An­drew Chap­man looks at the life and work of a pi­o­neer of so­ci­ol­ogy, Henry May­hew

Your Family History - - Contents - By An­drewChap­man

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.

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