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”.
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….
…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. Read More: http://www.literaturecollection.com/a/dickens/oliver-twist/50/ a
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.
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.
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….
…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: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/8257483/London-Labour-and-the-London-Poor-by-Henry-Mayhew-ed-by-Robert-Douglas-Fairhurst-review.html