The 'Perils of the Nation': The Activist Anthropology of Henry Mayhew





I want to tell you about Henry Mayhew. His work is neither new (he wrote during the same decades as Charles Dickens), nor was he an anthropologist, yet for all that, he produced a vital and urgent anthropology that speaks critically to our current moment.

Mayhew’s aim (in his own words) was to ‘publish the history of a people, from the lips of the people themselves – giving a literal description of their labour, their earnings, their trials, and their sufferings, in their own “unvarnished” language’, a people ‘of whom the public had less knowledge than of the most distant tribes of the earth’. The seemingly unknown and exotic population to which he referred was the working class in 19th century London.

Starting in 1849, as ‘Metropolitan Commissioner’ for the Morning Chronicle newspaper, Mayhew carried out systematic research into the living conditions of the working classes, research that turned into a work of breathtaking ethnographic ambition, the four-volume study, London Labour and the London Poor. This was nothing less than an encyclopaedia of working class experiences, the grand ancestor of ethnographic accounts of the working classes in Britain, that would include the Mass-Observation experiments in the 1930s, as well as Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour (1977), and Simon Charlesworth’s A Phenomenology of Working Class Experience (2000), a book that burns with brilliance and anger.

No armchair theoriser, Mayhew’s work took him into the streets and into the lives of poor Londoners: the lives of silk-weavers and street poets, costermongers and prostitutes, cab drivers and rat catchers, and he documented their experiences without romanticism. By his extensive practice of quoting his informants directly, he gave authority to their experiences, and these testimonies are electric for the same reasons, accounts that are still sparking today, over a century and half later.

Consider this account of a Spitalfields silk-weaver: ‘If you was to come round here on a Sunday, you’d hear the looms going all about; they’re obliged to do it or starve. There’s no rest for us now. Formerly I lived in a house worth £40 a year, and now I’m obliged to put up with this damned dog-hole. Every year bad is getting worse in our trade, and in others as well. What’s life to me? Labour – labour – labour – and for what? Why for less and less food every month.’ Or hearken to the ham-sandwich seller who says, ‘I am so sick of this life, sir. I do dread the winter so. I’ve stood up to the ankles in snow till after midnight, and till I’ve wished I was snow myself, and could melt like it and have an end.’

Mayhew’s ethnography is so fine in its granularity that it evokes existences from multiple angles. There is the straight-talk of the street-patterer, who earns a living from selling printed accounts of crimes and other newsworthy calamities (‘Fires is our best friends next to murders, if they’re good fires’), and the anti-theology proffered by the Punch and Judy man: ‘I did once, though, strike up hopposition to a street preacher wot was holding forth in the New Road, and did uncommon well. All his flock, as he called ‘em, left him and come over to look at me. Punch and preaching is two different creeds – hopposition parties, I might say.’

Or, again, there is the pocket-cosmology of a costermonger (as compelling as anything recorded by Marcel Griaule): ‘I’ve worked the streets and the courts at all times. I’ve worked them by moonlight, but you couldn’t see the moonlight where it was busy. I can’t say how far the moon’s off us. It’s nothing to me, but I’ve seen it a good bit higher than St. Paul’s. I don’t know nothing about the sun. Why do you ask? It must be nearer than the moon for it’s warmer – and if they’re both fire, that shows it. It’s like a tap-room grate and that bit of a gas-light; to compare the two is. What was St. Paul’s that the moon was above? A church, sir; so I’ve heard. I never was in a church. O, yes, I’ve heard of God; he made heaven and earth; I never heard of his making the sea; that’s another thing, and you can best learn about it at Billingsgate [the fish market]. Jesus Christ? Yes, I’ve heard of him. Our redeemer? Well, I only wish I could redeem my Sunday togs from my uncle’s.’

Mayhew’s account of the costermongers was, in particular, quite explicitly anthropological, treating them as a distinctive collective (ethnographically comparable to nomadic societies), with its own kinship practices, politics (largely Chartist), and its own secret language (‘The police don’t understand us at all,’ confides one informant. ‘It would be a pity if they did’).

But if Mayhew’s anthropology was thoroughly attuned to working class experiences, it combined this with a hard ethical edge. All his extensive ethnographic and survey work convinced him, not merely of the contingencies of class existences (‘Go to a lady of fashion and tell her she could have even become a fishfag, and she will think you some mad ethnologist (if indeed she had ever heard of the science)’), but also of the brutal inequalities of capitalism. To be sure, Mayhew wasn’t Marx, but this fact doesn’t detract from the relevance of his ethical and anthropological message.

London in November, and the cold leaks in through the windows, but our current politics is more chilling still. With the coalition government in power now in Britain, a systematic attack has been launched against the poor. In the face of apparent economic crisis, the new government seeks to place the blame on the size of the state. It looks to carve up and contract out the public sector, to reduce benefits and other support services, and to privatize higher education. This is politics as demonology, in which the bankers are the angels – highly mobile, righteous and untouchable. The poor, by contrast, are characterised as indolent, deceitful and sinful, victims of their own ‘lifestyle choice’ (in the words of our Chancellor). History threatens to concertina in upon itself, creating ominous overlaps. The massive student protest in London last week was compared to the Chartist demonstrations of the mid-19th century. And on the letters page of my newspaper today, a correspondent asks, ‘How long before we see the return of the workhouse?’

