London Labour and the London Poor

New post for the Wordsworth Blog

The sums involved in printer George Woodfall’s chancery suit against Henry Mayhew that killed off London Labour and the London Poor mid-flow were trivial. He made several attempts to arrive at a settlement, but Mayhew ignored him. This was a common pattern of behaviour in Mayhew’s life, going back to his departure from school, which came about over a minor matter after he had won a Latin prize but neglected to carry out some Greek homework. Often on the verge of success, Mayhew would either walk away or actively self-sabotage through his own inability to deal with financial affairs and general life administration. This had scuppered his fledgling career as a merchant seaman, caused the mistake at his father’s firm, contributed to his bankruptcy, and his resignation from the Chronicle, which could have been avoided had he given some ground to his editors. Even his marriage eventually fell apart over his serial disorganisation and financial indifference – he invariably left the long-suffering Jane to deal with his creditors. He was not short of ideas and projects and he always hit the ground running, but then failed to maintain momentum, giving up out of boredom, exhaustion or both. As his friend Henry Vizetelly once said of him, ‘he would scheme and ponder all day long, but he abominated the labour of putting his ideas into tangible shape’, and M.H. Spielmann, while praising Mayhew’s genius, resourcefulness and humour, concluded that ‘indolence was his besetting sin, and his will was untutored’ (Spielmann: 1895, 268). The Victorians saw laziness, but it may also be that his overbearing father had instilled in Mayhew a lifelong depression and anxiety that made it very difficult to face life outside the bubble of his research. It is notable, after all, how easy he found it to talk to members of the labouring classes over his own family.

This tendency is apparent in the ultimate completion of London Labour, which was as rushed as the first volume was meticulous. Four years after it was abandoned, Mayhew, working with his brother Augustus, began compiling material for second and third volumes, using unpublished work bulked out by recycling the Chronicle letters, often verbatim. Having given up on his intended study of the working and underclasses in all their forms across the metropolis, he had resolved to at least finish the work on the street folk. Compared to the first volume, these would be masterpieces of concision, which would suggest the editorial process was rushed, both volumes advertised as going to print in November 1856. This never happened, Mayhew’s new publisher, David Bogue, dying that month instead. Mayhew made no attempt to find another publisher and turned instead to other projects, most notably the survey The Criminal Prisons of London, which was never completed and not published until 1862. London Labour in its entirety did not, in fact, see publication until the Griffin, Bohn & Co. edition of 1861, by which time the city had changed so much that while the books turned a modest profit, enough to warrant a reprint in 1865, they no longer had any real social relevance or political impact.

The books also felt different. Volume II relied much more heavily on individual testimony and the life stories told are as vivid as ever, but there is little of the social science of the earlier work, the analysis and linking remarks that had held the first volume together. Volume III, meanwhile, feels unstructured and incomplete, almost random at times, often reprinting Chronicle letters with new material tacked onto the end and little attempt to set up or contextualise, or to integrate them smoothly into the text. Mayhew’s presence is prominent in the interviews, but much less so in the editorial process…

To read the full post please click here

To read Part One please click here


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