Thursday, October 19, 2017

Henry Mayhew and the London Poor: The Lives of Street Sellers

By Mark Patton.

In an earlier blog-post, I followed the experiences of a stranger from the English countryside, newly arrived in London at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, and I quoted the campaigning journalist, Henry Mayhew, describing the "sauntering forth of the unwashed poor" at the beginning of the day, as observed from the vantage-point of the balcony on the dome of Saint Paul's Cathedral.

Mayhew is one of the most important historical sources for anyone seeking to understand the life of London's streets in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. His writings on downward social mobility were surely coloured, at least in part, by his personal experience. Born in London in 1812, and educated at Westminster School, he ran away to sea as a teenager. On top of a failed career as a merchant seaman, he had failed careers as a lawyer, a playwright, and a theatre impresario, and spent much of his adult life on the brink of bankruptcy. He co-founded Punch magazine in 1841, but was manoeuvred out before it became a profitable venture.

Henry Mayhew, based on a Daguerrotype by Richard Beard (image is in the Public Domain).

He is best remembered for a series of articles that he wrote for The Morning Chronicle in 1849, based on interviews with some of London's poorest residents, ranging from barrow-boys and chimney-sweeps, to mudlarks and prostitutes. These articles were brought together, in 1851, in a three-volume work entitled London Labour and the London Poor, to which a fourth volume was added in 1861. His interviews are thought to have influenced many of the fictional accounts of the time, including Charles Dickens's novel, Our Mutual Friend, Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke, and Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth.

A young man or woman arriving in London from the countryside between 1800 and 1850 might hope, depending on his or her level of skill and literacy, to find employment as a clerk, a shop-worker, a dress-maker, or a domestic servant, but such positions were rarely secure: employers hired and fired at will; businesses often failed; and few bosses would keep positions open for employees who suffered illness or injury. In such circumstances, people had to fall back on their own resources, and many of those interviewed by Mayhew were, one way or another, precariously self-employed.

A street seller of nutmeg-graters and funnels: this man was crippled from birth, and had to pay someone to help dress him in the mornings (image is in the Public Domain).

A street seller of apples (image is in the Public Domain).

A street seller of oysters (image is in the Public Domain).

A street seller of combs (image is in the Public Domain).

One such was a man who sold ham sandwiches on the streets of the West End. "I hardly remember my father," he told the journalist, "but I believe, if he'd lived, I should have been better off ... My brother had gone into the sandwich trade ... and he advised me to be a ham sandwich-man, and so I started as one. At first, I made 10s., and 7s., and 8s. a week - that's seven years or so - but things are worse now, and I make 3s. 6d. some weeks, and 5s. others ... My rent's 2s. a week, but I haven't my own things ... I used to buy my sandwiches at 6d. a dozen, but I found that wouldn't do; and now I buy and boil the stuff, and make them myself. What did cost me 6d., now only costs me 4d. ... "

The sandwich seller might have been, in modern terms, "just about managing" (he did, at least, have a home to go to at night, with facilities for boiling ham); and, in Victorian terms, one of the "deserving poor" (making a living through his own efforts, rather than seeking charity or resorting to crime), but this did not always protect him from abuse by those better off than he was:

"Six times I've been upset by drunken fellows on purpose, I've no doubt, and lost all my stock. Once, a gent kicked my basket into the dirt ... I've been bilked by cabmen, who've taken a sandwich; but, instead of paying for it, have offered to fight me ... we're knocked about sadly by the Police."

Unlike many on the streets, this man was literate:

"I read a bit, if I can get anything to read, for I was at St Clement's School; or I walk out and look for a job. On summer-days I sell a trotter or two. But mine's a wretched life, and so is most ham sandwich-men. I've no enjoyment of my life and no comfort."

Most of Mayhew's interviews provide us only with a snapshot of an individual's life, and we do not know what became of this young man. On the one hand, he might have found employment a few days later; on the other, the briefest of illnesses could have ended his business and left him destitute, with few opportunities to claw his way back.


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of historical fiction and non-fiction at He is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books may be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Incredibly sad. I have a disabled son. I can't even imagine him trying to make it through life that way.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Mark and highlighting the articles of Henry Mayhew. The street sellers are colorful, but they surely lived on the very edge. "Precariously self-employed, as you put it so well. Sometimes authors get so wrapped up in royalty we are blind to how the underclass lived. The poor, the handicapped, the working poor. The majority of humanity.


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