Posts Tagged ‘literature’

500px_pub meetup 03

Our online monthly pub meet-up last Wednesday. We started with an illustrated talk about London on VE Day by Rob Smith.

We then invited members to tell us what they’d been reading. Here is most of it. Note that some of these may be out of print. Also, I have taken these from the Live Chat and edited. There may remain spelling errors / typos. Note that our next online pub meet-up is next Weds 20 May.

London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins
Changing Lives by Olive Besagni about the Italian community in Clerkenwell
Sir John Cass and The Cass Foundation by Sean Glynn
Rope & Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton 
Rivers of London  by Ben Aaronovitch
Death Certificate by Stephen Molyneux
All Quiet on the West End Front by Matthew Sweet
A European Life by Marion Turner (biography of Chaucer)
Shakespeare’s First Reader by Jason Scott Warren
Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem
“WW Jacobs about Watermen on the Thames. ” [I couldn’t work out the actual title – Ed]
Old and New London published by Edward Walford
A Better Life – by Olive Besagni
Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson
London Under by Peter Ackroyd
Botany, Sex and the Empire by Patricia Fara about Joseph Banks and Carl Linnaeus
Blitz the story of 29 Dec 1940 by M J Gaskin
London the Autobiography – 2,000 Years of the Capital’s History by Those Who Saw it Happen by Jon E Lewis (not to be confused with Peter Ackroyd’s similarly titled work)
KitKat Club by Ophelia Field (probably out of print)
Industrial History of the Lower River Lea – a walking Guide by Rob Smith – NEW!
Secrets of the 43 Club by Kate Meyrick

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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 learWhen we were boys, my brother and I used to love reading funny books together. We loved to giggle, and still do. Sometimes our heads go purple with laughter, veins threatening to pop.  Anyway, the most fondly remembered book was The Armada Book of Fun. One of our favourite items within was nonsense botany by Edward Lear (1812 – 1888).

Phattfacia Stupenda
Manypeelplia Upsiddownia
Piggiawiggia Pyramidalis

And here they are!

As a writer of nonsense poetry and an illustrator of zoological books, perhaps these came to Lear particularly easily. Who’s analysing? A Londoner of Note, Lear was a prodigious talent, as an illustrator, as a cartoonist, but most of all as a writer and poet.

Today we celebrate his 200th birthday. Of all the centenaries and bicentenaries of 2012 – and there are many – this has to be my favourite.


Here’s a decent Lear website.
And please check out Virtual Victorian, who has done a far better job of this than me 

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george orwell hayesMost Wednesday mornings, Hayes FM are kind enough to have me on to talk about local history. Today we discussed George Orwell’s time in Hayes from April 1932- July 1933. It got me suitably fired up to jump in the car and go for an explore, accompanied by Mark Machado from the radio station.

Being a schoolmaster doesn’t fire the imagination quite like service in the Imperial Indian police in Burma or getting shot in the throat during the Spanish Civil War, but several key events in the author’s career occurred while in Hayes. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London was published by Victor Gollancz in January 1933. In order to save the blushes of his family about his career as a plongeur and a tramp, Eric Blair for the first time chose the pen-name George Orwell, having previously and occasionally written under the name P.S. Burton in magazine articles. He had to spend much of his spare time editing the manuscript for a nervous and demanding Gollancz, while simultaneously writing his next book, Burmese Days.

After resigning his police commission and returning from Burma in 1927, Orwell divided his time over the next five years between investigating the lifestyle of ‘gentlemen of the road’, living an impoverished bohemian lifestyle in Paris, and hanging out at his parents’ retirement house in Suffolk. Although he had some success getting articles accepted in the Adelphi magazine and the New Statesman, he was nonetheless skint. So he took a teacher’s job at a private prep school in Hayes: the Hawthorns High School. There were only 14-15 boy pupils and one other teacher, a Mr Shaw. This made Orwell – being the senior of the two – technically headmaster.

george orwell hayes

Hawthorns Boys School. I had not seen this picture before today. Mr Shaw is back-row, left. Derek Eunson, owner of the school, is standing next to Orwell.

Orwell was known as being strict in the classroom (not a word of English was allowed in French lessons), yet kindly and enthusiastic at extra-curricular activities. He frequently took the lads on nature rambles, showing them how to capture marsh gas in jars, that sort of thing; he also wrote and directed the school play – Charles II – which was performed in St Mary’s Church nearby.

george orwell hayes

St Mary's, Hayes. Despite its high church smells and bells ways ("popish"), Orwell was fond of spending time there, befriending the curate and volunteering to do odd jobs.

Orwell wrote about Hayes that it was “one of the most God-forsaken places I have ever struck”. Given what we know, he was hardly giving the area a fair crack of the whip. Much as he worked on being empathetic to the common man, Orwell was a bit of a snob, particularly when it came to the suburban middle-classes. His time in Hayes provided a rich vein which he mined profitably in both A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (and probably Coming Up for Air, which I don’t remember very well). So one would like to think that rather than having a deep-felt antipathy for poor Hayes, Orwell was simply impressing his literary friends .

Today, the building that was the Hawthorns High School is the Fountain House Hotel. It has a plaque to Orwell on the front of the building, sponsored by the Hayes Literary Society. Our thanks to Rose and Yusuf of that establishment for their warm welcome at our unannounced arrival and for letting us have a bit of a mooch around.

george orwell hayes

The Fountain House Hotel today, formerly Hawthorns High School.

george orwell hayesThe most famous picture of Orwell (and possibly the best, the one of him smoking over the typewriter is a contender)  is his mugshot for his NUJ card. Several days’ beard growth, frayed collar, lush barnet. It’s the one which more than any shows his essential kindness and decency and was taken in 1933 and is therefore exactly contemporary with his time in Hayes, aged about 30. Armed with this and today’s sojourn, I have a great mental picture of the writer during that time in west London suburbia, the period of his breakthrough, about to start delivering arguably the finest writing of the 20th Century.

Sources: Orwell: The Authorised Biography by Michael Shelden (1991); Wikipedia here; a nice local newspaper article from 2003, Orwell’s centenary, here.

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