Janice Schroeder, “The Publishing History of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor


Versions of Henry Mayhew’s massive social survey London Labour and the London Poor appeared in several publishing formats, including newspaper column, weekly serial, live stage show, and bound volume. This article traces the republication and remediation of London Labour alongside Mayhew’s repackaging of his interviews with London “street-folk” from 1849 onwards. I offer a succinct, accessible account of the complex publishing history of the text, from print newspaper column to digital edition.

Two men row a barge across the thames in the foreground. In the background, ships pass, and industrial buildings can be seen on the bank. The lightermen are rowing cargo. Beneath the photo, a caption reads 'THAMES LIGHTERMEN, from a sketch'

“Thames Lightermen”, wood engraving, from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Volume 3, 1861.

London Labour and the London Poor began as a weekly periodical that set out to document the work, earnings, and daily experiences of some of London’s most marginalized people—the “street folk” who earned a living by selling fruit and vegetables at street stalls, scavenged refuse from the sewers and map iconThames for resale, exhibited peepshows and live animals, or hawked fake news in mid-nineteenth-century London. The editor, author, compiler, statistician, and principal investigator (all these terms apply in one way or another) of London Labour
was Henry Mayhew, who was driven by contradictory feelings of sympathy and contempt for the people he interviewed and the conditions of life he described. London Labour was published every Saturday and was sold at railway stalls across Britain for two pennies per number. By the time the last installment of the series ran in February of 1852, 63 numbers had been published, including approximately four hundred interviews between Mayhew or his associates and London street workers (Taithe 18-19). Yet the time frame of the weekly serial—the fourteen months between December 1850 and February 1852—is but one brief stage in the print cultural evolution of Mayhew’s influential work, one that is easy to overlook since it is by the later volume editions of 1861 and 62 that most readers now come to the text, either in print or online. The apparent straightforwardness of the event on the BRANCH timeline masks a complex, even chaotic publishing history that is still obscure to most readers of the text, despite the care with which pioneering critics like Anne Humpherys and Bertrand Taithe have pieced it together. Furthermore, the event of the publication of the first number of London Labour continues to reverberate even today, with the development of new digital platforms hosting and transforming the print volumes by which most contemporary scholars came to know London Labour starting in the mid-twentieth century. As Taithe writes, Mayhew’s project “had several lives. Unlike a purely literary text, or a complete text, there is no clear progression, no sense of achievement” (5). It is difficult to say when London Labour truly began, and fair to say that it has not yet ended

The complexity of the publication history of London Labour, its appearance in multiple formats since its inception, and its generic, formal, and authorial instability, make it a fascinating and challenging case study for historians of print and for those interested in the ongoing transformation of print to digital formats and distant reading methodologies. The purpose of this article is to orient both new and established readers of London Labour to the multilayered publishing history of the text in a focused overview and in an accessible scholarly venue like BRANCH. Doing so helps dispel common misunderstandings about the text and opens a window onto mid-Victorian publishing practices. This article also draws attention to cultural meanings embedded within the forms and formats of London Labour, and the interpretive possibilities that lie between a formal analysis of London Labour and its latest reincarnation as a digital object. (Mayhew’s text could be described as a kind of Victorian database of voices and experiences, its metadata the statistical tables that aggregated and abstracted information collected in the interviews.) That is, tracing the publishing history of the text, as I do here, is not solely an exercise in bibliographic hygiene but an invitation to consider the forms of London Labour as crucial to its meaning and continuing circulation, both past and present. As Taithe notes, “[i]t was read according to how it was presented: as part of an expensive newspaper; as a cheap, penny periodical sold alongside ‘penny dreadfuls’, and as an expensive four-volume book” (5). Understanding how readers then and now interacted with London Labour across its modes of publication is crucial to an understanding of this text—an ungainly yet exciting mix of genres, forms, voices, and vocabularies.

The process that led to the four “complete” volumes of London Labour might be described as a series of stops and starts: ambitious beginnings, half-completed projects, rabbit holes, and revivals. One possible term for this history is “ragged,” a word often used throughout the period to describe Mayhew’s speakers, whose livelihoods were dependent on an economy of scrounging, salvaging, and repurposing of pre-used material.[1] In what follows, I focus on the four key modes by which Victorian audiences encountered London Labour: newspaper column, weekly serial, bound volume, and staged reading. The published volumes are the source texts for twentieth-century reprints, modern scholarly print editions, and online editions on Tufts Digital Library and Internet Archive. Yet when we rely solely on the volumes for our understanding of the text, we miss the rich print cultural history of London Labour. That is, the publication history of the “finished” volumes of London Labour and the London Poor embraces many of the issues fundamental to serialization, book history, and digital publishing. The story of the production of the volumes of London Labour is one of contingency and incompleteness, plenitude and precariousness, resourcefulness and improvisation.

