Early Years. Henry Mayhew was born in London. His father was an attorney, but Mayhew had no desire to follow suit. Indeed, his rejection of a bourgeois lifestyle and values was in large part a rejection of his father, who punished him for running away from school when he was fifteen by sending him to sea for a year. When he was in his twenties and thirties he participated in a literate and intellectual bohemian culture— writing plays, biographies, novels, and travel books. He was one of the founding members and joint editor of the satirical magazine Punch and in 1849 joined the staff of the left-leaning Morning Chronicle. What drew Mayhew to the lower classes is unclear, but by 1849 he had developed a flair for social investigation and vivid writing and began work on the book that made him famous.
Tales of the Down-and-Out. Mayhew traveled the streets and alleys of London in the 1840s, recording the tales of the down-and-out and the myriad ways they found to earn money. Children and adults, men and women, the able-bodied and the crippled sold everything from nutmeg graters and funnels to dogs, bird’s nests, pea soup, and cooked eels. They swept streets and sang songs, hoping for a few pennies from passersby. They worked on the docks, loading and unloading ships, collecting old clothing, and catching rats.
Queen’s Rat Catcher. It is not known if Mayhew took notes, but he had a knack for recounting people’s stories in what appear to be their own words. In one memorable interview, Mr. “Jack” Black, who advertised himself as the queen’s rat catcher, took Mayhew home with him, showed him the tools of his trade, and told him the dangers of rat catching. “I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere,” Black reported, “even where I can’t name to you, sir, and right through my thumb nail too, which, as you can see, always has a split in it though it’s years since I was wounded. I suffered as much from that bite on my thumb as anything. It went right up to my ear. I felt the pain in both places at once …but the worst of it was, I had a job at Camden town one afternoon … and I got another bite lower down on the same thumb, and that flung me down on my bed, and there I stopped, I should think, six weeks.”
London Labour & the London Poor. Mayhew’s purpose in writing London Labour & the London Poor (1851) was not simply to tell stories, although he was good at that. His goal was reform, which he hoped to achieve by making the truly desperate, as well as the merely poor, visible to the reading public. Crowded into the alleys of London, his subjects lived lives that were virtually unaffected by industrialization. Far from working with machines, they swept up after horses, sang songs on the street, and hoped the middle class would give them a few pennies for their efforts. Believing the city needed to employ more street cleaners, Mayhew even included information on the amount of food horses consumed and the amount they excreted in a twenty-four-hour period. Published in two volumes, his personal account of what he saw and heard has made gripping reading for a century and a half. Just how many people read London Labour ’ the London Poor is not known, but the book was popular enough to be reissued in 1861, 1862, 1864, and 1865 with additional material and supplementary volumes. In the twentieth century additional editions appeared. In The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the Morning Chronicle, 1849-1850 (1971), E. P. Thompson, the foremost British labor historian of the twentieth century, considered Mayhew’s study to be “the most impressive survey of labour and of poverty at the mid-[nineteenth-] century which exists.’
Henry Mayhew, London Labour & the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work (London: Griffin, Bonn, 1851).
Mayhew, Mayhew’s London: Being Selections from “London Labour & the London Poor,”edited by P. Quennell (London: Spring Books, 1949).
E. P. Thompson and Eileen Yeo, eds., The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the Morning Chronicle, 1849-1850 (London: Merlin, 1971).