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Review: London Vagabond – the Life of Henry Mayhew by Christopher Anderson. 

lvApologies, this review is almost a year late. More overdue than this by far is a proper treatment of the life of Henry Mayhew (1812 – 1887). Thankfully Christopher Anderson spotted this sorry oversight on everyone’s part and set to the task almost 10 years ago resulting in this biography.

Mayhew was a prolific writer, most famously of his magnum opus London Labour and the London Poor (1861). That was a book derived of journalism, but ‘Harry’ Mayhew was also a begetter of comedy, satire, novel and play. In his pomp, he was as well known as his exact contemporaries Dickens and Thackeray. But ultimately – like Dr Johnson – he was remembered more or less for one work when there was so much more. Frequently impecunious, he would often complain that his early play The Wandering Minstrel attracted £200 per annum in royalties for decades after he sold the rights for £20.

punch1The one other thing for which Mayhew is well known (if at all), is as the founder of Punch magazine, in 1841. Some would add founding editor too, though this is something which some of his contemporaries dispute. Certainly, it was his brainchild, having a few years earlier also started its less successful predecessor Figaro in London, with his friend Gilbert à Becket. His relationship with Punch was short but fascinating. When moneyed, respectable owners had to be found to save the magazine, one of the conditions was that Mayhew was jettisoned; he was just too unpredictable, too much of a loose cannon: the magazine needed stability, a word nobody could associate with the mercurial writer.

A constant theme in Mayhew’s life was trouble with money. While he knew what he was worth as a writer and frequently pulled down substantial earnings, more often he was in debt, a bankrupt. He spent at least three spells in debtors’ prisons, others in the sponge house (the staging post to debtor’s prison). Self-imposed exile in Wales, Paris and Germany to avoid his creditors, the bailiffs and the law. Sometimes but not always, he was bailed out by family, friends or – humiliatingly – The Royal Literary Fund (he applied to them twice). His long-suffering wife Jane and children Amy and Athol had perforce to share these hardships. Worse, on one occasion he allowed his younger brother Gus to take the rap in the debtor’s prison on his behalf.

Clearly, Henry Mayhew was a careless man, irresponsible to say the least, amoral even. But talented, hardworking, naïve, deeply amusing and the object of devotion from a very small group of friends and admirers. He always had a plan up his sleeve to get him out of the soup. More often than not, these failed. One is reminded a little of Mr Toad.

Something of a polymath and like many Victorian men of affairs, Mayhew was deeply interested in science. A devotee of Humphry Davy and in particular Michael Faraday, he conduced many a dangerous experiments at home, primarily in the pursuit of creating artificial diamonds. Like many a Mayhew pursuit, these literally turned to dust.

I hope you can see so far that this is a lively biography which succeeds in bringing the real Henry Mayhew into our lives. We are also introduced to his rather large family of siblings, in-laws, wife and children, interesting individuals themselves, in particular brothers Horace (Ponny) and Augustus (Gus), who both became writers like Henry, much to the chagrin of their terrifying father Joshua (like Dickens, Mayhew bore a deep antipathy towards the legal profession). Ponny carved out a long and successful career at Punch while Gus frequently wrote in partnership with Henry as the Brothers Mayhew: the name was a strong brand at the time.

London Vagabond connects us to the creative world of the mid 19th Century London intellectual scene. Mayhew worked directly or rubbed shoulders with writers, illustrators, publishers, printers, actors, playwrights, radicals, Chartists; Dickens and Thackeray as we have seen, but also Douglas Jerrold, George Cruickshank, Mark Lemon, George Sala, Henry Vizetelly, Joseph Paxton and dozens more; plotting, scheming, drinking, laughing, networking. The titles for which Mayhew wrote at one time or another were almost uncountable, but the author’s meticulous research has revealed them, along with Mayhew’s improving books for children (e.g. biography of Martin Luther) and unclassifiable genres all his own. I found particularly interesting some of his late stuff on Germany: 1) Hilariously intemperate travel guide involving living among the Saxons 2) Dangerous reportage of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war – Mayhew was a fearless reporter.

henrymayhew

Portrait of Mayhew from London Labour and the London Poor, 1st Ed, 1851, aged about 39.