If London Labour has a beginning, it is perhaps in the human ingestion of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae from contaminated water sources. The urgency of the cholera epidemic of the late 1840s and the associated socio-political problems of urban poverty and lack of sanitation infrastructure in London’s crowded slum districts motivated not just Mayhew but other social commentators to investigate and report on conditions in the areas hardest hit by the disease. Signing himself “Anti-Zymosis,” Mayhew published a series of letters in the daily Morning Chronicle newspaper in September 1849 calling for an inquiry into the causes of cholera. The pseudonym “Anti-Zymosis” indicated Mayhew’s rejection of the theory that cholera was a contagious disease passed on by airborne agents. The strength of his letters on cholera led to an association with the Chronicle that would change Mayhew’s life. After his commissioned article “A Visit to the Cholera Districts of map iconBermondsey” appeared on 24 September 1849, Mayhew was hired as the paper’s “Special Correspondent for the Metropolis” to submit regular “letters” for a series called “Labour and the Poor,” which also included reports from the rural and manufacturing districts of England filed by other writers. Mayhew quickly moved on from writing about the ravages of cholera to investigations of the state of various London trades, and the working conditions and wages of skilled and unskilled labourers. As we will see, some of this material was later reprinted in London Labour and the London Poor, primarily in Volume 3. As was standard for the period, Mayhew’s contributions to the Morning Chronicle series were unsigned. However, its popularity led to much public speculation about the identity of the “Metropolitan Correspondent” until the Manchester Examiner eventually revealed that Mayhew was the writer, launching his name and “brand” into the national spotlight (Anderson 111).[2] Mayhew published eighty-two letters for the series between October 1849 and December 1850 (Thompson and Yeo 7). At first he was publishing two to three letters per week, which then dwindled to one, until finally his reports stopped abruptly with no explanation from the editors of the newspaper (Humpherys, Travels 19).

Although letters signed by the “Metropolitan Correspondent” continued to appear until December 1850, Mayhew’s relationship with the Chronicle ended in October of that year over political disagreements about free trade and slop work; he and the Chronicle took a different view on the issues, and it is unclear whether he quit or was fired (Anderson 120; Humpherys, Henry Mayhew 112). Mayhew aired his grievances with the newspaper in public meetings and, with debates ongoing in the press, he set about reviving the “Labour and the Poor” series independently, under a slightly different title. By the end of 1850 he had set up shop in an office in London’s map iconFleet Street (later moving operations to 19 map iconUpper Wellington Street). From these locations he began issuing the new London Labour and the London Poor as an independent weekly periodical, a mode of serial publication that overlapped between daily newspapers and monthly magazines. In addition to this shift in publishing format, another significant difference between the Chronicle letters and London Labour was the change in emphasis from the skilled trades and out-of-work artisans to the “street folk,”—itinerant street vendors, scavengers, and street performers—a precarious population that hovered between self-employment and homelessness (Williams 243).

As mentioned above, the first stage of the weekly serial of London Labour was between December 1850 and February of 1852. It is somewhat tempting to regard this period as the only “authentic” phase of the text’s history. Mayhew, with assistance from his brother Augustus and at least a few other collaborators, including Henry Wood and Richard Knight, was responsible for producing the material, attracting advertisers, and marketing the serial independent of the considerable resources that had been furnished by the Morning Chronicle. According to Humpherys, circulation of London Labour numbered around 13,000 copies weekly—respectable, but far below other weekly papers of the day (Travels 24). The two-penny purchase price put it out of the reach of the very poor, but it was more accessible to a working-class audience than the Morning Chronicle letters; the Chronicle was a middle-class paper, its chief rival the Times. Sales of one number of London Labour financed the production of the next, and throughout the months of 1851 it seemed to run smoothly enough, with unsold numbers bound and resold at intervals of one month and six months, another common practice in Victorian print publication and marketing (Humpherys, Travels 24). Unlike the original Morning Chronicle contributions, the new London Labour series featured illustrations—one per weekly number. These were wood engravings of a sample of Mayhew’s interviewees based on daguerreotypes taken by Richard Beard, who was credited in an italicized byline below each image—“From a daguerreotype by Beard”—although the engravers remained anonymous.[3]

