‘A spurious abortion of an impure brain’: What did the London street traders think about Henry Mayhew?

OleOle Münch recently submitted his PhD thesis at the University of Constance, Germany. In his study he investigates how people of different religions interacted and affiliated at the Rag Fair street market of early Victorian London. Ole’s thoughts on Mayhew and the STPA are further elaborated in an article he published in the London Magazine 43 (2018).

On 18 May 1851, Reynolds’s Newspaper reported a curious event: ‘A numerous meeting of the London street-sellers was held in Westminster.’ The Street Traders’ Protection Association (STPA) had summoned the peddlers and hawkers of the metropolis to discuss a serious matter. A well-known journalist named Henry Mayhew was publishing a series of social reports in which they had been grossly insulted. The traders attending the STPA’s assembly were scandalized and outraged. The chairman, Mr. Taylor, set the tone: ‘Mr Mayhew … had got up his book to suit the tastes and views of the upper and middle classes, and he had selected a helpless class to be the victim of his slanders – the butt and target to be fired at by public scorn and ridicule.’ What exactly were the traders so upset about?

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For social historians, of course, Henry Mayhew is no stranger. The writer W. H. Auden once even placed him first in a list of ‘the greatest Victorian Englishmen’. One might think that this statement is a bit of a stretch. However, for anyone trying to write a ‘bottom-up history’ of early Victorian London there is no source text as detailed as Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. In stark contrast to the street traders cited above, historians have often hailed Mayhew for his unusually empathetic way of writing about poor people. Many of his contemporaries imagined the London lower orders as barbaric people with low morals and mental capabilities, who were supposedly unable to reflect upon their situation. Mayhew, however, was interested in how the poor considered themselves.

henryThe unusual interests of Henry Mayhew can in part be explained by his biography. He was born the son of a respectable solicitor but grew up to become a literary bohemian who followed an erratic lifestyle. As a teenager he attended the prestigious Westminster School but eventually ran away ‘rebelling against the discipline in force’, as he himself put it in a Dictionary of Contemporary Biography. As a result, his father sent him to sea and later took him into his law firm. The apprenticeship, however, was stormy and ended in a breach between the two of them; Henry nearly got his father arrested after forgetting to file some important documents.

All in all, Henry Mayhew seems to have been unable or unwilling to muster the steady discipline and work ethic expected of a respectable middle-class man. Instead he became a hack writer, joining a literary circle around Douglas Jerrold and Mark Lemon. The members of this circle were known for their wit and for having launched the satirical magazine Punch, of which Mayhew was coeditor for two years. Together these bohemians mocked the pretensions of middle-class respectability in many of their poems, novels and plays.

Rejecting his own social background, Mayhew was drawn to its symbolic counterpart: the unruly lower orders. In a meeting with informants he once claimed that ‘he “lived by his wits, just as the street-sellers did”’ (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 8 June 1851). However, even while sympathising with the poor he never fully transcended middle-class perspectives. Mayhew did not simply take over his informant’s perspective but produced something novel by appropriating and processing different voices.

The story of this unique blend began in 1849, when Mayhew was working for the Morning Chronicle, the second most prestigious newspaper of its time. It had launched a series of articles called Labour and the Poor consisting of short reports about the living conditions of the English working classes. Mayhew took part in the endeavour as its ‘metropolitan correspondent.’ His weekly instalments stood out not least because he systematically conducted interviews with poor people and recorded their words adding a ‘colour of his own’. Furthermore, he sided with his poor informants when they came into conflict with employers. So, it is no wonder that he became quite popular among the people he wrote about (see for example Reynolds’s Newspaper 16 June 1850, 3 November 1850). The Morning Chronicle, however, did not agree with Mayhew’s radical views. Eventually, he fell out with the newspaper’s publisher and started working on his own account.