One senses that the author has read every piece of Mayhew writing he could lay his hands on, both by the man himself and other parties. He quotes substantially and frequently. I would estimate that possibly as much as 20% of the text is quotations. They are always apposite and enriching.

Sometime I hope to catch up with Mayhew’s other major London work, the Great World of London and indeed some other of his now forgotten writing which sound marvellous.

This is an excellent Life and I would warmly recommend it to all, whether established Mayhew fans like myself or indeed those coming across him for the first time.


London Vagabond – the Life of Henry Mayhew is written and published by Christopher Gangadin Anderson. 409 pp (of which 46 pp are index, bibliography, end notes etc.). It costs around £10.

 

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in our time

I am a massive fan of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 most Thursdays at 9am. There are various ways you can search it, but as a service to our readers, here is a list of the London-related ones.

Aphra Behn
Annie Besant
Athelstan

Thomas Becket
Bedlam
The Black Death
The Bluestockings
The Book of Common Prayer
Boudica
Robert Boyle
Brunel
Fanny Burney

Caxton and the Printing Press
Chaucer

Mrs Dalloway
The Death of Elizabeth I
Dickens
The Domesday Book

The East India Company
Englishness
The Enlightenment in Britain

Michael Faraday
The [Great] Fire of London
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

The Gin Craze
The Great Exhibition of 1851

William Hazlitt
Octavia Hill
Holbein at the Tudor Court
Robert Hooke

[Samuel] Johnson

London

Marlowe
Milton

The Novel

Titus Oates and His ‘Popish Plot’

The Peasants’ Revolt
Pocahontas
[Alexander] Pope
The Putney Debates

The Restoration
The Royal Society

The Scriblerus Club
Seventeenth Century Print Culture
The  South Sea Bubble
Suffragism

The Trial of Charles I
The Tudor State

Utilitarianism

Oscar Wilde
Mary Wollstonecraft


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Cover-1-525x700London Historians member Victor Keegan has a new anthology of poetry out. Unlike its predecessors, this one focuses entirely on London. Entitled London My London, it comprises 84 poems. They are autobiographical, philisophical, whimsical, sometimes political and often funny. I like the deliberate anachronism in this one.

Lundenwic
We learn of ancient Greece and Rome
But not of history nearer home
If in time travel I had wandered down
To live my life in Lundenwic town
There’d be no one but Saxons there
From Fleet Street to Trafalgar Square. 

I quote this one in full as a neat and typical example that I could transcribe easily! Other topics include the Underground, cigarette cards, Tate Modern, graffiti, Tooting, the Walbrook River, St Mary’s Woolnoth [a favourite!], the Thames estuary, Sir Henry Havelock, and on an on. Oh, and fellow poet Ben Jonson.

Stand-up Poet
Oh, rare Ben Jonson,

As should be known
by every London cabbie,
He lies buried standing up
in Westminster Abbey.

Read what Vic himself has to say about this work here and here.
The anthology costs a mere fiver in paperback or £3.99 Kindle edition both at Amazon.

 

 

 

 

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When Middlesex had two members of parliament these seats were fought for at often boisterous elections which took place at the Butts in Brentford, today a tranquil estate comprising handsome town houses, a nunnery, the old Boatman’s Institute and other features of interest. Tucked away in a cul-de-sac nearby is an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful old books. Here is the home, office and HQ of long-standing London Historians member Hawk Norton, a talented book dealer who specialises in old London books.

I visit Hawk frequently for a coffee, a natter and to wallow in and marvel at his latest acquisitions. I’ve bought some real treasures from the bottom end of his price list: first editions of all H.V. Morton’s London output from the inter-war period: wonderful; a first edition of Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn’s 1966 masterpiece; other bits and pieces. I’ve held in my own hands a first edition of John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London. Holy Grail stuff.