Another distinctive feature of London Labour that set it apart from the Chronicle series was the paratextual “Answers to Correspondents” section. Each number of London Labour was sold in a cheap paper cover or “wrapper” on which were printed advertisements (crucial to the financial viability of any periodical publication) and letters to Mayhew from readers, along with his replies. This feature began with the fifth number of London Labour, on 11 January 1851, and was a direct response to readers’ requests for such an addition. The wrappers were an integral part of the series, containing sometimes lengthy debates on questions of political economy, Mayhew’s theory of wages, etymology (a surprisingly robust line of debate between Mayhew and his readers), and other topics. Readers wrote expressing concern and offering financial support for certain interviewees who struck a chord, such as the “Watercress Girl.” Even one of the interviewees himself, Charles Alloway (referred to in London Labour as the “Seller of Nutmeg-Graters”) wrote in, expressing first gratitude for readers’ charitable donations, followed by a desperate appeal for more cash as the money drained away—a kind of Victorian GoFundMe campaign (to which Mayhew strongly objected, since he did not see his series as a charitable organization, and tried to suppress attempts to treat it as one). Unlike the daguerreotype-engravings, which survived the serial format and were incorporated into the later volumes, the wrappers were meant to be read, then torn off and discarded before binding, as per Mayhew’s instructions. Bound editions of the serials containing the “Answers to Correspondents” are now exceedingly rare and few contemporary re-issues of London Labour include or even acknowledge this key feature of the original serials. Such paratextual material, designated as ephemera in an already ephemeral form such as a weekly serial, was vulnerable to extinction, yet it so often contains vital clues about readership, reception, and so on. In the case of London Labour, the “Answers to Correspondents” section makes it clear that the subjects of the series were also the readers and even the producers of content, as in the case of Charles Alloway: “the readership was the book” (Taithe 32).[4]

By June of 1851, Mayhew had enough material that he could issue the first series in a full-length volume edition (as opposed to the partial collections referred to above appearing at various monthly intervals). To this June 1851 bound edition Mayhew added a preface and a dedication to his friend and father-in-law, Douglas Jerrold. These additions, plus an index and list of errata, signalled the seriousness of volume publication, which carried greater prestige than weekly serialization. As Taithe writes, this is the only volume of material from the “final” four-volume London Labour project that was ever published under Mayhew’s complete editorial control (19). In terms of subject matter, it is the most coherent of the four volumes, covering costermongers and other street sellers. Crucially, the “Answers to Correspondents” were not included in the volume, nor were dates of issue for the individual serial installments that comprised the whole of this volume and portions of the subsequent ones. That is, material in the volumes appeared as though it were written for volume publication—“born-volume”—rather than lifted from a weekly serial (although the two-column format of the volumes betrayed its origins as a weekly periodical). The absence of complete bibliographic information and paratextual content from the volumes makes it difficult to track what material appeared when. Perhaps such information doesn’t seem urgent to casual students of the text, but if we want to try to determine which week or month Mayhew interviewed Charles Alloway, for example, we will encounter difficulty if we have only the volumes to rely on.

With Volume 1 under his belt, Mayhew was already at work on the material for the projected Volumes 2 and 3. Starting in late August 1851, London Labour continued its weekly publishing schedule, with issues on prostitution appearing alternately with numbers featuring Mayhew’s latest obsession, a survey of London’s sewers and roadways: the pavement, mud, and sewage flowing in London’s streets and gutters; and the street cleaners, scavengers, and rubbish carters who hauled it away for profit. Much of what became Volume 2 is composed of material on London’s sanitation infrastructure, a major topic of concern in the 1850s in the wake of the cholera crisis and the impending construction of London’s modern sewage system. Although this material was intended for volume publication some time in 1852, those plans were cancelled with the abrupt end of the serialization of London Labour, described below. Meanwhile, the material on prostitution, none of it written by Mayhew himself, was intended for a planned Volume 3, but would eventually be collected and published in Volume 4. Both Taithe and Humpherys name journalist Horace St. John as the author of a historical, pan-continental survey of prostitution that was later included in Volume 4, yet, confusingly, it is another journalist, Bracebridge Hemyng, who is credited for the material on prostitution in the table of contents for Volume 4 (Taithe 19; Humpherys, Travels 83). The prostitution survey was prefaced by Mayhew’s famous taxonomy of workers and non-workers, “Those who will work, those who cannot work, and those who will not work” (London Labour and the London Poor Vol. 4, vii). But this material was upcycled from a similar classification system he first developed and published in mid-1850 in the Morning Chronicle.