Mayhew’s verdict returns with a vengeance: ‘That which is said by the economists to be the greatest possible benefit to the community is a gain only to the small portion of it termed the moneyed classes’. Perhaps, then, we will need new Mayhews, to carry out their activist anthropologies across the country, bearing witness to the realities of poverty, in order – as he said – to better reckon with the ‘perils of the nation’.

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Comment by Philip Swift on November 18, 2010 at 5:32pm
Thanks to everyone.

What I have in mind, I suppose, is the capacity of Mayhew-style (ethnographic) journalism to 'speak truth to power', as the saying goes. Or, as Huon puts it, the act of description itself takes on a moral charge. (The best kinds of war journalism aim for this too, of course - that of, say, Seymour Hersh or Michael Herr. William Shawcross was once part of this club, but he's become an establishment sycophant.)

I must mention Simon Charlesworth, Phenomenology of Working Class Experience again. It begins with a savage denunciation of Cambridge University (though it's published by Cambridge Univ. Press!), and his anger at the existential and material plight of the poor blazes all the way to the end of the book.

I must confess to having a difficulty with reading Gellner, and I've often thought that there's something to Feyerabend's jibe that Gellner, by his style, was always 'deadly Ernest'.
Comment by Keith Hart on November 18, 2010 at 10:08am
The comparison between Mayhew and Marx is interesting, so much so that I have decided to post a related thread in my own blog rather than hi-jack Philip's with a comment as long as his original post. The gist of it is that the missing middle is fiction, exemplified by the novels of Dickens, Balzac and Zola. But I can't resist a short comment here on Gellner, Marx and ethnography.

Phil is advocating radical journalism of Mayhew's variety as an ethnographic riposte to a new political assault on the poor, among whom may be included the majority of the members of this list (graduate students and increasingly their teachers also). Now Marx started out as a radical journalist and remained one for most of his life. But he also spent 15 years in the British Museum library reading everything then written on economics and economic history. Mayhew's ethnography did not have that intellectual backing nor did Dickens'. I consider Marx to have been the greatest economic anthropologist ever, but not mainly for his ethnography. There is a difference between ethnography and anthropology.

Ernest Gellner considered Marxism and modern Islam to be false religions who mistakenly repudiated the liberal synthesis of markets, democracy and science. He was rejected for membership of the LSE department of social anthropology (he was professor of social philosophy there), despite having done ethnography of sorts among the Berbers of the Atlas mountains, by people he referred to as "the Malinowski fieldwork clique". So calling Marx an ethnographer didn't guite carry the same connotations for him that Phil's attempt to recruit Mayhew to the cause does.
Comment by Huon Wardle on November 18, 2010 at 5:18am
Thanks Philip, What is so fascinating about Mayhew is that the extremely sharp detail becomes by itself the moral commentary. Gellner viewed Marx as a finally someone who described 19th Century society with great empirical accuracy rather than as a prophet. That view would put Mayhew and Marx much closer together.
Comment by John McCreery on November 17, 2010 at 4:58am
Great stuff, Philip. Just a passing thought for another day: It would be an interesting project to compare Mayhew's work with that of the missionaries writing around the same time to whom we owe so much of what we know about peasant life in China and other parts of Asia. Your description of Mayhew's work instantly reminds me of, for example, Arthur Henderson Smith's Village Life in China, in which I recall a combination of ethical edge and acute observation similar to that you attribute to Mayhew.
Comment by Philip Swift on November 17, 2010 at 12:09am
Thanks M, I can't recommend Mayhew's work highly enough, ever since I discovered it (like so much other stuff) in a second-hand bookshop about three years ago. Frankly, I found it astonishing in its vitality as ethnography, as well as depressing in terms of the impoverishment that his work relentlessly documents.

And on that note, Keith, I noticed, while I was cooking this up, that you mention Mayhew in your account of the development of the 'informal economy' concept in one of your Memory Bank writings.

Since I am, currently, a market trader in London (not, alas - as I'd like to be - a professional anthropologist - though are they any safer?), I feel at this moment that people like me are - as the seller said above - more or less like snow, slowly melting away, while the government turns up the heat.
Comment by Keith Hart on November 16, 2010 at 11:23pm
Thank you, Philip, from the bottom of my heart, for turning your anger about what is happening in London today to this insipring plea for anthropological activism.

When I returned from spending two years in a West African slum for my doctoral fieldwork, I joined my supervisor, Jack Goody, in a lift where he introduced me to a famous American sociologist (and Cold Warrior) Ed Shils. 'This is Keith Hart', he said. 'Ah yes, said Shils, the Mayhew of Accra!' I nodded sagely and rushed away afterwards to find out who he was talking about. Henry Mayhew! What a series of books he wrote. In later decades, when I produced summaries of the idea of an informal economy, I would always begin with Dickens and Mayhew, to be followed by Oscar Lewis and other giant ethnographers of the urban poor. I never measured up to them since I failed to publish a monograph. The historian Gareth Stedman Jones did a wonderful job of covering the same period in Outcast London (1973).

Let's hear what others have to say.
Comment by M Izabel on November 16, 2010 at 8:21pm
Thanks, Philip. I can't wait to read his works. It seems to me some journalists are showing anthropologists how ethnography should be done-- let the people think and share stories and histories of their experience and existence. I find works of journalists who focus on people and their experience and reality more ethnographic than the works of those anthropologists who use ethnography to use or come up with generalizing theories. Anthropologists need to localize its ethnography by treating it as a story and history of a culture, my opinion.

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