london calling…across the folly ditch

Jacob’s Island was one of the most notorious of the riverside slums in early Victorian England. Accessible only by rickety wooden bridges that spanned odorous and oozy ditches, Jacob’s Island was a noisome enclave of decaying houses whose windows, windows no more looked forlornly down on all the filth, rot, poverty and garbage that lined the muddy banks of the Folly Ditch. It was another London; chimney sweeps, streetwalkers, match girls, and everyone who was down and out. It was as foreign to the well-to-do’s of the West End as life in Polynesia. From his articles in the “Morning Chronicle” Henry Mayhew developed a sociological masterpiece, ” London Labour and the London Poor”.

Mayhew:Long songs first appeared between nine and ten years ago. The long-song sellers did depend on the veritable cheapness and novel form in which they vended popular songs, printed on paper, three songs abreast, and the paper was about a yard long, which constituted the three yards of song. Long-song seller Sometimes three slips were pasted together. The vendors paraded the streets with their three yards of new and popular songs for a penny. The songs are, or were, generally fixed to the top of a long pole, and the vendor cried the different titles as he went along. This branch of the profession is confined solely to the summer; it being impossible to exhibit the three yards in wet or foggy weather. The paper songs, as they fluttered from a pole, looked at a little distance like huge much-soiled white ribbons, used as streamers to celebrate some auspicious news. The cry of one man, in a sort of recitative, or, as I heard it called by street-patterers, sing-song, was, Three yards a penny!..Read More:

Oliver Twist: To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along,
assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner….

"Street acrobats performing, in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, 1851" Read More:

…Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering
house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half
hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of
desolation and neglect.

William Measom after Archibald Samuel Henning, 'The Jew Old-Clothes Man', from Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (1861)---As novelist William Thackeray observed, Mayhew offered "a picture of human life so wonderful, so awful, so piteous and pathetic, so exciting and terrible, that readers of romances own they never read anything like it." read more: image:

Its hard to totally define Mayhew.He was a brilliant mind who narrowly escaped a prison sentence for bankruptcy. He co-founded “Punch” magazine to which he was later ousted. He had middling fortunes as a writer, though talent he did not lack. His brilliant work is almost forgotten: plays, travel books, children’s books, fairy tales, biographies and almanacs. But his unique survey, “London Labour and the London Poor” at least recognizes his talent and places him among the great Victorians. It was almost never released. The newspaper ceased publication of the articles after complaints from an advertiser and a Regent Street tailor claimed he had been libeled by Mayhew for exposing deplorable conditions of his shop. Mayhew interrupted at one time, publication, perhaps to escape creditors he went abroad.

Mayhew: In a dust-yard lately visited the sifters formed a curious sight; they were almost up to their middle in dust, ranged in a semi-circle in front of that part of the heap which was being worked; each had before her a small mound of soil which had fullen through her sieve and formed a sort of embankment, behind which she stood…. Their coarse dirty cotton gowns were tucked up behind them…; over their gowns they wore a strong leathern apron, extending from their necks to the extremities of their petticoats…. In the process of their work they pushed the sieve from them and drew it back again with apparent violence, striking it against the outer leathern apron with such force that it produced each time a hollow sound, like a blow on the tenor drum....Read More:

Its hard to know exactly why the wealthy classes saw no evil in this “other London” . Whether it was intentional collective blindness, or the theory that the greater the number witnessing a crime, the less of a probability that someone will intervene. The incapacity to respond; to protect the Dickens notion of “the purity of the middle-class” obviously blinded many to the tragic flaws and absurdity of the system.


Mayhew: The trade in second-hand apparel is one of the most ancient of callings, and is known in almost every country, but anything like the Old Clothes exchange of the Jewish quarter of London, in the extent and order of its business, is unequalled in the world. ...until the last few years, the trade in old clothes used to be carried on entirely in the open air, and this in the localities which I have pointed out in my account of the trade in old metal as comprising the Petticoat-lane district. The old clothes trade was also pursued in Rosemary-lane, but then - and so indeed it is now - this was but a branch of the more centralized commerce of Petticoat-lane, The head-quarters of the traffic at that time were confined to a space not more than ten square yards, adjoining Cutler-street. The chief traffic elsewhere was originally in Cutler-street, White-street, Carter-street, and in Harrow-alley - the districts of the celebrated Rag-fair. Mr. L. Isaac, the present proprietor, purchased the houses which then filled up the back of Phil’s-buildings, and formed the present Old Clothes Exchange. This was eight years more: image:

Simon Heffer: Mayhew was a journalist – he was one of the founders of Punch in 1841 – and like most in that trade had an insatiable curiosity for the life around him. He was also conscious, as many middle-class people of his era were, of the vast gulf between the lives of the poor and people like himself, let alone between them and the small ruling class.

He published his detailed observations of these people in four volumes in 1861-62, though they had first appeared in periodicals a decade earlier….Not only was there no welfare state in Britain at this time, there were also severe punishments for thieves: so those without an education had little choice but to work intolerably long hours doing the most soul-destroying of work….

"I have been reading through Henry Mayhew’s account of the working class in Victorian London and came across this fascinating story of Jack Black. Jack Black was the “official” rat catcher to Queen Victoria. He peddled rat poison throughout the streets of London and always carried a large cage of rats (much larger than what is shown here). Jack was rather fearless in handling his rats and would even kill them in front of live audiences while demonstrating the potency of his rat poison." read more:

…Mayhew lists all the street vendors of old London by their trades – the fried-fish sellers, the doll sellers, the coffee sellers and so on. These trades were arduous enough – a ham sandwich seller might have to work 12 hours a day even to scrape a living.

Compare this, though, with the men who made a living collecting cigar butts from the gutters of London and recycling the tobacco; or sifting the water in the sewers for anything of value; or (a most sought-after calling) sweeping the crossings in the more fashionable parts of the city, that they might garner tips from those whose path they had cleared of horse and dog excrement.

This edition also includes accounts of the lives of the boys who used to go up chimneys, confirming that some became stuck there and suffocated. Read More:

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