As publication of the weekly installments of London Labour proceeded throughout 1851, Mayhew was also busy with other projects: he was contributing to other newspapers and working on a comic novel about the Great Exhibition called 1851: or, The Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys, illustrated by George Cruikshank and published by David Bogue. In November 1851 he launched Low Wages, a new serial stemming from the debates on political economy in the “Answers to Correspondents.” It is nothing short of mind-boggling to consider Mayhew’s productivity in 1851. But much of this prodigious output crashed to a halt in February 1852, the last month of publication of the weekly installments of London Labour (and Low Wages) when Mayhew was sued by his printer, George Woodfall and Son, for unpaid bills. The narrative after this point becomes difficult to follow. The years between 1852 and 1856 are usually regarded by Mayhew scholars as a kind of interregnum period for London Labour These four years were turbulent ones for Mayhew, including a few months in debtors’ prison and a two-year exile in map iconGermany where he fled with his family to avoid creditors.

Yet the project did continue briefly beyond February of 1852, only on a different platform. In March of that year, with a lawsuit hanging over his head, Mayhew delivered a lecture series sourced from London Labour in map iconNewcastle and map iconEdinburgh. In The Hidden Life of London, Mayhew performed excerpts from some of the more famous interviews, impersonating the voices and mannerisms of the interviewees (Anderson 157-158). Live performances of abridgements and adaptations of popular novels were common fare on the London stage, and with years of theatrical experience already in his skill repertoire, Mayhew again repurposed and recapitalized the stories he had heard and transcribed into print, returning the written text of London Labour to its origins as spoken word (Anderson 241-255). The Hidden Life of London was the first of several live dramatizations of London Labour, the best known of which was called Curious Conversazione, performed in 1857 after Mayhew tried to revive the series in 1856 (a phase of the project I describe below). Scripts of the show were sold as souvenir booklets outside the venue, so that audiences could re-read (silently or aloud) the voices they had heard performed, having possibly first experienced the “‘unvarnished’” language of Mayhew’s interviewees in the weekly 1851 numbers of London Labour (Mayhew, xv). The live shows were thus an elaborate version of the “broken telephone” game: a complex relay of printed text and vocal speech (the printed interviews themselves sometimes composite voices merged under a single speaker)[5] mediated by Mayhew’s remix and oral performance of the interviews. Curious Conversazione received mixed reviews, with some critics lauding it and others regarding the live show as a sell-out and a further diminishment of the series’ claim to journalistic truth over fictive imagination. The title of the souvenir scripts was A Few Odd Characters Out of the London Streets as Represented in Mr. Henry Mayhew’s Curious Conversazione, (available in full text on Hathi Trust).

Critics have paid much less attention to Mayhew’s oral performances and dramatizations of London Labour than to the published volumes, perhaps sharing some of the nineteenth-century critics’ implicit bias towards the written recordings. Yet the marketing of the live performances of London Labour with terms like “hidden,” “characters,” “odd,” and “curious” emphasized the sensational elements of London Labour over the statistics and economic theory, arguably the same elements that have continued to attract many contemporary readers and scholars to it as well. In any case, the live versions of London Labour, as both performance and stage script, are another phase in the complex media history of Mayhew’s project.

The first half of 1856 was another busy period for Mayhew. When he returned to London Labour in 1856, he set about completing Volumes 2 and 3, adding new material or expanding on old, such as his letters on street performers published in the Morning Chronicle in 1850. Mayhew’s publisher and supporter was David Bogue, who he knew from his association with George Cruikshank and his work on the Comic Almanack in the 1840s (Humpherys, Travels 24; Anderson 64). Bogue specialized in publishing inexpensive editions of classic books (Mock 57). He purchased the copyright of London Labour for one hundred pounds, securing intellectual ownership of the material, with the intention of launching a new series and reviving London Labour with Mayhew as author/editor. Unauthorized editions of the volumes in 1855 published by George Newbold (who also issued a bootleg edition of Mayhew’s 1851 serial novel on the Great Exhibition), demonstrate the continuing appeal of the series throughout the 1850s even after the termination of the weekly periodicals. A stage melodrama adapted from London Labour, J.B. Johnstone’s How We Live in the World of London, premiered in March 1856, probably bolstering Mayhew’s work in progress.[6] In addition to all of this, in January 1856 together with Bogue, Mayhew had begun a new series, The Great World of London, intended as a new survey that would cover the full spectrum of London’s social classes. He conducted extensive research on London’s criminal prisons for Great World and was fast becoming an expert on criminology. But all this ground to a halt when Mayhew fell ill in October 1856 with an unspecified illness that left him immobilized, followed by the sudden death of David Bogue the following month. Plans for the re-issue and completion of London Labour and the continuation of Great World were suspended indefinitely.

