How the Poor Live

The Unknown Mayhew

by Eileen Yeo and E.P. Thompson
Pantheon, 489 pp., $12.95

The historiography of the industrial revolution in Britain is worth a book in itself. At the beginning of the twentieth century historians at last became aware that the most striking of all the revolutions since 1789 was not any of the willed political revolutions but a process beyond human control which was beginning to transform life and to produce a totally new set of relationships between human beings.

According to their fashion historians tried to describe and account for it; and perhaps more than any others it was J. L. and Barbara Hammond who in their books on the working class in town and country at the beginning of the nineteenth century illuminated the full horror of the change that took place in the lives of the working class. The population explosion, which created heavy unemployment in the countryside, led in turn to mass emigration to the new towns where machine industry was able precariously to establish itself by drawing upon this vast supply of labor, to whom it paid starvation wages. A society was produced in which a new dimension of grinding hardship, poverty, squalor, and misery became the rule for millions in both towns and countryside as the economy became converted over the years into a full-fledged capitalist system. It was this society that the Hammonds unforgettably described.

The reaction against this impassioned version of social history soon came about. Historians such as J.H. Clapham by amassing statistics sought to prove that, however great the hardship was, real wages tended always to be rising and hence the plight of the working class could be said to be less bad than it might have been had the industrial revolution not taken place.

Since those days, our knowledge of economic and social conditions in Victorian England has vastly increased. But there is still no single interpretation of those extraordinarily complex processes that can be said to be acceptable to the majority of those who study the period, if only for the reason that people still ask, as they did 150 years ago, who was responsible for this misery and what should government and the ruling classes have done done about it.

Many economic and social historians who will not be accused of lack of sensibility or compassion, such as G. Kitson Clark or W.L. Burn, have rightly pointed out that the problem of overpopulation and rapid urbanization was certain to prove too much for a ruling class who were bred as country landowners and for an administrative machine which had changed little since the days of Thomas Cromwell in the middle of the sixteenth century. Time throws such long shadows over the scene, even over its most sordid corners, that the observer looking at it later is almost bound to reflect that, as always in the annals of the human race, the impersonal forces of history prove too much for the imagination and resourcefulness of even the most public-spirited and noble-hearted creatures alive at the time—particularly since such men are seldom able to influence their bovine and self-interested contemporaries.

Marxist historians such as E.J. Hobsbawm do not, of course, go along with such neutralist analyses, but if we are to recapture that saeva indignatio which inspired the Hammonds we have to read another historian who is technically less well-equipped than Hobsbawm but immensely well read in the primary sources of working-class misery. E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class revived the themes of the callous brutality of so many of the ruling class and industrialists to the conditions of the laborers, and of the dogged courage and independence of the laborers’ leaders. These are themes which, as David Cecil pointed out, made Dickens in describing the death of Jo, the beggar boy in Bleak House, so indignant at a society which allows an innocent child to die in penury that he did not care how vulgar or blatantly rhetorical his methods of arousing his reader to the same indignation were. Thompson has now turned his attention to the most celebrated of all sources on the actual stuff of the laborers’ lives, the greatest observer of how the working classes lived: Henry Mayhew.

Mayhew was the son of a respectable solicitor whose respectability his son grew up to despise and satirize, a tyrant in the home who tried to obtain filial obedience by threatening to disinherit his sons. Mayhew trained his eye at home to expose middle-class hypocrisy. Following an elder brother he drifted into radical journalism, was on Douglas Jerrold’s side in the Forties when he fought, and lost, the battle for the soul of Punch to Mark Lemmon, Thackeray, and Leech, and subsequently married Jerrold’s daughter. Mayhew combined bouts of extreme industry with longer periods of extreme indolence. Insolvent, inconstant, and finally bankrupt, he suddenly exploded in 1849 into the burst of activity that won him fame.

In that year the Morning Chronicle responded to a twinge of social conscience aroused by a cholera epidemic and commissioned from Mayhew a daily series of articles on the working classes. For a year these articles appeared until in October, 1850, Mayhew quarreled with the newspaper and published in weekly installments the sketches which became famous as London Labour and the London Poor. It is the Morning Chronicle sketches which Thompson has rescued from oblivion and which are printed here.

The quarrel which Thompson has unearthed provides exactly the point needed to sum up Mayhew’s lifework and the queasy Victorian conscience on “the condition of the poor.” The editor of the Morning Chronicle began to cut his copy—particularly those passages which suggested that the poor did not accept the orthodox explanation of why they were poor and what they were to do about it.

