's no need to advertise your wares on the streets anymore when there are so many more efficient channels of communication. e.g., you call a man with a van to take some things away for you, rather than waiting for the rag and bone man to visit your area.
  • The state has restrained the street economy by tying it up with, or allowing it to become tied up with, various rules and regulations.

On this last point, consider two things. One, the growing number of pseudo public spaces: squares and gardens that have the appearance of being publicly owned, but are in fact owned by private individuals (e.g., developers). These individuals can set their own rules as to what you - ordinary member of the public that you are - can do in these spaces. For instance, often you can't sell things or leaflet.

Second, let's turn to proper public spaces and look at the proliferation of Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs). Councils can impose these over certain areas. They are a Swiss army knife of prohibitions - e.g., you can use them to prohibit things like (i) the consumption of alcohol, (ii) the act of remaining in a public toilet without a valid excuse, (iii) aggressive begging. Any activity that "has a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality" (Crime and Policing Act, 2014).

Non-compliance with a PSPO can be a criminal offence. At university, you'd occasionally see police officers stopping students from drinking in the street. A precursor to the PSPO gave the police the power to do this. But, of course, these things are not really aimed at students. They're a tool for removing homeless people from an area.

All of this has a deadening effect on the street as a site of casual economic activity, which is fine if the economy is becoming less street-y. But it's not. Homelessness has risen over the past 20 years. The gig economy has created new classes of casual jobs which are performed on the streets. This is the bind: we hate seeing casual labour (including begging) on the streets, but we like the things that create that labour (takeaways, high house prices), so we punish the people who remind us of what we've done, resulting in a kind of skulking criminalisation of people's livelihoods.

what would we think?

What would we think of Mayhew if he repeated his experiment today?

Well, for one, if Mayhew's re-animated 210-year-old corpse was wandering around interviewing people, we would deplore his methodology:

  • He would be processing personal information, and so would need to secure his interviewee's informed consent lest he risk falling foul of GPDR regs.
  • His interviewees would own copyright in their performance, and so he would need a licence to use that interview, or he would need to get them to agree to transfer those rights to him.

Good luck getting a thief to sign a consent form!

We'd also read Mayhew's past work and think, quite rightly, that he was fundamentally classist / racist. He saw those who worked in the streets as an ethnic underclass, a wandering tribe:

"Here, then, we have a series of facts of the utmost social importance. (1) There are two distinct races of men, viz.:—the wandering and the civilized tribes; (2) to each of these tribes a different form of head is peculiar, the wandering races being remarkable for the development of the bones of the face, as the jaws, cheek-bones, &c., and the civilized for the development of those of the head; (3) to each civilized tribe there is generally a wandering horde attached; (4) such wandering hordes have frequently a different language from the more civilized portion of the community, and that adopted with the intent of concealing their designs and exploits from them."

This is the language of phrenology, of scientific racism, of starting with the premise that any given socio-economic hierarchy is racially justified and need only be explained in those terms.

But I do think that Mayhew's analysis here is at odds with the great empathy that comes through his interviews. He gathers this wonderful, rich, very-human data and yet makes it the servant of what is at root a racist argument. It's quite a Victorian thing to do.

This brings us to another debate that we'd be having about Mayhew: can a public schoolboy ever do work like this? Or is the ethnographer's analysis irretrievably corrupted by his privileged background? This is something that anthropologists have been struggling with for a while. I'm not really sure where I stand, and even if I were to be sure, I don't think my opinion counts for much anyway. Two points:

First, Orwell is similarly compromised. Can you imagine an Etonian journalist today pretending to be homeless to write a story about homelessness? It's kind of gross and outrageous! And yet people who have been homeless (e.g. the final comment on this website by nickhainesblog find truth in Orwell's poverty writing.

Second, there are approaches which are (almost certainly) acceptable: (i) analyses of poverty written by those who have experienced it first hand (e.g., Darren McGarvey's brilliant Poverty Safari); (ii) ethnography which doesn't set out to make large analytical claims, but simply listens (e.g., Tony Parker's oral histories).

Anyway, that's enough from me. You can read all four volumes of London Labour and the London Poor via project Gutenberg (here's volume I).

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