By 1856, the only material from the London Labour series that had ever appeared in volume form under Mayhew’s full control was that of Volume 1. After the aborted plans of 1856, Mayhew did revive London Labour briefly in 1857 with Curious Conversazione. And although Mayhew signed an agreement with Bogue’s executors to complete London Labour and Great World late in 1857, he never returned to the project in a sustained way. In January of 1861, the copyright of both titles was purchased from Bogue’s executors by the publishing house Griffin and Bohn for one thousand pounds with Mayhew’s name attached to the series. Sensing that there was still a market for London Labour, they reissued Volume 1 in 1861, along with a “complete” Volumes 2 and 3, although both of these “present problems of composition and intention” (Humpherys, Travels 107). Volume 2 was more or less complete after the attempted 1856 reboot, but Volume 3 was a Frankentext: a patchwork of rough material by Mayhew from 1856 and recycled content from the Morning Chronicle, collected and pieced together by an unknown editor-scavenger at Griffin and Bohn. Humpherys’s careful analysis of the chaotic, miscellaneous nature of Volume 3 is helpful. She describes its random and confusing organization (Travels 107-110), noting that none of Mayhew’s introductory or classifying apparatus, evident in Volume 1, frames the material of Volume 3. Nowhere does the metaphor of “recycling” apply more readily to London Labour’s print history than to Volume 3. Finally, in 1862, Griffin and Bohn added a fourth volume, containing the 1851 global prostitution survey by Horace St John and surveys of London prostitutes by Bracebridge Hemyng, as well as interviews with thieves and swindlers by John Binny and with beggars by Andrew Halliday. It is important to recognize that although Henry Mayhew’s name—a recognizable brand—appears on the cover of Volume 4, almost none of the material in it was written or authorized by him. I emphasize this point because it is still common to see quotations lifted from Volume 4 assigned to Mayhew, a habit of misattribution made all the easier by free-text searching which privileges content over publication form (Mussell, “Beyond” 25). Meanwhile, The Great World of London, aptly re-named The Criminal Prisons of London, was reissued as a volume in 1862, much of it written by Mayhew but with extra material to pad out the volume contributed by Binny. Karel Williams has argued that The Criminal Prisons of London can be regarded as an orphaned Volume 5 to London Labour (238).

After 1862, the story peters out again. A cheap reprint of the four volumes of London Labour was issued in 1865, but after that point, London Labour faded from view. It went out of print in 1871 when the copyright was purchased by Maxwell from Griffin and Bohn. Some of the interviews were recycled for the second edition of a collection called London Characters in 1874, which also featured work by other writers and illustrations by W.S. Gilbert (Humpherys, Travels 29). Mayhew and his sprawling survey of London workers fell into obscurity, despite the publication of other similar projects (notably Charles Booth’s multi-volume Life and Labour of the People in London in the 1890s), despite the development of the various branches of social science of which Mayhew was a forerunner, and despite the ongoing popular appetite for documentary accounts of the lives of the urban poor.

The reanimation of the story begins in the twentieth century with a selection of material from London Labour with different audiences in mind. Three collections from London Labour edited by Peter Quennell appeared in 1950 and 51.[7] John L. Bradley’s Oxford selection of material for an academic audience followed in 1965. Another huge boost to Mayhew scholarship came with the facsimile reprints of the “definitive” Griffin and Bohn editions of 1861-62 by Frank Cass (1967) and Dover Press (1968), the latter containing a well-known introduction by John D. Rosenberg. An important companion to these reissues was the publication of The Unknown Mayhew, edited by E.P. Thompson and Eileen Yeo in 1971, a reprint of pieces from the Morning Chronicle that were not later included in London Labour for the 1861 volumes. The Unknown Mayhew contained lengthy, influential critical analyses of Mayhew’s political views and methodology; Thompson and Yeo argued for Mayhew’s significance as a social scientist and presented a Mayhew who was more politically astute and committed than had previously been acknowledged. Finally, Bertrand Taithe’s invaluable Essential Mayhew (1996) reproduced the “Answers to Correspondents” columns and provided a thorough introduction that examined the importance of the “Answers” for the first time.[8]

