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  • Henry Mayhew and the Participatory Reading Culture of Victorian Investigative Journalism
  • Jenna M. Herdman (bio)

In the winter of 1849–50, the Metropolitan Correspondent for the Morning Chronicle visited the Asylum for the Houseless Poor at Playhouse-Yard, London. One of the hundreds of destitute people finding refuge at the Asylum was a young woman who worked at velvet embossing. In Henry Mayhew’s account of the visit for the “Labour and the Poor” series on the Metropolitan Districts, he describes the woman as “comely, and modestly spoken . . . She was scrupulously clean and neat in her dress; indeed it was evident, even from her appearance, that she belonged to a better class than the ordinary inmates of the Asylum.”1 As she spoke with the journalist, she sighed heavily, and stared at the ground, speaking in a “very sorrowful” voice:

[The tears were pouring down the cheeks of the poor girl; she was many minutes afterwards before she could answer my questions, from sobbing.] “I can’t help crying,” she said, “when I think how destitute I am. Oh yes, indeed [she cried through her sobs] I have been a good girl in all my trials. I might have been better off if I had chosen to take to that life. I need not have been here if I had chosen to part with my character.2

Mayhew emphasizes the girl’s chastity; despite her struggles, she states that she would “rather make away with myself than lose my character.”3 She expresses a desire to emigrate.

Within two weeks of the publication of this interview in January 1850, the velvet embosser was on a voyage bound for Sydney, Australia, alongside another female informant from the Asylum referred to as the “macintosh-maker,” under the care of “two highly respectable families.”4 Their testimonies had commanded the attention of the readers of the series, whose [End Page 209] response took the shape of fundraised donations sent to the Morning Chronicle and recorded in its pages.

From September 1849 to December 1850, Mayhew was employed as one of three writers for the “Labour and the Poor” series. His contribution, a series of eighty-two articles studying poor labourers in the “Metropolitan Districts” of London, generated a recurring cycle of readers’ correspondence and donations throughout its first several months in print. Collectively, the writers of these letters fundraised over 800l. for the poor labourers whose self-narrated biographies were catalogued in the series. Through these contributions, readers positioned themselves as mediators and participants in Mayhew’s pioneering project of investigative journalism. Mayhew’s readers, however, were selective in their generosity. The velvet embosser had been sent a large sum of 30l. 17s. from readers of “Labour and the Poor.” In comparison, her traveling companion the macintosh-maker received 13l. 5s. 6d. These donations came with stipulations. One reader specified that the money should be used for the velvet embosser to buy new clothing, and to help “return to her occupation.”5 Another correspondent who was “greatly affected” by the velvet embosser’s story sent a parcel of clothing to “afford some comfort to the poor girl.”6 The readers asked for updates and hoped that the velvet embosser would be met with again soon. By interacting with “Labour and the Poor” in this way the readers of the Morning Chronicle became active participants in the project. Their engagement anticipates the participatory culture of 21st-century social media storytelling and crowd-funding campaigns.

Though the testimony of the velvet embosser was reprinted in Volume 3 of London Labour and the London Poor in 1861, the influential participation of the reader responses that propelled her emigration in 1850 can only be gleaned when reading Mayhew’s works in their original context as serialized journalism. London Labour and the London Poor is the first study of urban poverty to feature the voices of the poor themselves. This paper is a study of the first readers of Mayhew’s famous survey in the context of its publication history from 1849–52. I analyze the two serial mediums through which the text was first disseminated. The publication circumstances of these mediums...


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pp. 209-237
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