At any given time, Hawk has over 3,500 books in his collection. Not only that, but also maps, illustrations and other London historical ephemera. All are for sale at great prices, universally under the market rate. Hawk numbers some of London’s leading and great historians among his customers.

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You’ll make somebody very happy this Christmas with something from Hawk’s list, especially if that somebody is you! Get his latest catalogue (PDF format) by emailing him on hawk@btinternet.com. He welcomes visitors by appointment.

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shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archivesThe name of a new exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives.

As an article in our current Members’ newsletter points out, Shakespeare is not as widely celebrated in the town of his trade as one might expect. You have to search hard for places touched by him. A great example is the spot where he bought a property in Blackfriars – whether to live in or to rent out is not known. The deed which records this sale is the prize document in the exhibition. It bears the Bard’s signature, one of only six known to exist worldwide.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

There are many other objects in the show, including other official documents, correspondence, prints, playbills, programmes, maps. Nor is it in any way restricted to Shakespeares’s own time, far from it. We celebrate many historical luvvies from Richard Burbage down to Sir Laurence Olivier. As you might expect, Hogarth’s famous engraving of his good friend David Garrick doing Richard III is featured.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

We get the story of Shakespeare’s Globe including a beautiful model from 1951 when its modern photocopy was possibly still a glint in Sam Wannamaker’s eye. You like maps? There are some near contemporary beauties on the wall including the Norden map from 1593. The original – in a book – is about nine inches wide. The LMA have scanned it at massive resolution and blown it up to about six feet wide, so you can appreciate better the London topography at the back end of the sixteenth century. Such a boon.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

In addition to all this, there are four smallish audio visual displays. Except without the “audio”, just the visual (what’s that called?). Anyway, they use subtitles. Hoorah, so much more civilised than having booming displays causing noise pollution when you’re trying to enjoy displays. Museums, take note. My favourite was the one about contemporary and subsequent pubs with Shakespearean connections. There’s much about the Mermaid near Cheapside, of course (long gone), but loads more fascinating facts. How many pubs in London today bear Shakepeare’s moniker? Can you name them?

If you’ve read my recent posts about the Office of Works and Royal Mint shows, you’ll know I’m a great fan of smaller exhibitions. Typically, they’ll take you about an hour or so to do properly, and you’ll leave feeling educated and entertained rather than overwhelmed. Shakespeare and London at the LMA is another perfect example. It opens tomorrow and runs until 26th September. Entry is free, don’t miss it.

More information.

shakespeare in london, london metropolitan archives

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henry mayhew

Henry Mayhew in old age: kindly walrus.

Today is the bicentenary of Henry Mayhew (25 November 1812 – 25 July 1887).

“I think you will agree to be one of the most beautiful records of the nobility of the poor; of those whom our jaunty legislators know nothing. I am very proud to say that these papers of Labour and the Poor were projected by Henry Mayhew, who married my girl. For comprehensiveness of purpose and minuteness of detail they have never been approached. He will cut his name deep.”

This was written in 1850 by Douglas Jerrold, Mayhew’s friend, collaborator and father-in-law at a time when Henry Mayhew would have been collating the first edition of London Labour and the London Poor (1851). Jerrold was mainly wrong, because today Mayhew is all but forgotten. This is a great pity, because the writer was hugely influential in his own time, not least among his near-exact contemporaries, Charles Dickens (b 1812) and William Makepeace Thackeray (b1811). Mayhew, a journalist (he and Dickens both worked as reporters for the radical Morning Chronicle), novelist, playwright and comic writer, was responsible for telling historians a great deal – probably most – of what we know about the lives of the poor and destitute in London in the mid-19th Century. He not only provided heart-rending (albeit far from relentlessly unamusing) pen-portraits of the poorest men, women and children eking out an existence in the streets: he provided his own estimates and data as to their numbers, earnings etc. – the curtain-raiser if you will to Charles Booth’s work a generation later.

