Where did Charles Dickens go when he needed first hand information on London street merchants? Of course, he went out with detectives as they made their rounds but what if he needed to know about the street people who worked out of Covent Garden, or the teachers who taught for little or no wages in the so-called “ragged schools” which often consisted of a large, unheated room and rowdy children of all ages? Dickens probably turned to the source that thousands have used: Henry Mayhew’s monumental work of oral history, London Labour and the London Poor.
During the 1840s and 1850s, Mayhew interviewed hundreds of London’s poorest people. He talked to flower girls, who, having nothing, sold little bouquets of violets that they tied up out of broken flowers they found on the pavement. He spoke with costermongers who sold bruised fruit and vegetables at prices the poor could afford. He described in detail their brightly painted carts pulled by small donkeys in fancy reins and saddles, and even talked about the special bond between the costers and their animals. He described the “medicines” sold by “mountebanks” and the fake posters that purported to be the “last words and confessions” of executed murderers (very popular items). There were vendors of printed cards detailing “the professor’s system” for improving memory and learning languages.
The “casual” dock workers who gathered at the “cage” at the end of Nightingale Lane and were later a force in the politics of the metropolis were subjects of Mayhews’ pen. London “jarveys” or cab drivers are described, how they slept in their cabs while their horses slept standing up. What they wore, how they spoke, a host of eyewitness details that we could never know if not for Mayhew. As Thackery wrote, Mayhew provides us with “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 it.” Readers will think they have picked up a Dore illustration from a Dickens novel, drawn even more vividly than the master illustrator.
This magnificent work of social oral history is available in many editions. It used to be only Dover who printed it. But no more! It is truly a masterpiece that is not to be missed.