Henry Mayhew

Early works

Arguably, the work of Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) is the main fore-runner of literary docu-memoir. Mayhew accepted a journalistic assignment in 1849 with the Morning Chronicle newspaper as the London correspondent “for a large-scale survey of Britain’s working poor,” but left the job by 1850 and continued to publish articles on the London poor independently, and later collected and published these articles in the four volumes of London Labour and the London Poor (1861) (Brown 1). Mayhew’s volumes are works of social investigative-journalism overlaid with Mayhew’s own opinions and views and judgements, as shown in his lengthy writings on costermongers for example (Mayhew 1: 4-61).

Mayhew paints detailed biographical sketches of his subjects, and includes in the work snatches of speech that echo the various dialects of the people, of the voices heard on the streets. His description of London street cries is an example: “Then the tumult of the thousand different cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time, is almost bewildering. ‘So-old again,’ roars one. ‘Chestnuts all’ot, a penny a score,’ bawls another. ‘An ‘aypenny a skin, blacking,’ squeaks a boy” (Mayhew 1:7). The work also includes some verbatim interview material that had been recorded by hand. One example of this is also in Volume 1: Mayhew writes that an old woman “very poorly, but rather tidily dressed,” gave him the following account which “shows a little of public-house custom” : “—‘I’ve seen better days, sir … but now I’m only a poor sheep’s trotter seller…. I serve some public-houses…. Mother’s the best name I’m called in a public-house, and it ain’t a respectable name …’ ” (172).

Nina Brown suggests that Mayhew’s writing recorded his subjects’ utterances “in a form that many have described as the best oral history of that period” (1). Brown maintains that together with the simple black and white maps incorporated into the text, the work addresses the “overall intensity of criminality in each county” and suggests that crime, prostitution and illegitimacy could be found in areas where there is a high rate of variables such as illiteracy (1). Brown further adds: “Mayhew approached his work … ethnographically, venturing into the streets to interview his subjects directly” (1).

Helen Groth points out that a number of contemporary reviewers have been quick to differentiate between the apparent “accuracy” of Richard Beard’s daguerreotype portraits included in the work, and the lack of relative authenticity in “Mayhew’s transcriptions of the voices of London’s street habitués” (“Seminar”). These criticisms, argues Groth, strike “at the core” of Mayhew’s claims to have “literally transcribed the patter, slang and speech rhythms of his interviewees” (“Seminar”). Groth notes that Mayhew rarely went out onto the streets to interview the subjects himself, but sent runners to gather the stories or find the subjects and put them in a paid hansom cab, and send them to Mayhew’s office where Mayhew interviewed the subjects and recorded their replies by hand in his diaries (“Soundscapes”). In Mayhew’s day, of course, the consumer tape-recorder had not been invented. But his work foreshadows methods used in literary docu-memoir. Mayhew listened to voices on the street and interviewed his subjects (even though sometimes vicariously) and recorded the subjects’ words in their own “voices” and dialectic speech patterns, and used that as resource material for his work in order to give his readers a sense of what ordinary life was like in the London of his day.

Works cited

Brown, Nina. “London Labour and the London Poor, 1861.” 1-3. Web. 8 Jan. 2013. http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/25

Groth, Helen. “The Soundscapes of Henry Mayhew.” Urban Ethnography and Technologies of Transcription Centre for Modernistic Studies in Australia. Seminar 5. Robert Webster: 327. UNSW. 15 Sept. 2011: 5-7 p.m. Address.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. 1812-1887. Introduction by John.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. 1812-1887. Introduction by John Rosenberg. 4 vols. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1968. Print.

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