Published: 5 April, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
The men earned a living by wading through the scum and detritus that flowed thorough the sewer system.
Avoiding the giant rats and managing to become less sensitive to the enormous stink that washed over them, they delved into the muck and collected whatever they could find.
These sewer men are just one small part of a study by Henry Mayhew about the lives of the poorest people living in Victorian London.
His book, republished in paperback this week, brings alive an era of shocking poverty.
The sewermen he interviewed said their richest pickings were trinkets and coins flushed down drains.
Other items that were worth collecting, such as bits of rope and bones, had a value that was not immediately obvious yet dug out of the slime with relish.
Mayhew also uncovers a story that sounds like an urban myth – but also may be the reason for the people of Hampstead reporting strange nocturnal gruntings that seem to emanate from the very pavements beneath their feet.
As Mayhew explains, the sewermen tell a story that goes like this: a sow carrying a brood managed to find its way through a drainage gate and, enticed by the smells of the sewers, wandered inside.
She did not find her way out before giving birth and, attracted by the slush and plentiful “stuff” to graze on, they stayed there, thus creating a new breed of wild pig, feeding on what they could find in the sewers.
Mayhew dubs them “the fabulous monsters of the Hampstead sewers...”
He continues: “She reared her offspring in the drain, feeding on the offal and garbage washed into it continually. Here it is alleged, the breed multiplied exceedingly, and have become almost as ferocious as they are numerous...”
The sewer workers, fond of telling this story, add that the reason none of these pale subterranean hogs have yet to appear back up top isn’t anything to do with the plentiful food and mud to squelch about in, but that they can only get out through a river mouth exit – and to do so they would have to cross the fast-flowing Fleet.
“It runs towards the river with great rapidity, and as it is the obstinate nature of a pig to swim against the stream, the wild hogs of the sewers invariably work their way back to their original quarters and are thus never seen...”
In 1841, Mayhew co-founded the magazine Punch, but lasted for less than a year as its editor.
It was in 1849 that he took the first steps on the road towards the survey that would ensure his name became a benchmark of Victorian London.
He was invited to contribute to the Morning Chronicle, known for campaigning to improve social conditions, and he was sent to cover an outbreak of cholera that was killing thousands each year. His work won him the position of “Metropolitan Correspondent”, and he produced a series of articles revealing the way thousands of Londoners lived during the “Golden Age of Victorian Empire”.
His series of articles was an extraordinary undertaking.
As a book it amounted to nearly 2,000 pages of small print containing around two million words, Mayhew spoke to the people he was writing about, they responded by talking about everything from what they earned to their personal histories, what they ate, their families, pets, hopes and fears. He brings back to life parts of Camden, Islington and Westminster that it seems incredible to think existed only a few generations ago.
He split the survey into sections to cover the multitude of different people he met: all have the common thread that they find work, or at least the means to fund themselves, in the streets.
Sellers, buyers, finders, performers and showmen, artisans and labourers all feature.
Every page reveals a gem of a fact that illuminates the city. For example, Mayhew states that the popularity of oysters was such that Londoners disposed of 500 million shells each year, and describes carefully the world of Leather Lane market.
His book was a hit – and no wonder, as it contained horrors that could match any Gothic Victorian novel. Thackeray called his work a picture of “...human life so wonderful so awful, so piteous and pathetic, so exciting and terrible...strange adventures depicted here exceed anything that any of us could imagine.”
Mayhew said in the preface to the original that he hoped it “...may serve to give the rich a more intimate knowledge of the sufferings and the frequent heroism under the sufferings, of the poor – that it may teach those who are beyond temptation to look with charity on the frailties of their less fortunate brethren.”
He added that the rich must do something to “...improve the condition of a class of people whose misery, ignorance, and vice, amidst all the immense wealth and great knowledge of the ‘first city in the world,’ is, to say the least, a national disgrace to us.”
London Labour and the London Poor celebrates the ingenuity of those who had to fight every day to find a crust, but it also does not let the city off: his work helped reveal the violent struggles and the huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and it deserves its place alongside Charles Dickens for highlighting the evils of impoverishment.
• London Labour and the London Poor. By Henry Mayhew. Edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Oxford World Classics £8.99