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.
“I don’t go out before daylight to gather anything, because the police take my bag and throws all I’ve gathered about the street to see if I have anything stolen in it. I never stole anything in all my life, indeed I’d do anything before I’d steal. Many a night I’ve slept under an arch of the railway when I hadn’t a penny to pay for my bed; but whenever the police find me that way, they make me and the rest get up, and drives us on. The Jews around here give a great deal of victuals away on Saturday. They sometimes calls one of us in to light a fire for them, or take off the kettle, as they must not do anything themselves on the Sabbath. There’s a great deal more than 100 bone-pickers about here, men, women, and children.The winter is the best time for us, for there is more meat used, and then there are more bones. I’ve lost my health since I took to bone-picking, through the wet and cold in the winter, for I’ve scarcely any clothes, and the wet gets to my feet through the old shoes; this caused me last winter to be nine weeks in the hospital of the Whitechapel workhouse.
The groundsel man
“I sell chickweed and grunsell, and turfs for larks. That’s all I sell, unless it’s a few nettles that’s ordered. I believe they’re for tea, sir. I gets the chickweed at Chalk Farm. I pay nothing for it. I gets it out of the public fields. Every morning about seven I goes for it. I’ve been at business for about eighteen years. I’m out till about five in the evening. I never stop to eat. I am walking ten hours every day – wet and dry. My leg and foot and all is quite dead. I goes with a stick”.
The blind boot-lace seller
“At five years old, while my mother was still alive, I caught the small pox. I only wish vaccination had been in vogue then as it is now or I shouldn’t have lost my eyes. I didn’t lose both my eyeballs until about twenty years after that, though my sight was gone for all but the shadow of daylights and bright colours. I could never see a star. I got to think that a roving life was a fine pleasant one. I didn’t think the country was half so big and you couldn’t credit the pleasure I got in going about it. I grew pleaseder and pleaseder with life. You see, I never had no pleasure, and it seemed to me like a whole new world, to be able to get victuals without doing anything. On my way to Romford, I met a blind man who took me into partnership with him, and larnt me my business complete – and that’s just about two or three and twenty year ago”.
The London coffee-stall
“I was a mason’s labourer, a smith’s labourer, a plasterer’s labourer, or a bricklayer’s labourer. I was for six months without any employment. I did not know which way to keep my wife and child. Many said they wouldn’t do such a thing as keep a coffee stall, but I said I’d do anything to get a bit of bread honestly. I went to the tinman and paid him ten shillings and sixpence (the last of my savings, after I’d been four or five months out of work) for a can. I heard that an old man, who had been in the habit of standing at the entrance of one of the markets, had fell ill. So, what do I do, I goes and pops onto his pitch, and there I’ve done better than ever did I before”.
“My mother has been in the streets selling all her lifetime. Her uncle learnt her the markets and she learnt me. I suppose by sitting at the stall from nine in the morning till the shops shuts up at ten o’clock at night, I can earn about 1s. 6d. a day. If I’m unlucky, mother will say, “Well, I’ll go out tomorrow and see what I can do”; and if I’ve done well, she’ll say “You’re a good hand at it: you’ve done famous”. Yes, mother’s very fair that way. Ah! there’s many a gal I knows whose back has to suffer if she don’t sell enough.
“I dare say there ain’t ten out of a hundred gals what’s living with men, what’s been married Church of England fashion. But it seems to me that the gals is fools to be ‘ticed away. The lads is very insinuating, and will make a gal half tipsy, and then they makes their arrangements. Then perhaps a man will have a few words with his gal, and he’ll say, “Oh! I ain’t obliged to keep her!” and he’ll turn her out: and then where’s that poor gal to go?
“My parents often talks about religion. I’ve heerd Father talk about the first man and woman as was made and lived – it must be more than a hundred years ago. Father told us how our Saviour gave a great many poor people a penny loaf and a bit of fish each, which proves him to have been a very kind gentleman. We poor gals aren’t very religious, but we are better than the men. We all of us thanks God for everything – even for a fine day; as for sprats, we always say they’re God’s blessing for the poor, and thinks it hard of the Lord Mayor not to let ’em come in afore the ninth of November, just because he wants to dine off them – which he always do. I know where heaven is; it’s above the clouds, and it’s placed there to prevent us seeing into it. That’s where all the good people go, but I’m afeered there’s very few costers among the angels – ‘specially those as deceives poor gals.”