Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew, the son of Joshua Mayhew, a London lawyer, and Mary Ann Fenn, was born on 25th November 1812. After being educated at Westminster School, he worked with his father for three years. However, it was a stormy relationship. According to his biographer, Deborah Vlock: "One of seventeen children and the fourth of seven sons, Mayhew failed to live up to his father's expectations; a prominent solicitor and a rigid patriarch, Joshua Mayhew apprenticed each of his sons to the law, and each, except one, eventually pursued other interests. Almost all of them, including Henry, were disinherited as a result (after his father's death, Henry received a legacy of £1 per week). Henry was particularly ill-suited to legal study, and nearly caused Joshua's arrest by neglecting to file some important documents."

In 1831 Mayhew decided to become a writer. For the next eight years worked for the journal, Figaro in London. Mayhew also wrote a well-received play, The Wandering Minstrel (1834). He also co-wrote But However (1838).

In 1841 Mayhew joined with Mark Lemon, a fellow journalist and playwright, to start a a new journal, Punch Magazine. The two men were initially joint-editors and recruited a group of talented writers and illustrators to join the venture, including Douglas Jerrold, Shirley Brooks, Angus Reach, John Leech and Richard Doyle. In the early years the magazine sold about 6,000 copies a week. However, sales of 10,000 were needed to cover the costs of the venture.

In December 1842 it was decided to sell the magazine to Bradbury & Evans. Mark Lemon was reappointed as editor and Henry Mayhew was given the role of "suggester-in-chief". Mayhew wrote his last article for Punch Magazine in February, 1845. Mayhew now launched Iron Times, a railway magazine that lost him so much money that in 1846 he ended up in the Court of Bankruptcy.

The summer of 1849 saw a serious outbreak of cholera. Within three months, an estimated 13,000 people in London died from the disease. On 24th September, Mayhew wrote an article on the impact of cholera on the working-class district of Bermondsey. Soon afterwards Mayhew suggested to the editor, John Douglas Cook, that the newspaper should carry out an investigation into the condition of the labouring classes in England and Wales. Cook agreed and recruited Angus Reach, Charles Mackay and Shirley Brooks to help Mayhew collect the material.

The first article appeared on 18th October 1849. Mayhew concentrated on London and the rest of the team were assigned other parts of England and Wales to investigate. An article appeared every day for the rest of the year and for most of 1850. Mayhew wrote two of these a week and the rest were written by Reach, Brooks, Mackay and some unnamed provincial journalists.

The articles in the Morning Chronicle received a lot of attention. The Economist attacked the publication of such material that it believed was "unthinkingly increasing the enormous funds already profusely destined to charitable purposes, adding to the number of virtual paupers, and encouraging a reliance on public sympathy for help instead on self-exertion."

Douglas Jerrold wrote to a friend in February, 1850: "Do you read the Morning Chronicle? Do you devour those marvellous revelations of the inferno of misery, of wretchedness, that is smouldering under our feet? We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes me sick. We know nothing of this terrible life that is about us - us, in our smug respectability. To read of the sufferings of one class, and the avarice, the tyranny, the pocket cannibalism of the other, makes one almost wonder that the world should go on. And when we see the spires of pleasant churches pointing to Heaven, and are told - paying thousands to Bishops for the glad intelligence - that we are Christians!. The cant of this country is enough to poison the atmosphere."

Christian Socialists, such as Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hughes and F. D. Maurice praised Mayhew and the Morning Chronicle. Radicals also approved and newspapers such as the Northern Star and the Red Republican published substantial extracts from these reports. Octavia Hill was one of those who read Mayhew's work and was inspired into action. It is also claimed that the articles influenced the writings of Charles Dickens.

Henry Mayhew's collected articles on poverty were eventually published as London Labour and London Poor (1851). Mayhew's investigation into the plight of the poor revealed the impact that unemployment, starvation and disease was having on the working class. Deborah Vlock has argued: "It remains a seminal study of London street life in the middle of the century, and has been often reprinted. It is required reading for anyone interested in the minutest details of Victorian lower-class life, such as what kinds of foods were sold on the streets, how financial transactions with street-sellers were conducted, and how vendors ‘cried’ their wares."

