London Labour and the London Poor: A Selected Edition by Henry Mayhew, Edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst - review by Sarah Wise

Sarah Wise

Living The Low Life

London Labour and the London Poor: A Selected Edition


Oxford University Press 472pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

'A picture of life so wonderful, so awful, so piteous and pathetic, so exciting and terrible, that readers of romances own they never read anything like to it.' This was Thackeray in 1850, on reading Henry Mayhew's 'Labour & The Poor' columns in the Morning Chronicle newspaper. City life had coerced the poor into adopting elaborate strategies for scavenging a bare living; the ingenuity of their entrepreneurship, the tenuous nature of their hold on life, their suffering and stoicism but also the regular belly-laughs of their world, tumble from every page of Mayhew's reports, which he expanded in 1861 into a book in four volumes.

The corn-salve seller exhibits what he claims is a large corn 'from the honourable foot of the late-lamented Sir Robert Peel' – 'a Free Trade corn', he calls it during his patter. Dick the Dollman hides the legs of his substandard wares as he touts them, because they

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