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True to Life

Selections from London Labour and the London Poor

by Henry Mayhew, edited by John L. Bradley
Oxford (The World’s Classics), 288 pp., $2.75

Mayhew is the unique “short and simple” analyst of the lives of the London poor in the nineteenth century. The historians still consult him; the novelists and the journalists of his own time helped themselves to the strange material he collected from the mouths of dismal or cheerful wretches between 1849 and 1862. Interest in him was revived in the Thirties of this century when the documentary movement in journalism and cinema was tormented by the difficulty of being both earnest and true to life. How did this Victorian philanthropist escape sentimentality? How did the verbatim disentangle itself from the verbose? Why was Mayhew so alive and real, and documentary so worthy and yet so dead?

One answer is that the writers and camera men of the Thirties were overweighted with political faith. They were respectable men. The poor were not and are not respectable: They have to live. The best books about the lives of the poor in Great Britain—the account of builders’ laborers, for example, in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (circa 1906)—note the ambiguities, the silly delinquency, the halfcracked behavior, even the willingness of the victims to be victims. Mayhew’s success owes a lot to his lack of respectability, his Bohemianism, his instability as a person. He is a bit of a rogue; he has more than a touch of the unscrupulous hack. Englishmen of his type—and he was very English—are insubordinate, devious, plausible, and always fall on their feet. They can get on with anybody. Mr. Bradley, who introduces the present selection of Mayhew’s writings, says that Mayhew is in the tradition of Chaucer and Fielding; that is far too elegant. Mayhew belongs to the Grub Street that was founded by Defoe; he has something in common with Cobbett, or with the first, clumsy, vulgar minor Elizabethan playwrights. It is interesting to remember, here, that in his early years (he was born in 1812) he was one of the large number of crude hacks who turned out bad plays, by the ton and for very low pay, for the popular Victorian theater; like the stuff put on by television now, it had to appeal to the lowest taste. The curious thing is that Mayhew was a man of education. His father, an apoplectic solicitor, sent his son to Westminster, one of the great schools of England, and there the boy did brilliantly until he had a row with the headmaster about reading a Greek Grammar during a service in Westminster Abbey. He ran away to sea, went to India. Returning to his father’s office, he was still truculent. It seems that he got his father into trouble with the Courts by forgetting to submit vital documents and, instead of apologizing, took offense and marched out of his father’s office and would not see the old gentleman for years. Irresponsibility marked the rest of his career and indeed his private life. He reappeared as a writer of bombastic plays and as a popular journalist. He edited a satirical paper called Figaro which oscillated between scurrilous satire, homely joking, and serious politics. The paper had its relatively civilized periods and (according to Mr. Bradley who has gone into the matter thoroughly) there are signs of the future Radical Punch, in the founding and editing of which Mayhew was an important figure. His character at this time was described by a contemporary in these words:

There can be no doubt that Henry Mayhew was a genius, a fascinating companion, and a man of in-exhaustible resource and humor—although humor was but one side of his brilliant mind. Indolence was his besetting sin, and his will was untutored.

He was always in debt. His debts were caused by buying expensive houses and by bizarre ventures: He tried to market a dye of “miraculous strength” and also experimented in chemical means of producing diamonds. He had a rough time at the hands of the Commissioners for Bankruptcy, because he childishly showed that he expected to evade payment altogether.

LIKE DEFOE, Mayhew would turn to anything in journalism and exploit any situation. He certainly did not confine his attentions to the appalling social problems of his time, even when he became famous for this side of his writing. Here we can put our finger on the nature of his talent: He combined earnestness with jocularity; the satire could be fierce but the humor must not be too humorous. That is to say, it must not be so humorous that you laugh your way out of a serious consideration of the facts. In some of its aspects, London humor depends on its explanatoriness; it is deliberately unwitty. It relies—and a large part of the English novel relies—on a regard for nature and human nature just as they shapelessly are; it was this regard that Taine so strongly criticized. Mayhew’s sense of nature—when he was writing about the poor—led him not only to describe the human being and his work, but to do so in the man or woman’s own words. That, for 1850, was revolutionary.

Take this passage from the life of a coster lad:

On a Sunday I goes out selling, and all I yarns I keeps. As for going to church, why, I cant afford it—beside to tell the truth, I dont like it well enough. Plays, too, aint in my line much. I’d sooner go to a dance—its more livelier. The “penny gaffs” is rather more in my style; the songs are out and out and makes our gals laugh. The smuttier the better, I thinks; bless you! the gals likes it as much as we do. If we lads ever has a quarrel, why, we fights for it. If I was to let a cove off once, he’d do it again; but I never give a lad a chance, so long as I can get anigh him. I never heard about Christianity; but if a cove was to fetch me a lick of the head, I’d give it him again, whether he was a big ‘un or a little ‘un. I’d precious soon see a henemy of mine shot afore I’d forgive him,—what’s the use? Do I understand what behaving to your neighbor is?—In coorse I do. If a feller as lives next me wanted a basket of mine as I wasn’t using, why, he might have it; if I was working it though, I’d see him further! I can understand that all as lives in a court is neighbors; but as for policemen, they’re nothing to me, and I should like to pay ‘em all off well. No; I never heerd about this here creation you speaks about. In coorse God Almighty made the world, and the poor bricklayers’ laborers built the houses arterwards—that’s my opinion; but I cant say, for I’ve never been in no schools, only always hard at work, and knows nothing about it. I have heerd a little about our Saviour—they seem to say he were a goodish kind of man, but if he says as how a cove’s to forgive a feller as hits you, I should say he know’d nothing about it. In coorse the gals, the lads goes and lives with thinks our walloping ‘em wery cruel of us, but we dont. Why dont we?—why, because we dont.

