- London Labour and the London Poor: A Selected Edition, and: Feeling for the Poor: Bourgeois Compassion, Social Action, and the Victorian Novel
In the summer of 2011, in the aftermath of widespread urban rioting and looting, Britain was once again confronted with fundamental questions concerning the condition of its poorer citizens and their relationship to the rest of society. Prime Minister David Cameron found in the riots an affirmation of his “broken Britain” thesis, and his immediate post-riot assessment was that “parts of our society are sick.” In similar terms, the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, attributed the unrest to a recidivistic “feral underclass.”
This unsophisticated and dehumanizing terminology is demoralizingly retrograde in the context of more than 150 years of social-scientific efforts to document and interpret poverty, crime, and deviancy in Britain. Those efforts are often taken to have begun with Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844). Based primarily on Engels’s observations of slum conditions in Manchester, that brilliant and still-compelling work was indeed the first thorough journalistic examination of the social problems of industrialism. But it is in Henry Mayhew’s more sustained and systematic investigations of poverty in Britain’s capital that the modern sociological method finds its origins. [End Page 97]
Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (LLLP) was first published in periodical form between 1850 and 1852 and then issued as a four-volume set over the course of 1861–62. This new volume of well-chosen selections is especially welcome for the concise and informative introduction supplied by its editor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, who teaches at Magdalen College, Oxford. Useful too are the thirty-three pages of explanatory notes, which will help readers navigate some perhaps less familiar Victorian street terms, such as “sapient pigs,” “thaumascope,” and “flusher-men.” Readers will also appreciate the inclusion of illustrations selected from the woodcuts that were originally printed in each number of LLLP.
Given that it addresses concerns that appear perennial in industrial society, it is not surprising that LLLP should still be in print. What is surprising is that Mayhew ever completed the project in the first place. He had earned his place in the history of Victorian periodicals well in advance of LLLP. In 1835, he became editor of the satirical journal Figaro in London and oversaw its collapse in 1839. Then, in 1841, he cofounded Punch, which he also coedited in its first year. But his literary career consisted mainly of grand designs poorly executed or left undone, causing the journalist and publisher Henry Vizetelly to describe him as a man of “multifarious schemes and singularly original ideas, but of torpid energy” (qtd. xvii). So Douglas-Fairhurst comments fairly when he writes that LLLP “would have been an extraordinary achievement no matter who had written it. Coming from Mayhew it was close to a miracle” (xvi).
The ground-breaking social research that would finally issue in LLLP began in September 1849, when Mayhew accepted an invitation from the Morning Chronicle, a liberal campaigning newspaper, to report on the cholera epidemic then raging in southeast London. The result was “A Visit to the Cholera Districts of Bermondsey,” a harrowingly vivid piece that is helpfully included as an appendix to this selection. Mayhew’s successful account of the “Pestilentia” (430) on the banks of the Thames led the Chronicle to commission him as “Metropolitan Correspondent” for a series of articles aimed at providing what the paper called a “full and detailed description of the moral, intellectual, material, and physical condition of the industrial poor throughout England” (qtd. xx). LLLP was essentially an outgrowth of work undertaken for the subsequent Chronicle series on “Labour and the Poor.”
Mayhew brought to his research a characteristic Victorian scientism—seeking, as he put it, “to deal with human nature as...