In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London’s working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations from the people themselves, describing their lives. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London’s forgotten underclass. Here are some excerpts from Mayhew’s interviews with street traders (more here). The illustrations are all drawn from actual daguerreotypes.
The baked-potato man
“Such a day as this, sir, when the fog’s like a cloud come down, people looks very shy at my taties. They’ve been more suspicious since the taty rot. I sell mostly to mechanics, I was a grocer’s porter myself before I was a baked taty. Gentlemen does grumble though, and they’ve said, “Is that all for tuppence?” Some customers is very pleasant with me, and says I’m a blessing. They’re women that’s not reckoned the best in the world, but they pays me. I’ve trusted them sometimes, and I am paid mostly. Money goes one can’t tell how, and ‘specially if you drinks a drop as I do sometimes. Foggy weather drives me to it, I’m so worritted – that is, now and then, you’ll mind, sir”.
The crippled street bird-seller
“I couldn’t walk at all until I was six years old, and I was between nine and ten before I could get up and down stairs by myself. When I could get about and went among other boys, I was in great distress, I was teased so. Life was a burthen to me, as I’ve read something about. I learned to read at a Sunday school, where I went a long time. I like reading. I read the Bible and tracts, nothing else; never a newspaper. It don’t come in my way, and if it did I shouldn’t look at it, for I can’t read over well and it’s nothing to me who’s king or who’s queen. It can never have anything to do with me. There’ll be no change for me in this world. I’ve been bird-selling in the streets for six-and-twenty years and more. I liked the birds and still do. I used to think at first that they was like me; they was prisoners, and I was a cripple. And I think of the next world sometimes, and feel quite sure, quite, that I shan’t be a cripple there. Yes, that’s a comfort”.
The street comb seller
“I used to mind my mother’s stall. She sold sweet snuff. I never had a father. Mother’s been dead these – well, I don’t know how long but it’s a long time. I’ve lived by myself ever since and kept myself and I have half a room with another young woman who lives by making little boxes. She’s no better off nor me. I has very few amusements. I goes once or twice a month, or so, to the gallery at the Victoria Theatre, for I live near. It’s beautiful there, O, it’s really grand. I don’t know what they call what’s played because I can’t read the bills. I’m a going to leave the streets. I have an aunt, a laundress, she taught me laundressing and I’m a good ironer. I’m not likely to get married and I don’t want to”.
“I was brought up on the land, sir, in the county Wexford. I lived with my mother and father, and shure we were badly off. Father and mother – the Heavens be their bed – died one soon after another, and some friends raised me the manes to come to this country. Two Londoners came to find men as they wanted for rubbish-carters One of ’em said, I was a b—– Irish fool, and words came on, and thin there was a fight, and the pelleece came. I was taken to the station, and had a month. I had two black eyes next morning, but was willin’ to forget and forgive. No, I’m not fond of fighting. I’m a peaceable man, glory be to God. I sarved my month, and it ain’t a bad place at all, the prison. I tould the gintleman that had charge of us that I was a Roman Catholic, God be praised, and couldn’t go to his prayers. “O very well, Pat”, says he. And next day the praste came, and very angry he was, and said our conduc’ was a disgrace to religion, and to our counthry, and to him. Do I think he was right, sir? God knows he was, or he wouldn’t have said so”.