First among Mayhew’s gifts as a social investigator (which are the subject of a second introductory essay by Eileen Yeo) was his ability to talk naturally with the poor and gain their trust. He discovered how they worked, what they earned, why they earned so little, why they thought they were so often out of employment; he covered the activities in London of the Spittalfields silk-workers, and the tailors, cobblers, toy-makers, capenters, merchant seamen, milliners, hatters, tanners; and he paid special attention to “slop-workers” or those who were in sweated industries such as garment-makers. They told Mayhew things that were exceedingly inconvenient not merely for their employers but also for the economists and the philanthropists to hear; perhaps it was the philanthropists that Mayhew hated most and offended most deeply.

The orthodox view of the economists was that goods must be produced as cheaply as possible, and cheaper goods could be produced by cheaper labor. The poor, and Mayhew, begged that the labor market should not be made any cheaper by immigration and even cheaper labor; they begged for tariffs to protect home industries. This the economists ridiculed, and the philanthropists, such as the great Evangelical churchman, Lord Shaftesbury, who fought the battle for the child chimney sweeps, preached their solution to the poor: emigration to America or Australia. The poor described this as voluntary transportation for life—what was the difference between them and common criminals?

In conducting his campaign Mayhew became xenophobic and anti-Semitic but most of all anti-philanthropist. When the editor of the Morning Chronicle complimented the tailoring firm of the Nichol brothers, claiming that piecework rates were better than daywork wages and that work at home in the family was advantageous (whereas in fact it was just this unregulated casual labor which depressed wages still further), Mayhew exploded. The piece had been cunningly set up to make it appear that Mayhew himself had written it so as to ruin his credit with the poor, who had until then believed (rightly) that he held exactly the opposite views. What was more, Nichols was a sweat-shop which advertised in the Morning Chronicle, and predictably one of the brothers Nichol was a sheriff of the City of London and a philanthropist, Mayhew’s crime was that he not only wrote about the poor but actually advised them how to fight against their grievances.

The brief burst of activity around 1850 was lamentably all that Mayhew was able to sustain. By 1856 he was again hopelessly in debt, entangled in Chancery, and his marriage was under strain. He began a survey of London prisons, abandoned it, went to live off and on for the next decade in Germany, wrote in 1871 a survey of working men’s clubs, and then disappears from history “lovable, jolly, charming, bright, coaxing and unprincipled.”

Eileen Yeo argues that he was more than an inspired, erratic journalist, and was in fact superior as a social investigator to Booth and Rowntree. He classified and categorized. He was not a mere empiricist, he made hypotheses. He stood up to Mill on the Wage Fund. He read neither Owen nor Marx, but like them was convinced that the capitalist exploited the worker by appropriating the surplus value that the worker created. This ability to theorize made it possible for him to identify the subcultures among the poor and distinguish why costermongers were bound to live in a different style from dockers, and both from weavers. It enabled him to abandon middle-class norms of behavior and judge different kinds of poor by the standard which their own social situation imposed upon them.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Eileen Yeo is not going to have it all her own way. The old historiographical struggle of the Hammonds versus Clapham is still with us. In the March number of Victorian Studies Gertrude Himmelfarb claims that the dense statistical tables which make Mayhew’s work so impressive were full of errata, or methodologically fallacious, or so muddled as to be meaningless, and that so far from being dispassionate case studies, Mayhew’s pieces in London Labour and the London Poor were skillful propaganda replete with emotive language. What Mayhew did, so she argues, was to describe the Lumpenproletariat, the very lowest and most helpless groups among the poor, or only one-twentieth of the laboring population, and pass them off as characteristic of the London laboring classes as a whole. She censures Thompson’s claim that Mayhew has uncovered and classified data on the modern proletariat and contrasts this claim with the far more skeptical approach to Mayhew by W.H. Auden or Ruth Glass.

Some of these criticisms carry weight. Others are insubstantial. When Gertrude Himmelfarb chides Mayhew for not including the hundred thousand domestic servants, the sixty thousand tailors and dressmakers, or the forty thousand shoemakers of the 1851 census in his book, she is neatly answered by the reprint of the Morning Chronicle articles under review where some of these missing groups were in fact put under the microscope.

Moreover, it seems odd, to say the least, implicitly to chide Mayhew for not being a professor and to suggest that he wrote as he did because the Hungry Forties (which were not really all that hungry) were so crisis-laden and broken beneath the weight of Blue Books that “inevitably the tendency was to emphasize the worst conditions of the lowliest poor.” The truth is that the lowliest poor are the poor whom social investigators are always most likely to be concerned about, and that their existence in Britain today is no less a cause for shame than it was when Mayhew wrote.

In fact, in recent years, the saintly Richard Titmuss at the London School of Economics, Peter Townsend, Des Wilson, and a host of other investigators have been following in Mayhew’s footsteps and examining the plight of the very poor. For there is not the faintest sign that they will vanish as society gets more affluent. They may well increase; and the causes for their poverty are in some cases exactly the same as Mayhew diagnosed.