Henry Mayhew
Henry Mayhew

In a talk he gave to a group of tailors Mayhew attempted to defend the moral behaviour of the working-classes: "It is easy enough to be moral after a good dinner beside a snug coal fire, and with our hearts well warmed with fine old port. It is easy enough for those that can enjoy these things daily to pay their poor-rates, rent their pew, and love their neighbours as themselves: but place the self-same "highly respectable" people on a raft without sup or bite on the high seas, and they would toss up who should eat their fellows. Morality on £5,000 a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing to morality on slop-wages in Bethnal Green."

In 1856 Mayhew started a new series of articles for the Morning Chronicle entitled The Great World of London. The articles appeared monthly and those dealing with crime and punishment were collected together and published as a book called The Criminal Prisons of London (1862). Another book based on newspaper articles he had written was published as London Characters (1874).

Mayhew wrote books on a wide variety of different subjects including novels, The Good Genius (1847) and Whom to Marry (1848), and historical work such as German Life and Manners in Saxony (1864) and The Boyhood of Martin Luther (1865).

Henry Mayhew died on 25th July, 1887, and was buried at Kensal Green.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (24th September 1849)

We then journeyed on to London Street, down which the tidal ditch continues its course. In No. 1 of this street the cholera first appeared seventeen years ago, and spread up it with fearful virulence; but this year it appeared at the opposite end, and ran down it with like severity. As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow - indeed it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink.

As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women, built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it, and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble.

In this wretched place we were taken to a house where an infant lay dead of the cholera. We asked if they really did drink the water? The answer was, "They were obliged to drink the ditch, without they could beg or thieve a pailful of water." But have you spoken to your landlord about having it laid on for you? "Yes, sir and he says he will do it, and do it, but we know him better than to believe him."

(2) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (19th October 1849)

The city of London, within the walls, occupies a space of only 370 acres, and is but the hundred and fortieth part of the extent covered by the whole metropolis. Nevertheless, it is the parent of a mass of united and far spreading tenements, stretching from Hammersmith to Blackwell, from Holloway to Camberwell.

By the last census return (1841) the metropolis covered an extent of nearly 45,000 acres, and contained upwards of two hundred and sixty thousand houses, occupied by one million eight hundred and twenty thousand souls, constituting not only the densest, but the busiest hive, the most wondrous workshop, and the richest bank in the world. A strange incongruous chaos of wealth and want - of ambition and despair - of the brightest charity and the darkest crime, where there is more feasting and more starvation, than on any other spot on earth - and all grouped round the one giant centre, the huge black dome, with its ball of gold looming through the smoke and marking out the capital, no matter from what quarter the traveller may come.

In the hope of obtaining a bird's-eye view of the port, I went up to the Golden Gallery that is immediately below the ball of St. Paul's. It was noon, and an exquisitely bright and clear spring day; but the view was smudgy and smeared with smoke. Clumps of building and snatches of parks looked through the clouds like dim islands rising out of the sea of smoke. It was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the city began; and as you peered into the thick haze you could, after a time, make out the dusky figures of tall factory chimneys plumed with black smoke; while spires and turrets seemed to hang midway between you and the earth, as if poised in the thick grey air.

(3) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (23rd October 1849)

Thomas Heath, a weaver of 8 Pedley Street, Spitalfields, gave me a detailed account of all his earnings for 430 weeks. The sum of the gross earnings for 430 weeks is £322 3s. 4d., being about 15s. a week. He estimates his weaving expenses at 4s., which would 11s. net wages. He states his wife's earnings at about 3s. a week. He gives the following remarkable evidence:

"Have you any children?"

"No; I had two, but they are both dead, thanks to be God!"

"Do you express satisfaction at the death of your children?"

I do! I thank God for it. I am relieved from the burden of maintaining them, and they, poor dear creatures, are relieved from the troubles of the mortal life."

(4) Woman tailor interviewed by Henry Mayhew, The Morning Chronicle (6th November, 1849)

My husband was a file-cutter; he did fairly well. While he was alive, I didn't want for anything, and since his death I've wanted very often. Trade is very bad now; there are many of us starving. The old people in particular; the young ones make it out other ways. I pays 1s. 6d. rent. I've no table; I was obliged to sell it; I've sold almost everything I've got; I can't sell no more, for there's none now that will fetch anything.

