The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-Person Accounts by Beggars, Thieves and Prostitutes

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Courier Corporation, Aug 28, 2012 - History - 416 pages
The first and possibly the greatest sociological study of poverty in 19th-century London, this survey by a journalist invented the genre of oral history a century before the term was coined. Henry Mayhew vowed "to publish the history of a people, from the lips of the people themselves — giving a literal description of their labour, their earnings, their trials and their sufferings, in their own 'unvarnished' language." With his collaborators, Mayhew explored hundreds of miles of London streets in the 1840s and 1850s, gathering thousands of pages of testimony from the city's humbler residents. Their stories revealed aspects of city life virtually unknown to literate society.
A sprawling, four-volume history resulted from Mayhew's investigations. This extract focuses on the criminal class--pickpockets, prostitutes, rag pickers, and vagrants, whose true stories of degradation, horror, and desperation rival Dickensian fiction. A classic reference source for sociologists, historians, and criminologists, Mayhew's work is immensely readable. As Thackeray wrote, these urban vignettes conjure up "a picture of human life so wonderful, so awful, so piteous and pathetic, so exciting and terrible, that readers of romances own they never read anything like to it."

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About the author (2012)

Henry Mayhew had a varied career as a London writer of the mid-Victorian period. He was the son of a London solicitor, Joshua Mayhew, who reputedly was a rather tyrannous father. Apparently, Henry was a bitter disappointment to his father; the younger Mayhew had been educated at the Westminster School but, in objection to a flogging he had received, ran away from school and went to sea for a year. On his return, he was articled to his father but after three years, he abandoned the law to seek a career as a journalist and a dramatist. Mayhew achieved some early success as a dramatist, most notably with his 1834 farce, "The Wandering Minstrel." In the late 1830's, he was the joint editor of a successful satirical weekly, Figaro in London, and later helped to found Figaro's most significant and long-lived successor, Punch. Evidently, a fairly serious rift developed between Mayhew and his magazine colleagues, although the details of this falling-out remain a mystery---one of the many unanswered questions about Mayhew's life. Mayhew was never without financial worries, and, as a means of making quick money, he collaborated on a number of comic novels with his younger brother, Augustus (1826--75). Their most successful work is "The Greatest Plague of Life" (1847), which was issued in monthly numbers and proved very popular. They followed it with "Whom to Marry and How to Get Married" (1848); later Mayhew singly authored 1851, or, "The Adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Sandbags 1851," (1851). Mayhew's attempt, in 1851, to publish the 82 "letters" he had written for the Morning Chronicle, in which he investigates the plight of London's urban poor, was a financial failure. They were issued in 1861, however, in four volumes under the title London Labour and the London Poor. It is for this classic work that Mayhew is today best known. In it, he unhesitatingly depicts the opprobrium under which most of the London working classes led their lives. In many ways, London Labour and the London Poor epitomizes the Victorian tendency to be simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by the working classes, the "Great Unwashed" huddled together in the urban centers of England. Along with Edwin Chadwick and J.P. Kay-Shuttleworth, Mayhew stands as one of the earliest of urban sociologists. Although recent years have witnessed an increase in interest in Henry Mayhew, a "definitive" biography remains to be written. The introductions to his work, notably John Rosenberg's preface to the Dover facsimile edition of London Labour and the London Poor and the essays framing the edition of "The Unknown Mayhew," are good sources of information.

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