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’.