Henry Mayhew

Portrait of Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew was born in London in 1812 and came from a large family. Against his father’s wishes he, along with four of his brothers, chose a literary career over the law and was subsequently disinherited.

He had an interesting start to working life, being sent to sea by his parents, but later established himself as a highly regarded dramatist, journalist and author. His reputation as a social investigative journalist grew from his extensive, admirable and compassionate original investigation into the London poor as part of The Morning Chronicle’s “Labour and the Poor” series. His reputation was further enhanced by his own self-published “London Labour and the London Poor” voluminous series.

He co-founded Punch in 1841, the famous satirical magazine, and was a member of an extraordinary group of Victorian writers which included Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Some of Dickens’ scenes are reputedly inspired by Henry Mayhew’s investigations and it is for his work amongst the poor that he will be remembered as a true pioneer.

His extensive, admirable, moving and original investigation into the London poor was an incredible achievement. It spanned over a year and 82 in-depth letters (articles), published in The Morning Chronicle, the highly-respected London-based daily newspaper of the nineteenth century. His letters from the Metropolitan Districts first appeared on 19th October, 1849, with the final letter being published on 12th December, 1850. The incredible article A Visit to the Cholera Districts of Bermondsey, written by Henry Mayhew in September 1849, reputedly provided the inspiration for the entire series which followed shortly afterwards, and which in turn provided the inspiration and basis for his own London Labour and the London Poor series.

The following is a contemporary piece, written in 1856, on Henry Mayhew:⁠—

Men of the Time, 1856.