There's people much worse off than me, but they gets relief from the parish. They tell me at the union I am young enough to work, and yet I am turned 70. I wanted all last Sunday, for I had nothing at al then. I was a bed till twelve o'clock because I had nothing to eat.

I think the trade is the ruin of the young girls that take to it - the prices are not sufficient to keep them - and the consequence is, they fly to the streets to make their living. Most of the workers are young girls who have nothing else to depend upon, and there is scarcely one of them virtuous.

(5) Woman interviewed by Henry Mayhew, The Morning Chronicle (13th November, 1849)

I used to work at the shirt work - the fine full-fronted white shirts; I got 2d. each for them. There were six button-holes, four rows of stitching in the front, and the collars and wristbands stitched as well. By working from five o'clock in the morning till midnight each night I might be able to do seven in the week. Out of this the cotton must be taken and that came to 2d. every week. It was impossible for me to live. I was forced to go out of a night to make out my living. I had a child, and it used to cry for food. So, as I could not get a living for him myself by the needle, I went into the streets and made out a living that way. I pledge my word, solemnly and sacredly, that it was the low price paid for my labour that drove me to prostitution. In my heart I hated it; my whole nature rebelled at it, and nobody but God knows how I struggled to give it up.

My sufferings have been such that three days before I first tried to get into the workhouse I made up my mind to commit suicide. I wrote the name of my boy and the address of his aunts and pinned them to his little shift, and left him in bed - for ever as I thought - and went into Regent's Park to drown myself in the water. A policeman watched me, and asked me what I was doing. He thought I looked suspicious, and drove me from the park. That saved my life. I am now in service. I have been so for the last year and a half. My boy is still in the workhouse. I have been unable to save any money since I have been in service. My wages are too low. I never knew one girl in my trade who was virtuous; most of them wished to be so, but were compelled to be otherwise for mere life.

(6) Henry Mayhew, speech at a meeting of London tailors (October, 1850)

It is easy enough to be moral after a good dinner beside a snug coal fire, and with our hearts well warmed with fine old port. It is easy enough for those that can enjoy these things daily to pay their poor-rates, rent their pew, and love their neighbours as themselves: but place the self-same "highly respectable" people on a raft without sup or bite on the high seas, and they would toss up who should eat their fellows. Morality on £5,000 a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing to morality on slop-wages in Bethnal Green.

(7) Henry Mayhew, The Morning Chronicle (23rd October, 1849)

I was conducted in the evening to a tavern where several of the weavers who advocate the principles of the People's Charter were in the habit of assembling. I found the room half full, and immediately proceeded to explain to them the object of my visit, telling them that I intended to make notes of whatever they might communicate to me, with a view to publication in the Morning Chronicle. After a short conversation with themselves, they told me that, in their opinion, the primary cause of the depression of the prices among the weavers was the want of the suffrage. "We consider that labour is unrepresented in the House of Commons, and being unrepresented, that the capitalist and the landlord have it all their own way."

(8) Henry Mayhew, The Morning Chronicle (3rd May, 1851)

There is after all but one way to help the Poor, that is to teach the Poor to help themselves; and so long as committees of noblemen have the conduct of their household affairs, so long as my Lord this or that is left to say at what time they shall go to bed and when they shall get up, there can be no main improvement in their condition.

(9) Douglas Jerrold, letter to Mrs. Cowden Clarke (February 1850)

Do you read the Morning Chronicle? Do you devour those marvellous revelations of the inferno of misery, of wretchedness, that is smouldering under our feet? We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes me sick. We know nothing of this terrible life that is about us - us, in our smug respectability. To read of the sufferings of one class, and the avarice, the tyranny, the pocket cannibalism of the other, makes one almost wonder that the world should go on. And when we see the spires of pleasant churches pointing to Heaven, and are told - paying thousands to Bishops for the glad intelligence - that we are Christians!. The cant of this country is enough to poison the atmosphere.

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.