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Henry Mayhew, from London Labour and the London Poor (1861)

Henry Mayhew (25 November 1812 - 25 July 1887) was an Englishmarker social researcher, journalist, playwright and advocate of reform. He was one of the two founders (1841) of the satirical and humorous magazine Punch, and the magazine's joint-editor, with Mark Lemon, in its early days. He is better known, however, for his work as a social researcher, publishing an extensive series of newspaper articles in the Morning Chronicle, later compiled into the book series London Labour and the London Poor (1851), a groundbreaking and influential survey of the poor of Londonmarker.


Early life

He was born in Londonmarker, one of seventeen children of Joshua Mayhew. He was educated at Westminster Schoolmarker before running away from his studies to sea. He then served with the East India Company as a midshipman on a ship bound for Calcuttamarker. He returned after several years, in 1829, becoming a trainee lawyer in Walesmarker. He left this and became a freelance journalist. He contributed to the The Thief, a readers' digest, followed quickly by writing a play - Figaro in London in 1829. Along with continuing to develop his writing, Mayhew briefly managed the Queen's Theatremarker. Mayhew reputedly fled his creditors and holed up at The Erwood Inn, a small public house in the village of Erwoodmarker, south of Builth Wellsmarker.

Paris and writing

In 1835 Mayhew found himself in a state of debt and along with a fellow writer, they escaped to Parismarker to avoid their creditors. He spent his time writing and in the company of other writers including William Thackeray and Douglas Jerrold. Mayhew spent over ten years in Paris returning to Englandmarker in the 1850s whereby he was involved in several literary adventures, mostly the writing of plays. Two of his plays - But, However and the Wandering Minstrel were successful, whilst his early work Figaro in London was less successful.

Punch magazine

On 17 July 1841 Mayhew cofounded Punch magazine. At its founding the magazine was jointly edited by Mayhew and Mark Lemon. Initially it was subtitled The London Charivari, this being a reference to a satirical humour magazine published in Francemarker under the title Le Charivari (a work read often whilst Mayhew was in Paris). Reflecting their satiric and humorous intent, the two editors took for their name and masthead the anarchic glove puppet, Mr. Punch. Punch was an unexpected success, yet, a year later, Mayhew resigned as joint editor in 1842. He however continued as 'suggestor in chief' until he severed his connection in 1845. His brother, Horace stayed on the board of Punch until his death. The Punch years gave Mayhew the opportunity to meet talented illustrators who he later employed to work from daguerreotypes on London Labour and the London Poor.

Formative work

In 1842 Mayhew contributed to the pioneering Illustrated London News. By this time Mayhew had become reasonably secure financially, had settled his debts and married Jane Jerrold, the daughter of his friend Douglas Jerrold. She lived until 1880.

London Labour and the London Poor

The articles comprising London Labour and the London Poor were initially collected into three volumes in 1851; the 1861 edition included a fourth volume, co-written with Bracebridge Hemyng, John Binny and Andrew Halliday, on the lives of prostitutes, thieves and beggars. This Extra Volume took a more general and statistical approach to its subject than Volumes 1 to 3.

He wrote in volume one: "I shall consider the whole of the metropolitan poor under three separate phases, according as they will work, they can't work, and they won't work".

He interviewed everyone—beggars, street-entertainers (such as Punch and Judy men), market traders, prostitutes, labourers, sweatshop workers, even down to the "mudlarks" who searched the stinking mud on the banks of the River Thames for wood, metal, rope and coal from passing ships, and the "pure-finders" who gathered dog faeces to sell to tanner. He described their clothes, how and where they lived, their entertainments and customs, and made detailed estimates of the numbers and incomes of those practicing each trade. The books make fascinating reading, showing how marginal and precarious many people's lives were, in what, at that time, must have been the richest city in the world.

Mayhew's perception as an observer is unsurpassed in early descriptions of London's street scenes. His richly detailed descriptions are able to give an impression of what the street markets of his day were like. Here is a typical description by Mayhew:
'The pavement and the road are crowded with purchasers and street-sellers. The housewife in her thick shawl, with the market-basket on her arm, walks slowly on, stopping now to look at the stall of caps, and now to cheapen a bunch of greens. Little boys, holding three or four onions in their hand, creep between the people, wriggling their way through every interstice, and asking for custom in whining tones, as if seeking charity. Then the tumult of the thousand different cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time, is almost bewildering. “So-old again,” roars one. “Chestnuts all‘ot, a penny a score,” bawls another. “An ‘aypenny a skin, blacking,” squeaks a boy. “Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy-- bu-u-uy!” cries the butcher. “Half-quire of paper for a penny,” bellows the street stationer. “An ‘aypenny a lot ing-uns.” “Twopence a pound grapes.” “Three a penny Yarmouth bloaters.” “Who‘ll buy a bonnet for fourpence?” “Pick ‘em out cheap here! three pair for a halfpenny, bootlaces.” “Now‘s your time! beautiful whelks, a penny a lot.” “Here‘s ha‘p‘orths,” shouts the perambulating confectioner. “Come and look at ‘em! here‘s toasters!” bellows one with a Yarmouth bloater stuck on a toasting-fork. “Penny a lot, fine russets,” calls the apple woman: and so the Babel goes on.' Mayhew.


Mayhew's work was embraced by and was an influence on the Christian Socialists, such as Thomas Hughes, Charles Kingsley, and F. D. Maurice. Radicals also published sizeable excerpts from the reports in the Northern Star, the Red Republican and other newspapers. The often sympathetic investigations, with their immediacy and unswerving eye for detail, offered unprecedented insights into the condition of the Victorian poor. Alongside the earlier work of Edwin Chadwick, they are also regarded as a decisive influence on the thinking of Charles Dickens.



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