My research for this article is drawn from London Labour and the work of the most authoritative Mayhew scholars, along with a recent biography of Mayhew by Christopher Anderson. Despite the work that has been done to trace London Labour’s complicated publishing history, the nature of its relationship to the Morning Chronicle and its stuttering transition from weekly serial to volume remain hard to pin down. As Taithe writes, London Labour is “often quoted, often partially studied, always deemed worthy of attention but difficult to use” (7). I have offered a concentrated, one-stop account of the publication history of the text for current and future scholars of London Labour, one that I hope will serve to dispel common misunderstandings about authorship and the connections between the Morning Chronicle, the weekly series, and the volumes. One scholar, for example, has recently written that “London Labour and the London Poor [was] originally published serially between 1849 and 1850 in the Morning Chronicle” (Wynne 35). Strictly speaking, this is inaccurate, as it elides two different projects. Yet it raises an important question. How are we to regard the Chronicle articles in relation to London Labour? Were the letters the “genesis” of London Labour, or should we regard them as two separate ventures—an issue posed by Karel Williams decades ago, and still an open question (239). Some critics, such as Gertrude Himmelfarb and E.P. Thompson, have argued that the Morning Chronicle contained Mayhew’s best work, implying that it has been unfairly overlooked in favour of the London Labour material (see Williams 238). Certainly the Chronicle material is less accessible than London Labour. The scholarly interest in London Labour, especially for literary scholars, likely has less to do with a “quality” distinction between Morning Chronicle and London Labour than with availability.

The Cass and Dover reissues of the late 1960s ushered in a wave of scholarship on London Labour at a time when the discipline of urban studies was burgeoning and research on Dickens was in the ascendant (Taithe 6). The Dover reprints prompted a lengthy review in the New Yorker by no less than W.H. Auden (24 February, 1968), signalling both the scholarly and mainstream appeal of Mayhew, who Auden, like many others, compared favourably to Dickens. Meanwhile, the Morning Chronicle corpus of letters was collected and reprinted in full by Peter Razzell in 1980 by Caliban (later reissued by Routledge) in a six-volume collection that is unaffordable to all but an academic library. Thompson and Yeo’s one-volume Unknown Mayhew was first published in 1971, and in a Penguin edition in 1973, making it more accessible to both casual and specialist readers. But their book contained only the Morning Chronicle material that didn’t make it into the volumes of London Labour and it is now out of print. As far as I am aware, there is no scholarly online edition of the Morning Chronicle letters, unless one wants to read them on the British Newspaper Archive, but this is a more cumbersome and costly way of gaining access to the letters than Google Books, Internet Archive, or Tufts Digital Library, by which one can read the four volumes of London Labour and the London Poor in full text.[9] Scholarly print editions for classroom use by Broadview, Oxford, Wordsworth, and Penguin produced between 1985 and 2019 are necessarily single volume selections of London Labour that emphasize different aspects of the text, some of them providing only brief mention of the print cultural history of London Labour, its connection to the Morning Chronicle, and its paratextual apparatus.

We might ask why London Labour was chosen for reprinting before the Morning Chronicle letters. My assumption is that it has much to do with the fact that the Morning Chronicle material, unlike London Labour, was not collected into volume form by a nineteenth-century publisher (aside from the material that was selected and recycled for the 1860s volumes). The difference demonstrates English studies’ traditional bias towards the published book over newspaper journalism, even though the periodical press was the first venue for so many essential texts of Victorian literature. As James Mussell writes, “[n]ewspapers and periodicals, as multi-authored and diverse print genres characterized by miscellaneity and seriality, challenge editorial strategies predicated on establishing an authoritative text that represents a coherent work and can be encoded within the form of a book” (Nineteenth Century 114). We might also ask questions about the next life stage of London Labour and the Morning Chronicle letters, and how digitization will alter its “future history.” As noted above, full text editions of the 1860s volumes online do little to dispel common misconceptions about the text and fail to convey the text’s roots in periodical culture; they “conceive of newspapers and periodicals as repositories of linguistic information, unconnected to the publication that permitted it to exist in the world” (Mussell, Nineteenth Century 117). A scholarly digital edition of London Labour with hyperlinks to the “Answers to Correspondents,” the title pages of the weekly serials, the Morning Chronicle letters, and to other texts by Mayhew and his readers will usher in greater clarity about its textual production, forms, and modes of publication. Such an edition would enable a new set of discoveries and insights about the status of London Labour as a document of urban working-class culture, middle-class attitudes towards the poor, and the cultural exchange between Mayhew and his interviewees, who were also his readers. More so than the mid-twentieth-century Dover editions, digitization promises, perhaps paradoxically, to bring us closer to the material forms—the serial, the newspaper—in which Victorian readers first encountered London Labour. At the same time, abridged scholarly editions in print encourage close textual engagement with London Labour that can’t be replaced by digital searching. Rather than supplanting the Dover volumes or classroom-friendly print editions, digitization adds another layer to the history of the text’s transmission and circulation.[10]