MAYHEW, HENRY, Author, and one of the most original writers of the present day, was born in London on the 25th of November, 1812. His birth had nearly taken place in a private box of Covent Garden Theatre during a pantomime, and it is to this accident that he facetiously attributes his great love of the humorous, and his taste for dramatic literature. He was educated at Westminster, where Mr. Gilbert A’Beckett and Mr. Thomas Arnold (both magistrates now) were his schoolfellows. Twice did he run away from school—twice was he pardoned; but finding that the birch—at that time a large branch of the tree of knowledge, and the chosen instrument for inculcating in boys the spirit of forgiveness—made but little impression on his tender mind, his parents sent him to sea; it being a cherished paternal notion less than half-a-century ago that there was no school of reformation so effectual as that of the cockpit of a man-of-war. The morality of this school was such, that on the second day everything he had was stolen; and when he came back in a twelvemonth from Calcutta, so destitute was he that the very shirt he had on belonged to a “fellow-middy,” who called two days afterwards to reclaim it, “as he could not spare it any longer.” To complete the boy’s reformation he was articled to his father, at whose office he did penance for three long subpœnaing years. He then went to Wales, changing his attention from clients to sheep; and finished his dreams and speculations amidst the goats and mountains by coming back to London, and taking, in partnership with Mr. Gilbert A’Beckett, the Queen’s Theatre. Their joint fortune was sixpence and two or three manuscript pieces. At that theatre he produced the “Wandering Minstrel,”—a farce that has been acted oftener than any other of the present day. Previous to this he had assisted in establishing “Figaro in London,” the father of “Punch,” and the forerunner of modern satirical publications. As, several years afterwards, in 1841, Mr. Henry Mayhew framed, built, and manned “Punch,” and was the first to launch it into popular favour, to him belongs the credit of being the parent of the two cleverest satirical journals that have enjoyed the greatest longevity and success in this country. He was the first to prove in journalism that satire could be conducted without personality, and that humour did not necessarily consist in sneering at morality. Others have profited by the chart which he laid down for the navigation of “Punch,” and although most of the crew that sailed with him at first still remain in the old ship, yet he, their original commander, is no longer at the helm. A quarrel with the proprietors made him secede from the publication, and since that period Mr. Henry Mayhew has published works in his own name; his reputation, if not his pocket, gaining largely by the exchange. He has written dramas for the stage—he has engaged in educational controversies—he has contributed to papers and magazines innumerable—he has started a Pharaoh’s host of reviews and periodicals, all of which have been long since swallowed up in the (un)Red Sea of literature; and in his time has known all the ups and downs that mark, as in a “Bradshaw’s Guide,” the pages of a literary man’s career. In truth, the list of his works would be almost Alexandre-Dumasian in its length; but amongst the most popular may be enumerated “The Greatest Plague of Life, or the Adventures of a Mistress in Search of a Good Servant;” “Whom to Marry, and How to get Married;” and “The Image of his Father.” These, written in conjunction with his younger brother Augustus, enjoyed an extensive popularity; and “The Greatest Plague” sold more copies than any other serial since the days of “Pickwick.” Then there were a variety of Christmas books, such as the “Magic of Industry,” and the “Magic of Kindness;” besides innumerable almanacs and minor publications, both comic and serious, in which he was generally aided by the suggestive pencil of his friend, George Cruikshank. However, the magnum opus of Mr. Henry Mayhew is, undoubtedly, the series of investigations he commenced in the “Morning Chronicle,” under the title of “London Labour and the London Poor.” These brought to light, out of the garrets, and cellars, and all the dark corners of the metropolis, where Misery is apt to crouch and hide itself, so startling a mass of revelations, as to the struggles, privations, and heroic sacrifices of the poorest of the working classes, that Mr. Mayhew may be said to have discovered a new world—a new London in the very heart of London, of which no Londoner was previously aware. He established by himself, as it were, a Committee of Inquiry into the state of poverty in the metropolis; and visiting the poor needlewomen, the half-starved tailors, the broken-hearted prostitutes, in their own desolate homes, took the evidence from their trembling lips, leaving them to tell their own tale of wretchedness in their own piteous manner. For two years he persevered in this holy mission, penetrating into haunts where no literary man had ever penetrated before, relieving the unfortunate, feeding the hungry, lifting up the fallen, and extending the hand of pity to all, even to the most abject outcasts of society; such as philanthropy oftentimes turns away from in sheer despair, as being almost beyond the reach of redemption. He was the benevolent Howard of pauperism; and the awful scenes of misery he had daily to encounter, and like a moral physician to probe and examine, and give clinical lectures upon, whilst the poor patient was all but dying of exhaustion, would have sickened any other heart less sustained with the holiness of the work he was intent upon. It was a mission of ennobling charity, such as many ministers would be proud to have recorded in their biographies. In any other country, Mr. Mayhew would have been assisted in his labours by the Government; for, in truth, he was doing government work without receiving government wages. As it is, his history of poverty is, unfortunately, incomplete; and of the grand monument he wished to erect as a beacon, as a lighthouse, for society, there remains at present nothing beyond the mere foundation; a foundation that sufficiently indicates the dangerous nature of the locality, but provides no kind of refuge for those who may be wrecked upon it. It is to be hoped that Mr. Henry Mayhew will one day finish the curious structure; so that Belgravia, by looking at it after dinner, may learn now and then how Bethnal Green lives and starves. Ever since the period that Mr. Mayhew was obliged to abandon the grand plan on which he was anxious to set the seal of his fame he has been engaged on various literary works, amongst the most successful of which have been the “Peasant-Boy Philosopher,” the “Wonders of Science;” but still his other productions, with all the glittering brightness of success upon them, appear pale when examined in the pure light of the noble work that his genius endowed, as a rich man endows a hospital, to receive the complaints and heal the wounds of the suffering poor. Mr. Henry Mayhew has had two great triumphs in his time, and triumphs gathered in totally different paths of literature,—he has been the originator both of “Punch” and “London Labour and the Poor.”

Mr. Mayhew belongs to a family singularly distinguished by their literary acquirements. An elder brother, Thomas, was one of the first labourers in the field of cheap literature. He started the “Penny National Library,” to supply the public with school-books at a penny a number. There were “Penny Dictionaries,” “Penny Grammars,” “Penny Blackstones,” “Penny Algebras,” etc. The speculation, however, was a losing one, and, after a loss of 10,000l., was abandoned. There can be no doubt that it was the parent of the “Penny Magazine,” as it was unquestionably the originator of the Educational Series of cheap publications, since carried out so successfully by the Messrs. Chambers. Amongst other newspapers, Mr. Thomas Mayhew was the editor of the “Poor Man’s Guardian,” and at the time of the Reform Bill a reward of 100l. was offered by Government for his apprehension. Beloved by all who knew him, not a workman was tempted by the bribe to betray him!

