Archive for May 18th, 2011

Henry Mayhew

May 18, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Henry Mayhew was the Studs Terkel of the 19th century: I find his ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ (published 1851) more interesting even than Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. Particularly striking are Mayhew’s accounts of the lives of the city’s street vendors (costermongers).

‘Only one-tenth – at the outside one-tenth – of the couples living together and carrying on the costermongering trade, are married… Of the rights of ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’ children the costermongers understand nothing, and account it a mere waste of money and time to go through the ceremony of wedlock when a pair can live together, and be quite as well regarded by their fellows, without it. The married women associate with the unmarried mothers of families without the slightest scruple. There is no honour attached to the marriage state, and no shame to concubinage. Neither are the unmarried women less faithful to their ‘partners’ than the married; but I understand that, of the two classes, the unmarried betray the most jealousy.’ [22]

‘The dancing rooms are the places where matches are made up. There the boys go to look out for ‘mates’, and sometimes a match is struck up the first night of the meeting, and the couple live together forthwith. The girls at these dances are all the daughters of costermongers, or of persons pursuing some other course of street life. Unions take place when the lad is about 14. Two or three out of 100 have their female helpmates at that early age; but the female is generally a couple of years older than her partner. Nearly all the costermongers form such alliances as I have described, when both parties are under twenty. One reason why these alliances are contracted at early ages is, that when a boy has assisted his father, or any one engaging him, in the business of a costermonger, he knows that he can borrow money, and hire a shallow or a barrow – or he may have saved 5 shillings – “and then if the father vexes him or snubs him,” said one of my informants, “he’ll tell his father to go to h__l, and he and his gal will start on their own account.”’ [23]

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