Celebrating 40,000 Titles

October 10, 2020

Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 40,000th title it has posted to Project Gutenberg, all four volumes of London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew. Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it.

[My husband] became paralyzed like, and was deprived of the use of all one side, and nearly lost the sight of one of his eyes.… Then we parted with everything we had in the world; and, at last, when we had no other means of living left, we were advised to take to gathering ‘Pure.’ At first I couldn’t endure the business; I couldn’t bear to eat a morsel, and I was obliged to discontinue it for a long time. My husband kept at it though.… When I saw that he, poor fellow, couldn’t make enough to keep us both, I took heart and went out again, and used to gather more than he did; that’s fifteen years ago now; the times were good then, and we used to do very well. If we only gathered a pail-full in the day, we could live very well; but we could do much more than that, for there wasn’t near so many at the business then, and the Pure was easier to be had.… Six years ago, my husband complained that he was ill, in the evening, and lay down in the bed—we lived in Whitechapel then—he took a fit of coughing, and was smothered in his own blood. O dear” (the poor old soul here ejaculated), “what troubles I have gone through! I had eight children at one time, and there is not one of them alive now. My daughter lived to 30 years of age, and then she died in childbirth, and, since then, I have had nobody in the wide world to care for me—none but myself, all alone as I am.

This is one story among many in Henry Mayhew‘s “Cyclopædia” of London Labour and the London Poor — four volumes cataloguing the lives of the city’s underclass in the 1840s. This speaker touches on a series of points which recur throughout the many tales which Mayhew relates: poverty, illness, loss of family members, but also a resourcefulness and determination to make a living in any way possible, in this case, by scouring the streets for “pure” — dog excrement — which was then sold on to tanneries.

The other pillar of Mayhew’s technique is the collection of hard data, which he sets out in 710 tables over the four volumes. These cover everything from the monetary value of a dead horse (£2 4s. 3d., including 1s. 5d. for the maggots bred on its flesh and used to feed pheasants), to the number of illegitimate children born in each county of England and Wales (Middlesex, including London, notably recording the fewest), to the annual takings of London’s six blind street-sellers of tailors’ needles (a round £234).

To these we must add mention of the illustrations, many of them based on photographs attributed to the pioneering photographic businessman Richard Beard:


This illustrative style may be familiar from Punch cartoons. Mayhew was one of that magazine’s founders in 1841, though he left it in 1845. By the end of the 1840s he had begun the series of articles for the Morning Chronicle newspaper which was eventually to be reworked and collected as London Labour and the London Poor.

Thackeray praised the original Chronicle reports as “so wonderful, so awful, so piteous and pathetic, so exciting and terrible,” and contrasted the benign disposition of the upper classes with their ignorance of the “wonders and terrors … lying by your door” (Punch, 1850, Volume 18, p. 93). Mayhew had begun to remove that veil. Ever since, the work has continued to be influential as a source for writers interested in the period, including Philip Larkin for his poem “Deceptions,” Alan Moore (“the best surviving account of how people actually thought, talked and lived” — From Hell, Appendix 1, p. 9), and Terry Pratchett, who included Mayhew as a character in his Dickensian novel Dodger.

The book also has a substantial history on Distributed Proofreaders! Proofreading of the first volume started in 2005. It was transferred for a time to another e-book preparation site, then came back to DP. Volume one was finally posted to Project Gutenberg in 2017, and the appearance of volume four today marks the final completion of the project. The number of people who have involved in this project is countless: those who provided the original scans, proofers and formatters on both sites, and those who worked behind the scenes to coordinate it all can each take a bow.

There are some caveats, of course. Mayhew was a man of his time, and at the very beginning of volume one, he outlines his curious theory that the poor are a separate race, distinguished for “their high cheek-bones and protruding jaws—for their use of a slang language—for their lax ideas of property—for their general improvidence—their repugnance to continuous labour—their disregard of female honour—their love of cruelty—their pugnacity—and their utter want of religion.” The sheer bulk of the book, and the relentless repetition of the themes of poverty and squalor mean that few will choose to read it from start to finish. The tables of data are of limited interest to the modern reader, while Mayhew’s editing of his interviews with his subjects allowed some scope for dramatic licence. Despite these issues, Mayhew deserves great credit for undertaking his journeys to this “undiscovered country of the poor” and bringing back their stories. In these pages, the costermongers, the prostitutes and the pure-collectors live on, and speak to us as vividly as ever.

This post was contributed by Henry Flower, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer who post-processed all four volumes of London Labour and the London Poor.

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