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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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