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London Labour & Mayhew's Maps

London Labour & Mayhew's Maps


Henry Mayhew identified a fourth class too – those that need not work – not his chief concern and they don’t make it onto the title-page of London Labour and the London Poor (first edition, London, 1851). I’ve found myself leafing through a copy in the wake of the recent disturbances, which has given me a slightly different perspective. This will be a blog about books and maps, not politics, but I couldn’t help speculating on what a modern Mayhew would make of our London (for the education and titillation of his middle class readers, naturally, like the original); what are our bone-grubbers, dog-sellers and street herbalists - those curious specialist livings which are (barely) to be scratched on the margins of society in all ages?
I made a beeline for the section on the book trade, and felt as though I could have got on pretty well the with street booksellers which Mayhew interviewed and recorded so vividly. Not all that much has changed. It’s still difficult to shift sets of the Spectator(not that odd vols would go any faster these days), and Hudibras (innumerable editions) is still a bit of a dog. One hundred and fifty years fell away in an instant when I was confronted with the irritation of an impoverished bookseller trying to resist knocking 2d off an 8d book for a wealthy chiseller (the man had been looking for it for years, but 8d was just too much; naked profiteering!) The less said the better about people willing to pay an extra penny for good condition secondhand children’s books with clearly printed (much higher) prices on the covers – to give as gifts – reminds me too much of people who must remain nameless!
The woodcut illustrations are well known enough, but still wonderful. The blind bootlace seller; the coster boy and girl ‘tossing the pie man’ (gambling for pies); the dog collar man and the Lucifer match girl, and of course the book auctioneer … they all stare out of the page, set down twenty years ahead of Doré’s controversial work (London: a pilgrimage. 1872). Less well-known are the maps. The map showing ‘the intensity of ignorance’ in England and Wales sounds like mid Victorian hyperbole, but it’s based on the fairly sound idea that levels of education can in some measure be linked to the proportion of people able to write their own names in the marriage register. In the decade 1839-1848 only 18% of Middlesex were unable to sign, but in neighbouring Hertfordshire 54% of newly weds made their mark.
Mayhew also used maps to tackle subjects which it was difficult to deal with directly in the text. His section on prostitution, for example, is prefaced by a rambling discourse on prostitution in the ancient world, and in just about every other corner of the known world in his own age, stretching from Afghanistan to China by way of the West Indies. In complete contrast his maps, backed with copious statistical tables, are direct and sometimes astonishingly specific – for example the map plotting those convicted for the abuse of girls aged 10-12. Quite shocking even for someone like me who has grown up in the age of the red-tops, Mayhew’s maps are not to be skated over.
The golden age of this sort of thematic or statistical cartography probably lies the second half of the century, so Mayhew was ahead of the game, but that’s something for another post.
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