The multiplicity of forms by which one might encounter the voices embedded in London Labour is part of its evolving history. Digitization is only one of the forms by which London Labour lives its afterlife. Several neo-Victorian novels of the late twentieth century rely on Mayhew’s research, characters, settings, and even narrative voice.[11] Neil Gaiman’s 1996 novel Neverwhere and its adaptations and sequel base its protagonist Richard Mayhew and the divided city thesis of “London Above” and “London Below” on Mayhew’s investigations. Going one step further in the blurring of historical fact and fiction, Terry Pratchett’s 2012 novel Dodger incorporates a character named Henry Mayhew, who is also the book’s dedicatee. Two volumes of poetry by John Seed, Pictures from Mayhew (2005) and That Barrikins (2007) are sourced entirely from the recorded speech of Mayhew’s interviewees; Seed “returns” their words from the managed prose of Mayhew’s text to the fragmentary rhythms characteristic of oral speech and poetry, allowing us to “hear” the speakers of Mayhew’s text in a new old medium—the published volume of poetry.

The first number of London Labour and the London Poor was published in December of 1850, but the complex publishing history of the text invites us to rethink what it means to assign an origin to serial texts that appeared under the same or similar titles in different print venues. There is no stable first edition: does London Labour “begin” with Mayhew’s letters to the Morning Chronicle or with the first weekly serial or the collected volumes by which the text is now most widely known? And when did London Labour “end?” In addition, if its chronology is difficult to pin down, so too is its form and format, which resist easy generic categorization that would help stabilize its significance and integrity. What is its form? Where does its integrity lie? A bound scholarly edition appears to be an act of preservation, but this is an illusion. By the time a new edition of London Labour is encased in its paper covers, or appears online, the “original” text, if there even is one, will have been sliced and diced innumerable times. The publication of London Labour is not a single event but a rather a story of multiple unfoldings, reboots, and remediations: from oral speech to handwritten transcription to printed monologue to stage play to classroom textbook to digital object to volume of verse. Digitization of the texts needn’t draw us away from the print object, but rather brings it closer to us by making visible the intra- and intertextual connections between Mayhew’s multiple projects and paratexts and those of his contemporaries (Mussell, “Beyond” 30). It seems to me that the “challenges” of working with Mayhew pose some of the most exciting opportunities for us, as our scholarly methods continue to evolve in ways that allow us to see the texts not as discrete objects, and their publication dates not as single events, but as networked hubs of cultural exchange.

published May 2019

Janice Schroeder is an associate professor in the Department of English at Carleton University. She is the co-editor of a forthcoming edition of London Labour and the London Poor with Barbara Leckie for Broadview Press


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—–. Travels into the Poor Man’s Country: The Work of Henry Mayhew. U of George P, 1977.

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London Labour and the London Poor. Selected edition. Edited by Janice Schroeder and Barbara Leckie. Broadview, 2019.

—–. Selected edition. Edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Oxford, 2010.

—–. Selected edition. Edited by Rosemary O’Day. Wordsworth, 2008.

—–. Selected edition. Edited by Victor Neuberg. Penguin, 1985.

—–. Facsimile reprint. Edited by John D. Rosenberg. 4 vols. Dover, 1968.

—–. Facsimile reprint. 4 vols. Frank Cass, 1967.

—–. Selected edition. Edited by John L. Bradley. Oxford, 1965.

Louttit, Chris. “The Novelistic Afterlife of Henry Mayhew.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 3-4, 2006, pp. 315-42.

Mayhew, Henry. “Preface.” London Labour and the London Poor, vol. 1, Dover Press, 1968, pp.xv-xvi.