That’s his value to the historian. But Mayhew’s greatest achievement, one might argue, was to co-found Punch magazine in 1841, with Mark Lemon and Stirling Coyne. Although he only remained actively involved with the publication for a handful of years, it thrived and survived right down to our own times.

henry mayhew portrait

Henry Mayhew illustration from the 1851 edition of London Labour and the London Poor, looking like an avuncular panda.

Unlike Dickens, Mayhew joined the world with every advantage. His stern father, Joshua Mayhew, was a barrister. Henry was one of seventeen children and was sent to Westminster School. He was expected to follow Mayhew senior into the Law, as were his brothers: only one of them did. The upshot was that Henry could expect little financial support from that quarter. Indeed he had money worries throughout his life, actually going bankrupt in 1846.

I’m pleased to see that Mayhew has been added to the list of famous Old Westminsters since last I looked. My favourite Mayhew story is of how he came to leave the school. In 1827 (he would have been almost 15), Mayhew was caught swotting from his Greek primer in Chapel. This was not through diligence on his part:  he’d left things far too late and had been warned he was bound to fail the Greek “challenge”. The Master who caught him – one Hodgson who had a nephew scheduled to take the same paper – demanded that Mayhew write out 500 lines of Virgil by the following day. Mayhew ignored the demand and did quite well in the Greek challenge, beating Hodgson’s nephew. The affair was escalated to a more senior master, a Dr Goodenough. This master gave Mayhew an extension for the lines, but once again the boy failed to do them because he now had to cram for the Latin “challenge”, in which he came top. Exasperated, Goodenough – who seemed to be a likeable man – told Mayhew that he would have to flog him. Mayhew is reported to have replied: “…you know that I am not afraid of a flogging, for you have often flogged me, but this time I will not be flogged.” And with that he gathered up his books and walked out of the school. He went to sea. This incident sums up Mayhew – his brilliance, his impetuosity, his bravery. My thanks to Christine Reynolds, Assistant Keeper of Muniments at Westminster Abbey for finding and sharing this lovely story.

Thackeray’s 200th birthday last year passed almost without notice. There have been bits and bobs this year to commemorate the bicentenaries of  Augustus Pugin and Edward Lear. As for Dickens, well it’s been almost non-stop (apart from the Dickens Museum which has bizarrely been closed for upgrades since Easter). And Henry Mayhew? Nothing that I know of. So this evening a small group of us shall be raising a glass to his Life and his Memory. Join us at the Lyceum Tavern in the Strand from about 5pm!

Update

Well, with no expectations either way, about a dozen Mayhew admirers turned up for our little celebration in proper London Historians fashion. We did an appropriate toast and enjoyed a good several hours talking Mayhew and much else besides. Thanks to all those who came, especially Colin del Strother who brought his full set of LL&LP to park in the middle of us like a sacred text. But let’s not get too carried away!

london historians henry mayhew

london historians henry mayhew

henry mayhew london historians

 

 

Sources:
Mayhew, Henry . London Labour and the London Poor, volume 1, University of Virginia
Henry Mayhew on Wikipedia
Henry Mayhew on Spartacus Educational
Henry Mayhew on Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required or via participating public libraries: I get mine via Hounslow).
The Life of a Mudlark, 1861 from Spitalfields Life
Mayhew on Costermongers at VictorianLondon.org

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A guest post by Thomas Hood.

Thomas Hood (1799 – 1845) was a humorous writer, editor and poet. Born in the City of London, he was very much the patriotic Londoner. I’ve always enjoyed his pessimistic ode to this month, conveying an outlook I strongly share.

No

No sun–no moon!
No morn–no noon!
No dawn–no dusk–no proper time of day–
No sky–no earthly view–
No distance looking blue–

No road–no street–
No “t’other side the way”–
No end to any Row–
No indications where the Crescents go–

No top to any steeple–
No recognitions of familiar people–
No courtesies for showing ’em–
No knowing ’em!

No mail–no post–
No news from any foreign coast–
No park–no ring–no afternoon gentility–
No company–no nobility–

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
November!

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