Wednesday, 8 January 2014

London in the 1850s

Recently I've been doing a little research for fun into mid-Victorian Britain. It is the Britain immortalised by Dickens, of orphans, of the workhouse and of the lucky others: the upper classes.

I wanted to see if I could get some non-fictional accounts of life, and laboured through various sources until I came across Henry Mayhew's excellent four-book series "London Labour and the London Poor"

In these volumes, he describes in sometimes tortuous detail the lives of various London citizens. He quotes extensive interviews, giving a direct account of people's lives. These interviews give flesh to the rich seam of statistics he also includes.

The wealth of detail is astounding: for instance, there are a couple of pages on "The Street-Sellers of Dog-Collars", including the life story of one person, or when he went to a "Meeting of Thieves" - the British Union gave out free tickets, and 150 under-20 year olds turned up.

An example of the detail he goes into is a section entitled: "Of the cesspool and sewer system of Paris", where he describes the situation in the French capital, all the better to understand the English system. The job of Chiffionniers - men, with baskets on their back, who scavenged the piles of refuse outside French houses at night - is even gone into in detail. So is more scatological detail, like the fact that the average Parisian contributed 243 litres of waste to the city's cesspools each year. This is less than it should be for the obvious reason: the Parisian poor rarely used commodes, simply because they did not have access.

Poverty pervades this book. And so it should: because although there were rich people in the metropolis, the vast underbelly of the poor is poorly acknowledged, even in Dickens' work.

For instance, here is an interview with a forty year old homeless miner, who Mayhew classes as a genuine case of hardship:
"I'm a minor, sir, and I've been working lately five mile from Castleton in Darbyshire. Why did I leave it? Do you want me to tell the truth, now - the real truth? Well then I'll tell you the real truth. I got drunk - you asked me for the real truth, and now you've got it. I've been a miner all my life, and been engaged in all the great public works. I call a miner a man as can sink a shaft in anything, barring he's not stopped by water. I've got a wife and two children. I left them at Castleton. They're all right. I left them some money. I've worked in eighteen inches o' coal. I mean in a chamber only eighteen inches wide. You lay on your side and pick like this. (Here he threw himself on the floor, and imitated the action of a coal-miner with his pick.) I've worked under young Mr.Brunel very often. He were not at all a gentleman unlike you, sir, only he were darker. My last wages was six shilling a day. I expect soon to be in work again, for I know lots o'miners in London, and I know where they want hands.

And a section on "Park Women, or those who frequent the Parks at night and other retired places.":

Parkwomen, properly so called, are those degraded creatures, utterly lost to all sense of shame, who wander about the paths most frequented after nightfall in the Parks, and consent to any species of humiliation for the sake of acquiring a few shillings.You may meet them in Hyde Park, between the hours of five and ten (till the gates are closed) in winter. In the Green Park, in what is called the Mall, which is a nocturnal thoroughfare,you may see these low wretches walking about sometimes with men, more generally alone, often early in the morning. They are to be seen reclining on the benches placed under the trees, originally intended, no doubt, for a different purpose, occasionally with the head of a drunken man reposing in their lap. These women are well known to give themselves up to disgusting practices, that are alone gratifying to men of morbid and diseased imaginations. They are old, unsound,and by their appearance utterly incapacitated from practising their profession where the gas-lamps would expose the defects in their personal appearance, and the shabbiness of their ancient and dilapidated attire.

Hyde Park's certainly changed!

As a social record it is invaluable: as a description of utter poverty it is depressing; as a measure of how far we have come it is commendable.

All four volumes are freely downloadable in PDF format from

Volume 1: The London street-folk

Volume 2: The London street-folk comprising: Street sellers. Street buyers. Street finders. Street performers. Street artizans. Street labourers.

Volume 3: The London street-folk comprising: Street sellers. Street buyers. Street finders. Street performers. Street artizans. Street labourers.

Volume 4: Those that will not work, comprising; Prostitutes. Thieves. Swindlers. Beggars.

They are well worth a browse if you have time.


Alan Rayner said...

Hi David, Fascinating stuff. If you haven’t already read it, then dig out Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Well worth a read.

David Cotton said...

Hi Alan,

I read "Mary Barton" a few years ago, and I quite liked it.

However, I've twice tried to read a later book, "North and South", and failed to get past about page 50. It just hasn't engaged me yet.