Mock, David B. “David Bogue.” British Literary Publishing Houses 1820-1880. Ed. Jonathan Rose and Patricia J. Anderson. Gale, 1991, pp. 57-58.

Mussell, James. “Beyond the ‘Great Index’: Digital Resources and Actual Copies.” Journalism and the Periodical Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain, edited by Joanne Shattock, Cambridge, 2017, pp. 17-30.

—–. The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age. Palgrave, 2012.

Pratchett, Terry. Dodger. Doubleday, 2012.
Price, Leah.How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton UP, 2012.

Quennell, Peter, ed. Mayhew’s Characters. William Kimber, 1951.

—–. Mayhew’s London. William Kimber, 1951.

—–. London’s Underworld. William Kimber, 1950.

Robson, Catherine. “How We Search Now: New and Old Ways of Digging Up Wolfe’s ‘Sir John Moore.’” Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies. Edited by Veronica Alfano and Andrew Stauffer. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 11-28.

Rubinstein, Stanley, ed. The Street Trader’s Lot: 1851. Being an account of the lives, miseries, joys and chequered activities of the London street sellers as recorded by their contemporary H. Mayhew. Sylvan, 1947.

Seed, John. That Barrikins. Shearsman, 2007.

—–. Pictures from Mayhew. Shearsman, 2005.

Stauffer, Andrew. “Introduction.” Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies. Edited by Veronica Alfano and Andrew Stauffer. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 1-8.

Steedman, Carolyn. “Mayhew: On Reading, About Writing.” Journal of Victorian Culture, vol. 19, no. 4, 2014, pp. 550-561.

—–. Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930. Harvard UP, 1995.

Taithe, Bartrand. The Essential Mayhew: Representing and Communicating the Poor. Rivers Oram, 1996.

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Wynne, Deborah. “Reading Victorian Rags: Recycling, Redemption, and Dickens’s Ragged Children.” Journal of Victorian Culture, vol. 20, no. 1, 2015, pp. 34-49.


[1] Although Mayhew used the term “ragged” sparingly, perhaps considering it too imprecise and outmoded a term by the 1850s, it was still widely in use. John Hollingshead’s Ragged London in 1861, a book indebted to Mayhew’s, is one example of the continuing usage of the term. See Wynne; Price; Steedman on the cultural meanings of rags and the “ragged.”
[2] Although Mayhew had already written several stage farces and comic novels, none of them had the impact and reach that his social surveys achieved. And while he was credited as a founder of Punch Magazine, he had been sidelined—or had removed himself—from its inner editorial circle by the late 1840s when he began writing for the Morning Chronicle.
[3] For a discussion of the “hybrid” nature of the images in London Labour, which combined the emergent photomechanical process with the tradition of hand drawing and engraving, see Clayton, pp. 24-58. Clayton also notes that Morning Chronicle articles later reproduced in the Penny Illustrated News were accompanied by sketches (27), but it is unlikely that Mayhew was involved in commissioning these images.
[4] Catherine Feely notes that a weekly paper Mayhew co-edited with Gilbert Abbot a Beckett in the early 1830s featured a similar correspondence column and may have been the inspiration for the one in London Labour.
[5] For a discussion of Mayhew’s amalgamation of separate interviews into single speakers, see the two Steedman titles listed in the Works Cited.
[6] Other stage melodramas adapted from London Labour include James Elphinstone’s London Labour and the London Poor, or Want and Vice (1854) and The Watercress Girl by William Travers (1865). See Steedman, Strange Dislocations 118-120.
[7] London’s Underworld (1950) contained selections from Volume 4; Mayhew’s London and Mayhew’s Characters (1951) both contained selections from Volumes 1-3. All three were published by William Kimber, London. Even before these collections, however, was a volume called The Street Trader’s Lot, edited by Stanley Rubinstein and published by Sylvan Press (1947).
[8] For a helpful overview of the waves of criticism on Mayhew since the 1950s, see Joshi.
[9] As Andrew Stauffer points out, “[t]he nineteenth century, and the Victorian era in particular, have been exceptionally rich target areas for digitization, given the plenitude of material produced by the industrial press” along with few copyright restrictions, visual interest, and informational complexity (2).
[10] See Robson, as well as many of the contributors to Researching the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press, edited by Easley et al.
[11] See Chris Louttit’s analysis of four neo-Victorian novels published between 1989 and 2003 that used London Labour as a source text.