The Underworld comes alive

London's Underworld
edited by Peter Quennell
by Henry Mayhew
Being selections from 'those that will not work' the fourth volume of 'London labour and the London poor.' 
Spring Books, London 
This is a gem of a book as it is a good source material of social history of London's Underworld around the 1850s.
Henry Mayhew while proclaiming to be objective is not that all, he certainly comes in with 'an holier than thou attitude' about the profession that 'these' people undertake.
He goes through an extensive analysis of prostitution, he categorises the levels of engagement that women participate. For example Mayhew defines one class as 'female operatives' who can be milliners, dress makers, furriers, shoe-binders who only partake in prostitution to fund their extravagant life style or their own sexual gratification. In other classes of prostitution he reasons that some women undertake this type of work in the hope of finding a husband. I mean it is really fascinating the way he tries to reason prostitution. With the female operatives he decides the following is the cause of the lax morality:
'1 Low wages inadequate to their sustenance
2 Natural levity and the example around them
3 Love of dress and display, couple with the desire for a sweetheart
4 Sedentary employment and want of proper exercise
5 Low and cheap literature of an immoral tendency
6 Absence of parental care and the inculcation of proper precepts, In short, bad bringing up.'
Number 4 is where he blames the abundance of penny romance novels as a reason that women were driven to prostitution.
There are wonderful characters and descriptions in this book for example "Opposite to this was the Rose and Crown public-house, resorted to by all classes of the light-fingered gentry, from the mobman and his 'Amelia' to the lowest of the street thieves and his 'Poll'. I n the tap-room might be seen Black Charlie the fiddler, with ten or a dozen lads and lasses enjoying the dance and singing and smoking over potations of gin and water, more or less plentiful according to the proceeds of the previous night - all apparently free from care in their wild carousals."
If you enjoy social history, if you reading almost first hand accounts, if you want to understand a period of English history, then this is a really interesting read.

Comments