HISTORY BY NUMBERS
Andrew Chapman looks at the life and work of a pioneer of sociology, Henry Mayhew
Andrew Chapman looks at how one Victorian social investigator provided us with lots of statistics about our ancestors.
One name which pops up quite frequently in this magazine is that of Henry Mayhew (1812-87), usually with reference to his monumental work London Labour and the London Poor. Its original three volumes, which began life as articles in the London Morning Chronicle in 1849-50 and then brought together in 1851, form one the most useful, fascinating and indeed moving accounts of poverty and street life in the capital ever compiled.
Year after year, Mayhew, his brother Augustus and other helpers pounded the streets of the metropolis in order to interview ordinary people divided into ‘those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work’, from mudlarks to market traders, prostitutes to poultry sellers. They weren’t always welcome, mind: in 1851, the Street Traders’ Protection Association was founded to keep him at bay!
Mayhew himself was a solicitor’s son (one of 17 children) who had run away to India at the age of 12. After his return, he became a journalist. It’s hard not to compare him to some degree with George Orwell: he even spent around a decade in Paris, and wrote plays, stories and novels (such as Whom to Marry and How to Get Married! and The Good Genius). Such was the influence of London Labour and the London Poor that there were numerous theatrical productions by other writers based on it.
In 1841, Mayhew co-founded Punch magazine – after leaving the editorship, he stayed on with the delightful title of ‘suggestor in chief’ (I might adopt that myself…). He also contributed to early issues of the Illustrated London News, as well as founding a railway magazine, Iron Times, which brought him to bankruptcy. He conceived the idea for his Morning Chronicle articles in 1849, sparked off by a major outbreak of cholera – he wrote a piece about its impact on working- class people in Bermondsey.
Many of Mayhew’s works can be read online for free at the Internet Archive ( www.archive.org), and there is a good selection, with a useful introduction by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of London Labour. Some of his original Morning Chronicle articles were compiled in The Unknown Mayhew by Eileen Yeo and E P Thompson in 1971, which also has more detailed biographical information.
Mayhew is known today for his evocative and sympathetic prose, and he grandly opened London Labour with the assertion that his was ‘the first real History of the People that has ever been attempted in any country whatsoever’ – but EP Thompson reminds us that he was also a ‘systematic empirical sociologist’. In short, his books were packed (and backed) with statistics.
Mayhew approached his subject from both sides: he asked workers to complete questionnaires about their labour and remuneration, while also studying census data and government reports. No doubt modern statisticians might query some of his methods, but there is no doubt that Mayhew at least tried to eliminate bias and inaccuracy. He is also another of our Victorian pioneers of ‘big data’: ‘I am well aware that the end can be gained only by laying bare the sufferings of a class, and not of any particular individuals belonging thereto.’
There isn’t space here to look at many of Mayhew’s actual statistics, but his work is littered with interesting data, and I commend anyone with an interest in 19th century working- class life to look at his works. In them, we learn facts as diverse as the number of costermongers working in London (30,000), how much trade they did (£2,181,200 a year), how many oyster shells had to be disposed of across the capital every year (around 500 million), how much rain fell on London each year (10,686,132,230,400 cubic inches!), how many cigar ends were thrown away each week (30,000)… the list goes on. Mayhew produced a fourth volume in 1862, in collaboration with other writers, focused on ‘prostitutes, thieves, swindlers and beggars’, which was notably more focused on statistics than the earlier volumes. The last 50 pages of this are particularly fascinating, packed with maps and tables showing data about crime, ‘ignorance’ (see also my column in YFH173), ‘concealment of births’, miscarriage, bigamy and more, in fact for the whole of England and Wales rather than just London. You can explore them at https://archive.org/stream/ londonlabourlond04mayh.
Sadly, although Mayhew was to produce a few further studies, including the statistics-rich Criminal Prisons of London (1862) with his collaborator John Binny, his star faded in the mid-1860s and 1870s (not helped by the failure of a play, Mont Blanc, co-written with his son). The Encylopaedia Britannica uncharitably says ‘short of money in his later years, he produced much hackwork and died in obscurity’. A quick study of the British Newspaper Archive for July 1887 suggests that’s a little harsh: Mayhew is repeatedly described as ‘the well-known writer’ and his last home was in Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury. He had not exactly joined the poor himself.
Andrew is executive editor of Your Family History, and runs his own publishing services business. He has been writing about family history for over a decade.