Another brother, Edward, was for several years of his youth the manager of a strolling company; combining in his own person as many opposite appointments as Edmund Kean once did. He was actor by night and scene-painter by day. In addition to these he was his own carpenter, his own musician, and frequently his own harlequin; and, when he had nothing else to do, would amuse himself in writing his own pieces. Of these, the farce of “Make your Wills” may be mentioned as the most favourable specimen. For many years past Mr. Edward Mayhew has devoted himself to literature, contributing largely to the magazines. He has also been connected with the “Morning Post,” and other newspapers, in the capacity of Fine-Art Critic; and has published several works on veterinary subjects, which are standard works of reference, filled with the most varied knowledge.

One of his younger brothers, Horace, is on the “Punch” staff; having fought in that tried corps from the commencement of its earliest campaign. He is the author of several quaint little books, which touch on a number of strange subjects, from the visible representation of the “Toothache” down to a batch of “Letters left at the Pastrycook’s.”

Another brother, Augustus, must also be mentioned. He was associated with his brother Henry, as one of the “Brothers Mayhew,” in the production of “The Greatest Plague of Life,” and other works. He has also evinced by his contributions to the current literature of the day the possession of a large share of picturesque, descriptive, and humorous power. His pen has the gift of word-painting, writing as it were in colours, and reproducing the scene as naturally before you as though you were looking at it through a camera obscura.

Men of the Time, 1856.

Henry Mayhew continued writing, producing such titles as The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life (1862) and London Characters: Illustrations of the Humour, Pathos, and Peculiarities of (1881).

He also toured the country giving lectures based on the material he gathered during his Labour and the Poor investigations:⁠—

The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, April 11, 1857.



The last lecture in connection with the Brighton Athenæum was announced to be by Mr. Henry Mayhew, and the large upper room of the Town-hall was crowded in every part, and many persons went away, being unable to obtain even standing room. The chair was occupied by Mr. W. Coningham, M.P., Mrs. Coningham and family being also present.