Thus, it came about that from December 1851 to February 1852 a series of cheap booklets called London Labour and the London Poor could be bought in the metropolitan streets. It was a report on the people who earned their living by hawking and peddling, describing their work ethics, their perspective on religion, violence and sexuality. The work would be republished in the form of four voluminous and expensive books. However, for now even working-class people could afford to buy an instalment of the report – and of course they were interested in what Mayhew had written about them.

Large parts of Mayhew’s report were simply pieced together from texts he had published in the Morning Chronicle. However, in some parts of his second series of reports Mayhew shifted towards more conventional middle-class perspectives on the poor as contemporary street traders already noticed: ‘Mr Mayhew continued in connexion with the Morning Chronicle until he thought of mixing fact and fiction’ (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 8 June 1851).

These were the circumstances under which the STPA came into being. The street traders convened twice to give vent to their indignation, pass resolutions and discuss the exact nature of Mayhew’s insults (see Reynolds’s Newspaper, 18 May 1851, 8 June 1851). A good example of his ‘slanders’ can be found in the very first paragraphs of London Labour. Here, Mayhew draws on contemporary anthropological theory, speculating about whether the London street traders belonged to a ‘nomadic race’ and if their habit of constantly roaming around might have affected their mental capabilities and skull features. This assumption in turn made a strong impression on Mr. Martin, secretary to the STPA. At one of the street trader’s assemblies he told his audience that ‘Mr. Mayhew had himself a great propensity for travelling, and might, according to his own reasoning, very soon degenerate into a donkey (laughter)’ (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 8 June 1851).

Other speakers complained that the journalist had accused them of laziness and their women of lax sexual mores. Clearly, he must have made his informants drunk, they argued, ‘to give such information as would suit Mr. Mayhew’s readers’. In truth, however, the street traders worked longer hours than any other class of society, as they claimed. Furthermore‚ ‘they would be as well justified in saying that Mayhew was living with a harlot as he was in saying that the costermongers lived in a state of concubinage.‘ Some of the speakers at the assemblies were angry to a point where they let go of any politeness: London Labour was a ‘spurious abortion of an impure brain’, one of them claimed.

After the street traders had given vent to their anger, Mr. Martin summarized their arguments in a more systematic fashion, delineating them in letters published in Reynolds’s Newspaper (15 June 1851, 20 July 1851, 17 August 1851, 7 September 1851). In one of these letters (17 August 1851), Martin brought up the topic of religion, i.e. Mayhew’s allegation that London street traders had none. To counter this argument Martin accused the journalist of hypocritical bigotry:

[Mayhew’s] actions are evidently not those of a man imbued with the charitable doctrines of Christianity… To Mr. Mayhew we have not to answer for our religion, nor to any individual any more than to him. If we are responsible to anyone it is to our God. On that subject Mayhew falls on a level with the poor street-seller.

How are we to interpret the STPA and its assemblies? Some historians may read the newspaper accounts cited above as just another proof that Mayhew’s work was biased. Others might object that, taken as a whole, London Labour does not portray its subjects as unfavourably as some of them claimed. However, as is evident from the sources, Mayhew definitely inspired them to reflect upon themselves. While debating about his report, they developed notions about what it meant to be a street trader, defining who they were in relation to the journalist. They described themselves as an honest, hardworking and, indeed, pious set of men – with normal skull features. According to them, they were the ones living up to the standards of respectability, in contrast to Henry Mayhew whom they pictured as a wily imposter driven by pecuniary motives.

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While arguing in this vein the street traders used and affirmed a variety of social categories. For example, the term ‘costermonger’ figures prominently in many of their speeches. It designates a certain subtype of street traders selling fruit and vegetables. Besides this, many speakers employed a language of class, subtly encouraging their audience to understand themselves as sharing certain experiences and interests. All of them had been equally attacked, all of them had to face the problem that Mayhew’s ‘slanders’ were bad for business. In other words, the STPA created class consciousness; Mayhew’s ‘attacks […] aroused street-sellers and have urged them to unite’, as Mr. Martin argued. The street traders’ assemblies held in May and June 1851 form a largely forgotten episode in the history of English class-making.