Mayhew collected back-slang. The lads begged a “yennep” to get a “tib of occabot”; you occasionally hear it still in London, but rhyming slang is commoner, like “titfer” for hat—tit for tat; or “Barnet” for hair—Barnet Fair. He knew the “penny gaffs,” the noisy theaters where the teenagers danced, rioted, and sang obscene songs; in fact, teenager rioting was a Victorian specialty, for the kids started work young, skipped school, and were soon living promiscuously eight to a bed in rooming houses. Sexual intercourse began at the age of eleven or so among the coster boys and they fought for their girls. This used to shock the Irish immigrants whose modesty was appalled by the London boys and girls larking about naked. The coster boys

are as sharp as terriers and learn every dodge of business in less than half no time. There’s one I knows about three feet high, that’s up to the business as clever as a man of thirty. Though he’s only twelve years old he’ll chaff down a peeler so uncommon severe, that the only way to stop him is to take him in charge.

The boys started work at the age of seven, leading the father’s donkey and shouting what they were selling; father by this time having lost his voice. At thirteen they had a sort of ritual quarrel with the father and would start off with a barrow of their own, undercut the old man, and drive their mothers to the workhouse.

AN IDLE MAN himself, Mayhew was pertinacious in his interest in other people’s work. He investigated the flower girls, the sellers of pig’s trotters and ham sandwiches, prostitutes, all the street traders, dog fanciers, rat-catchers, bird-duffers—they painted the birds—the dredgers and mud-larks of the Thames, street clowns, bus conductors, “regular scavengers.” They were all of strictly separated trades, ruled by their own customs. One of the oddest were the “running patterers.” They screamed old and new broadsheets about murders as a sort of Stop Press item, in the streets, and were particularly proud to get to an execution and beat the newspapers with a lurid account of the crime. Mayhew found a fine Dickensian humorist who could run off a litany of murderers:

Greenacre didn’t sell so well as might have been expected, for such a diabolical out-and-out crime as he committed, but you see he came close after Pegsworth and that took the beauty off him. Two murderers together is never no good to nobody. Why there was Wilson Gleeson, as great a villain as ever lived—went and murdered a whole family at noon-day—but Rush coopered him—and likewise that girl at Bristol—made it no draw to any one. Daniel Good, though, was a first-rater; and would have been much better if it hadn’t been for that there Madam Toosow. You see, she went down to Roehampton and guv 12 for the werry clogs as he used to wash his master’s carriage in; so, in coorse, when the harristocracy could go and see the real things—the werry identical clogs—in the Chamber of ‘Orrors, why the people wouldn’t look at our authentic portraits of the fiend in human form. Hocker wasn’t any particular great shakes. There was a deal expected from him, but he didn’t turn out well. Courvoisier was much better; he sold werry well, but nothing to Blakesley. Why I worked him for six weeks. The wife of the murdered man kept the King’s Head, that he was landlord on, open in the morning of the execution and the place was like a fair. I even went and sold papers outside the door myself. I thought if she warn’t ashamed, why should I be?

There were disappointments for this sensationalist. He was trying to get a Mrs. Manning to “clear her conscious afore she left this here whale of tears” but she failed to react properly as a “monster in human form.” A forerunner of the mimsy generation of television interviewees, she said “I have nothing to say to you, Mr. Rowe, but to thank you for your kindness.” Mr. Rowe was disgusted with this gentility: He “guv her up entirely.”

A SELF-MADE OUTSIDER but in no sense a slummer or a high-class bum, Mayhew had the gift of making people talk. He had knocked about the world, he responded to “tricks of the trade,” but he was firmly serious. He noted—as Mrs. Gaskell had done in the slums of Manchester—that the poor were irreligious, but not anti-religious. They just didn’t care about religion or politics; yet a scavenger who said politics menat nothing to him also said in the same breath that he was a Chartist! One reason for Mayhew’s success in getting on the right side of people was his interest in their work. Everyone enjoys talking about that. But he was lucky in his Cockneys; they are still incurable talkers but are not fact fetichists. They were conscious, even in misery, of their role. They were interested in themselves and this gave them—and still gives them, now they are well off—their vitality. Some of Mayhew’s trades survive. There are still one or two old-fashioned rat catchers about, who, with the meditative sadism of their trade, pick a handful of live rats from their sacks when they get home in the evenings and study the “form” of their terriers, as they set them loose on the vermin for the pleasure of a few privileged friends.

The merit of Mayhew was fully recognized during his lifetime, but by the time he was old—he lived to the age of seventy-five—he was neglected and poor. This is sad, but one can see why it fell out this way. He was unorthodox and undisciplined; better and more prosperous times had come in. Mid- and late-Victorian melodrama became far more sophisticated than it had been in the early days of Mayhew’s apprenticeship. To a later generation, Mayhew’s work appeared unshaped. To us it seems all the better for that, but the Victorian taste was for pious and posh self-dramatization on the grand scale whereas the best of Mayhew comes from a quiet compassion and an undramatized curiosity. There was a dramatist in him and it was a bad dramatist; fortunately his personality as a writer was split and London Labour and the London Poor is good because no drama falsifies it.

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