Mr. Mayhew commenced by giving a word-picture of the London markets on a Saturday night. The scene, he said, had more the character of a fair than of a market. There were hundreds of stalls, each with its one or two lights. There were all sorts of lights, from the rushlight to the flaring gas jet of the butchers’ shops. The pavement and road were crowded by hundreds of purchasers. The housewife may be seen there with her thick shawl and market basket on her arm walking slowly along, stopping now to look at a bunch of greens, and now to cheapen a joint of meat. In the butchers’ shops might be seen the meat, red and white, piled up to the first floor, with the butcher walking up and down sharpening his knife on his steel and saying to each woman who passes, “What can I do for you, my dear?” Then there is the clean family beggar, with a few lucifers in his hand and his head half averted from the crowd. Beside him is a clean boy and a nicely-got-up mother with a child at her breast. Then there is the Circus with a man outside calling on the passers-by to come in, as Mr. Somebody was about to sing his favourite song of the “Ratcatcher’s Daughter.” Until all this noise and tumult was seen and heard, it was impossible to have a sense of the struggle that is going on throughout London for a living, and the endeavours of hundreds to get a penny profit out of a poor man’s Sunday dinner. He next introduced a few of his street acquaintances. The first was a Punch and Judy man, a dark pleasant-looking man of about 50, who disclosed to him (Mr. Mayhew) a few secrets of his profession. He was formerly a gentleman’s footman; but he adopted the business for “money gains.” When first he took to it he cleared from £2 to £3 a week, he and his “pardner.” He felt it somewhat derogatory to come from a footman’s place to such a career; but still “Punch and Judy was a trade,” he said, which once took to cannot be got rid of. If you enter any other situation, the boys would see you and cry out, “There’s Punch behind the counter serving out the customers” [laughter]. The performances had to be varied to suit two classes of persons—the comic and the sentimental. The comic people liked him to kick up all the games he could; but to the sentimental he had to perform very steadily, and leave out all the comic words and business. They would have no ghost, no coffin, and no devil, and that’s what he called spoiling the performance altogether. As regarded the earnings, the showman said he could obtain £5 for weeks running, and had taken as much as £2 10s. a day; but now 5s. a day was the most that could be made, and that had to be divided between the “man in the frame” and the “drum and pipes.” Sometimes they had short and long “pitches.” A “short pitch” is where the show is set down, the drum and pipe play up, and when they get 3d. they “hook it;” but “long pitches” consist of half-an-hour’s performance, the proceeds of which average 1s. Punch’s audiences were next scrutinised. Boys were a great nuisance. They would follow the show for miles, would get into the best places, would throw their caps into the frame, pick holes in the baize to peep through, and, “cuss ’em,” added the man, “they haven’t a fard’n to bless themselves with” [laughter]. Nurses were no good, for even if the mothers gave the “little dears” a penny, they would take the money away to buy ribbons. Soldiers, again, were bad, for they not only had no money, but, what was, worse, they had no pockets. Mr. Mayhew next spoke of the “flying stationers,” or “patterers,” who profess to describe the contents of their papers while they run or walk along the streets. They dealt in all sorts of news; but, in the absence of murders or awful explosions, what are called “cocks” is resorted to. These cocks are purely imaginary compositions, and sometimes sold well; but real murders were the best. They talked of murders and awful accidents in the same admiring strain as a bookseller would speak of some popular author’s work, or any new edition of a celebrated book. Thus they refer to the Marley tragedy as having gone off “uncommon well,” and of the Palmer murder as an “out and outer.” Mr. Mayhew’s informant spoke of Rush’s murder. “I lived on Rush for a month, sir,” he said. “I worked my way down by singing ‘Rush’s last dying composition,’ written by our own poet at St. Giles’s, sir [laughter]. We beat the newspapers out of the field, for we had the accounts done by our own express, which beats all the papers. We have it done several days before the event comes off, and that beats the Sun, or the Moon, sir, for all that” [much laughter]. There was another character to be seen in London—the street clown. The poor fellow was expected to be merry and crack jokes while his heart was aching for the desolate state of those at home. A street clown once told him (Mr. Mayhew) that when his wife was confined he jumped “Jim Crow” for twelve hours in the mud and wet of the streets, and he carried home that night to his almost starving family the sum of 15d. as the result of his day’s exertions. There was a poor old blind hurdy-gurdy woman, he once knew. She had learnt to play on the hurdy-gurdy for a living. She called it a cymbal—the hurdy-gurdy was not its right name. “The cymbal,” she said, “is not hard to play, sir, for King David played on one of those instruments. I first learnt to play ‘God save the King,’ the Queen that now is, sir” [laughter]. When Mr. Albert Smith was preparing his Mont Blanc, he asked him (Mr. Mayhew) to recommend him a hurdy-gurdy player, and he mentioned this one, whose name was “Old Sairey.” Being blind, she did not know what her pupil wanted to learn for; but she imagined that it was for getting a living in the streets. Accordingly, she told him “to keep the leather well down over the cymbal, as the ha’pence were very liable to fall into the works [much laughter]. Some peculiarities of the street blind were next pointed out. There are at least 100 blind men and women getting their living in London, and 500 more in the provinces. The blind people like music, and as they can get their living in no other way, they seek it by music. They preferred being blind, and when it was possible to restore one man to sight he said to the surgeon,”Would you ruin me?" The blind men always married blind women, saying they did not like “seeing women.” They argued that if “seeing men” had a hard matter to look after “seeing women,” what would a blind man do [roars of laughter]? They were very happy and comfortable at home. The wives love their husbands, and both love their children, for they said “our children lead us about, and our affliction makes them love us the more.” “Dolls’ eye making,” though confined to only two persons in the metropolis, assumed a ludicrous importance in the lecturer’s hands. Human eyes and birds’ eyes were also manufactured. Large quantities of dolls’ eyes were exported, and the colour then liked was black; but here with dolls’ eyes nothing goes down but blue, for that is the colour of the Queen’s eyes, and the Queen sets the fashion in dolls’ eyes as in everything else. Mr. Mayhew’s eye making friend opened a large box full of glass human eyes, and the effect was as if the eyes of an audience in a lecture room were condensed into that space and all staring at you. The ladies’ eyes had to be made more brilliant and sparkling than the gentlemen’s. A person requiring an eye had to sit for the shades as for a portrait. The great thing in making a human eye was to attain as natural an appearance as possible by the fine polishing of the edges. “I make,” said the man, “such nice eyes, that a customer has passed doctors without their perceiving it. A lady who had one of my eyes has been married three years, and I believe her husband does not know her eye is false yet [laughter]. Persons with false eyes take them out at night, and either sleep with their eye under their pillow or else in a glass of water [renewed laughter]. Married ladies, sir, don’t usually take their eyes out at all.” Mr. Mayhew then described that peculiar quarter of London, Petticoat-lane, where, he said, there existed a singular incongruity of wealth and poverty, of luxury and want. He next adverted to the criminal population of London, their condition, &c. He had found them, he said, not such reprobates as they were supposed or appeared to be, and related many interesting instances where notorious thieves had been tested for honesty and had not failed to stand that test [applause]. He had had burglars, thieves, and pickpockets in his own house, and had never been harmed by them or lost the value of a penny [hear, hear]. He had found that they were not entirely destitute of honour, and if confidence was placed in them they would not wrong those who placed that trust in them. Mr. Mayhew concluded his lecture amid loud applause.

