1851

London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew

According to Henry Mayhew, vagrants and vagabonds, those who wander without a home, are trapped in a primitive stage of human development. Humanity’s earliest people were nomadic, yet civilised man abandoned his ways and settled. In 19th century England, Mayhew tells us that there are still groups of wanderers, who were a socially, morally and physically distinct race living amongst the civilised. Who were these people? You guessed it: the destitute. The virtually anonymous beggars, paupers, vagrants, and outcasts, who were usually deprived of any ability to represent themselves. Even considering Mayhew’s commendable effort to represent the stories of the poor from their own mouths, he prefaces their words with demeaning conclusions on the very nature of their existence, which was masked by the credibility of science.

Mayhew classifies the destitute living in London within his work, distinguishing the street-sellers from the paupers and criminals. According to him, there was distinct class of vagrants living in London who were unwilling, though able, to work or remain in a single place for a long period of time. The chief cause of this social ill was laziness, a conclusion that shifted the blame of a person’s pitiful condition to nothing more than their abilities alone. It was also a common assumption that an honest man, who found himself unemployed, ran the risk of becoming used to the deplorable life of a vagrant when travelling the country for work

In London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew includes first hand accounts of inmates in the casual wards: one of an ex-convict determined to leave behind his life of sin and another of a hopeful boy from Cambridgeshire who ran away from home with the ambition of living a life at sea. Their personal stories humanise the experience of the typically anonymous and demonised poor, but we cannot forget that these were by no means presented in an unbiased manner. Mayhew paired these accounts with sweeping judgements of London’s outcasts, lecturing on the importance of an aptitude of labour whilst expressing his commitment to a civilising mission.

Here’s the thing about prejudice in history, when someone writes a book like Mayhew’s, intended for the influential classes of Victorian society, it’s hard to erase the enduring impact it’s had on our views of the poor. People consumed, believed, and respected Mayhew’s analyses of the destitute, which often used pseudo-scientific facts to justify the poor’s inferior position in Victorian society. Publications like Mayhew’s spread the idea that vagrants and vagabonds were morally, socially, and physically inferior. In some shape or form, do you think that prejudice still exists against homeless people today?

What do you think?