Posts Tagged ‘Henry Mayhew’

Today is the anniversary of the Coronation of Edward VII, at Westminster Abbey in 1902. Consequently, every year on this day I am reminded of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, but reporting on events of the previous summer. The whole of Chapter VII is about the author’s experience of the Coronation. He observes the parade from Trafalgar Square during the day:

And as it was thus at Trafalgar Square, so was it along the whole line of march—force, overpowering force; myriads of men, splendid men, the pick of the people, whose sole function in life is blindly to obey, and blindly to kill and destroy and stamp out life. And that they should be well fed, well clothed, and well armed, and have ships to hurl them to the ends of the earth, the East End of London, and the “East End” of all England, toils and rots and dies.

…  and then spends the evening on the Embankment with the destitute.

On the bench beside me sat two ragged creatures, a man and a woman, nodding and dozing. The woman sat with her arms clasped across the breast, holding tightly, her body in constant play—now dropping forward till it seemed its balance would be overcome and she would fall to the pavement; now inclining to the left, sideways, till her head rested on the man’s shoulder; and now to the right, stretched and strained, till the pain of it awoke her and she sat bolt upright. Whereupon the dropping forward would begin again and go through its cycle till she was aroused by the strain and stretch. …

…  Fifty thousand people must have passed the bench while I sat upon it, and not one, on such a jubilee occasion as the crowning of the King, felt his heart-strings touched sufficiently to come up and say to the woman: “Here’s sixpence; go and get a bed.” But the women, especially the young women, made witty remarks upon the woman nodding, and invariably set their companions laughing.

When describing the Coronation celebrations and its participants, London’s writing drips with seething sarcasm; his writing about the poor is fueled with pure anger. He uses this chapter in particular to highlight the chasm that existed between the well-off — and indeed even ordinary people — and the destitute poor. All of this in the capital city of the wealthiest and most powerful nation which had ever existed: ‘Abyss‘ is laced through with this particular irony, utterly and deliberately without and ounce of subtlety.


Coronation souvenir. Royal Collection Trust.


East End tenement. Photo by Jack London.

The People of the Abyss is an important piece of reportage which should be familiar to all historians of modern London. I see it as a sort of progress report between the bookends provided by Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Mayhew, of course, didn’t feel the need to be ’embedded’ as the other two did, but he did have a penchant for impoverishing himself nonetheless – another story. ‘Abyss’ is far more angry than the other two and certainly more ‘left-wing’. All have the virtue of being easy-to-read despite their most harrowing subject matter. I think the explanation for this is that the writers were all journalists who wrote extraordinarily well.

People of the Abyss (1902) by Jack London is available online for free from the Project Guthenberg, here. Scroll down for the Coronation, Chapter VII.

British Pathé footage of the Coronation of Edward VII.



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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.


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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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!


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



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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edward learThe bicentenary of Charles Dickens has caused the eclipse of two other Victorian worthies: Henry Mayhew (1812 – 1887) and Edward Lear (1812 – 1888). But the Royal Society, at least, has mounted a small exhibition in remembrance of the maestro of nonsense. But not for his daft poetry and cartoons, rather his illustrations of animals and birds. Lear was a highly talented illustrator and the images shown here are still in books, where they belong. Most were written by Fellows of the Royal Society. The illustrations feature tortoises, hedgehogs and other quadrupeds but the most spectacular pictures are of birds. The bulk of this work was done by Lear when he was in the 1830s when he was very much still a young man. But his very poor eyesight deteriorated, helped along no doubt by having to do this highly intricate work.

edward lear toucan

edward lear crane

edward lear

The Royal Society is based at 7 – 9 Carlton House Terrace, near Pall Mall. This has only been its homes  since 1967, however. It kicked off in 1660s at Gresham College. Then, when William Chambers’s Somerset House was built the society moved there and later – like the Royal Academy – de-camped to Burlington House. But what they always lacked was space. After World War 2, the old German Embassy in St James’s came up for grabs and this is where the institution has been based to this day. As you would expect, the place is festooned with busts and portraits of very brainy men, most of them famous for their braininess. But I was particularly pleased to find a model for the British Library’s monumental Newton statue by Paolozzi. I love a good maquette, I do.

Royal Society

The President’s Staircase. Marble abounds.

royal society

Brainy Roster

royal society

Newton, by Sir Edward Paolozzi after Blake.

Officially Edward Lear and the Scientists finishes tomorrow. But I’m advised that the Royal Society doesn’t plan to disassemble the display for a week or two, so you can still see it and it’s free. Just call them up first to let them know when you’d like to come. 020 7451 2606 or email library@royalsociety.org.

I had a discussion about a LH guided tour there early part of next year. Very much look forward to that.

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I feel duty-bound to share a few more funnies from the The New Punch Library. For it was today in 1841 that Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells founded Punch magazine with an investment of £25. Originally called Punch or the London Charivari, Mayhew initially co-edited it with Mark Lemon before drifting off to leave Lemon at the helm for almost thirty years.