The Chairman said Mr. Mayhew had selected some of the many ideas suggested by the London streets with the eye of an artist and the view of a humourist, and had shown them that the most criminal part of the population are still accessible to the humanising feeling of sympathy [applause]. He trusted that having brought before them in so forcible a manner the circumstances in which many of those are placed who minister to our pleasures, they would view their proceedings with a different eye; for they would even see from the comic side of human nature that there is also the deeply pathetic bordering on the deeply tragic, and that when they walk through the streets of the metropolis again they would remember that one of the great social problems of the day is, “What shall we do with our pauperism, what shall we do with the criminal population of our towns?” He was sure they would all be ready to express their gratification at hearing Mr. Mayhew on the subject, treating it as he did in such a kind and genial spirit, and that they would all look forward to his reappearance with much pleasure [applause].

The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, April 11, 1857.

Henry Mayhew passed away in 1887:⁠—

Illustrated London News, Saturday, August 6, 1887.


Mr. Henry Mayhew, who died in his seventy-fifth year on the 25th ult., was one of five brothers, who all made their mark in literature. Thomas, the eldest, through his weekly journal the Poor Man’s Guardian, was the pioneer of the penny press. Edward was the author of several standard veterinary treatises, notably those on “The Dog” and “The Diseases of the Horse.” Horace was the writer of nothing more substantial in book form than “Change for a Shilling” and “Letters Left at the Pastrycook’s”; but having settled himself on the staff of Punch, after Henry left it, he achieved a literary reputation in London. Augustus, who wrote with Henry, as one of the “Brothers Mayhew,” was the author of more considerable works. But all of them being dead, except Henry, who in his later years moved in a rather small circle, it was but natural that the world should regard the literary Mayhews as extinct. If the author of “London Labour and the London Poor” had died earlier, many people would have been present at his funeral in Kensal-green Cemetery on Saturday last. As it was, those for whose cause he had valiantly contended seem to have forgotten him. Henry Mayhew was born in the year 1812. He was educated at Westminster School. The remarkable reason of his leaving it is dramatically and, at the same time, truthfully told in Forshall’s “Westminster School, Past and Present.” In consequence of this incident the schoolboy friendship of Gilbert A’Beckett and Henry Mayhew became, a very few years subsequently, cemented into a literary partnership. If, after their sudden vacation from Westminster, they had not walked to Edinburgh together, the Thief, produced in 1832 (the precursor of the present “Bits” class of paper), would never have seen the light. Nor should we have seen Figaro in London (1832), a weekly paper which, with the exception of illustrations, was almost identical with the first numbers of Punch. After the foundation of Punch, “Gil,” as Henry Mayhew always called A’Beckett, dissolved partnership. The history of the foundation of Punch has given rise to much controversy. We are informed by Henry Mayhew’s son that it was originally to have been called “Cupid”; and to this end Archibald Henning drew a front page of Lord Palmerston (his sobriquet was then “Cupid”) perched on a sun-flower, à la John Reeve; that Punch, in fact, was started by Mayhew, Ebenezer Landells, and Joseph Last in partnership, with Henry Mayhew as editor; and that, when they sold the property to Messrs. Bradbury and Evans, after they had paid the outstanding liabilities, they divided seven-and-sixpence between them! Mr. Henry Mayhew subsequently became widely known by his researches into the domestic and social condition of the London working classes, and of those suffering from poverty and destitution. He produced other works of some value; but Mr. Athol Mayhew, the son of Mr. Henry Mayhew, is at present engaged in writing the “Life and Times” of his father; and we may expect to be furnished with a connected account of the useful literary labours of this able and diligent man-of-letters, who is worthy of remembrance for the services he rendered to his age.

Illustrated London News, Saturday, August 6, 1887.

Portrait of Henry Mayhew taken from London Labour and the London Poor, By Henry Mayhew, Published 1861. Original image courtesy of The Internet Archive.