All these examples are early 20th Century, up until the 1930s. You can see my previous posts of Mr Punch in London Town from the New Punch Library here.

mr punch in london town

“I’m orfen thankful I ain’t a Copper. Must be a tejious life ‘anging abaht an’ loiterin'”. ~ by G.L. Stampa

mr punch in london town

MUSCULAR STRAPHANGER (to fair ditto): “May I offer you this gentleman’s seat?” ~ by G.L. Stampa

And here’s one specially for London Historians members who are guides.

mr punch in london town

CICERONE OF THE SIGHTSEEING PARTY: “I am now standing on the spot once occupied by the statue of Hadrian, when London was a Roman city. According to authentic accounts, the attitude was something like this.” ~ by “Hailstone”

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Voices of Victorian London: In Sickness and in Health by Henry Mayhew.

voices of victorian londonHenry Mayhew never wrote a book with this actual title. This, rather, is an anthology culled from London Labour and the London Poor and titled thus because its theme is the health problems encountered by the poorest inhabitants of early Victorian London. It has a foreword by Dr Jonathan Miller who gives a doctor’s eye view of the public health landscape of the period.

The bulk of the text comprises verbatim interviews with the poor of London conducted by Mayhew. The author himself simply writes a brief introduction to each interview, usually describing the interviewee’s appearance, circumstance and living conditions. The subjects’ words speak for themselves: further comment would be superfluous. It is an irresistable formula.

The lives of Mayhew’s subjects in this collection have all been affected by illness or disability – or both – either of themselves or their immediate relatives. Many of them had enjoyed a better existence until illness or an accident or the death of a relative had sent them into a downward spiral from which there was no possible recovery. Time and again we hear of people who were relatively comfortably off as children and meet with immediate destitution when parents or guardians die from disease and one is struck by how exceptionally brittle life could be on or near the poverty line.

What money they did manage to earn or beg or borrow ranged from nothing to perhaps five shillings on an exceptionally good day; but most tried to get by on under a shilling a day.

They lived on the streets or in very shabby accommodation, meticulously described by the author. Most who did have a roof over their head were in arrears to their landlords who in many cases confiscated their meagre belongings as security.

Some received sporadic support from the parish. Most had spent time in the workhouse. Few were reduced to outright beggary for we frequently hear them say that they would rather die in the streets than beg, such was their dignity.

Diet is a recurring theme. Most of the time they existed on bread and tea, some butter if they could afford, very rarely meat. Many who could have taken hard manual work (there was no other type) were literally too weak from hunger to do so. These stories remind one of the famous Monty Python sketch Four Yorkshiremen, except that this was reality on the streets of Victorian London.

It all sounds very grim, and it was grim. Yet in Mayhew’s hands the dignity – cheerfulness, even – of these individuals shine through. Theirs are all heartbreaking stories, yet full of humanity if not hope. A man who shared congenital near-blindness with his parents remarks:

It’s all done by feel, sir. My mother says it’s a good thing we’ve got our feeling at least, if we haven’t got our eyesight.

So, who do we meet? Many crossing-sweepers – men women and children who sweep the mud, slush and ordure off the street to create a path for the better-off to cross in the hope for a halfpenny tip; a beggar born with crippled arms and feet; another beggar with no hands or feet at all who made a living by writing and selling proverbs in an elegant “hand”; a poor poet; a peep-show operator; a widow; a soldier’s wife whose husband – stationed in America – had no notion of her destitution; a shell-fish vendor; a “strapping-shop” worker, ie sweatshop labourer who was too tired to sleep but could be turfed out of his job for the smallest “transgression”.

Although the author occasionally makes dry observations (the state of chimney sweeps’ lodgings; a drunken family), nowhere is he judgemental.

This is a wonderful book, an excellent introduction to Mayhew.

henry mayhew

Henry Mayhew: avuncular

Henry Mayhew (1812 – 1887) was an impoverished adventurer turned freelance journalist and social commentator who was a co-founder of Punch magazine in 1841. His most important work, however – and greatest achievement – was London Labour and the London Poor, released in three volumes in 1851 having been published during the 1840s in the Morning Chronicle. A fourth volume was added in the 2nd Edition 10 years later. For LLatLP, Mayhew conducted over 500 interviews with members of the lowest echelons of London society, both men and women. These comprised manual workers, street traders, those in domestic service and the destitute. This material has proved to be an invaluable primary source for social historians over the past 150 years. Mayhew was a friend of Charles Dickens. Some of his pen portraits of poor Londoners provided character ideas for the novelist.
Voices of Victorian London – In Sickness and in Health by Henry Mayhew (123pp, soft cover) is published today by Hesperus Press at £8.99 RRP.

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Today being the anniversary of the death of Henry Mayhew in 1887, it is appropriate to feature some more excellent early 20th Century cartoons from Punch, which Mayhew co-founded in 1841. As featured in Mr Punch In London Town from the New Punch Library. These artists were phenomenally talented, I love in particular their drawings of vehicles.

mr punch in london town

WELFARE WORKER: "Do you mean to tell me that this child was dropped on to the floor?" WORKMAN: "That's all right, lady. All my kids bounces." by Charles Grave.

mr punch in london town

THE LIGHTS O' LONDON. UNCLE (to niece up from the country, absorbed in electric advertisements). "Come on, my dear, don't look at those confounded things - it only encourages them." By Lancelot Speed.

mr punch in london town

OMNIBUS DRIVER (to nervous owner of small car). "You little - tease!" by A.T. Smith

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