Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Sympathetic Eye on London's Underclass

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Sympathetic Eye on London's Underclass

Article excerpt



by Henry Mayhew edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Oxford University Press, [pounds sterling]12.99)

PUBLIC visits to the sewers of London are rare: for one thing, there's a danger of catching leptospirosis from rat urine. Access is most often through a manhole near Blackfriar's Bridge. As you descend into a Victorian darkness, the sound of traffic above grows fainter and you approach the Fleet Main Line. This giant sewer runs five miles north to Hampstead.

Built in 1858, it had served to divert drainage from the main sewers along the Thames. Until then, the river had been an open latrine, brimful of refuse and odd jetsam. Even today it's extraordinary what people flush down their lavatories. Thames Water periodically hires "flushers" to pan the muck hopefully for jewellery and other, less valuable items.

The great Victorian chronicler of London's underclass, Henry Mayhew, documented similar desperadoes, known as "toshers", who trawled sewerage outlets round Blackfriars and Surrey docks in search of copper nails and other windfall. In his towering work of social reportage, London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew exposed a limbo of sewer-hunters, card-sharps, bonegrubbers and other chancers who scraped a pittance to get by.

The Victorian upper classes remained ignorant of the metropolitan poor until they read about them in Mayhew or Dickens. However, they were not untouched by the underworld. While tophatted gentlemen frequented the flagellation houses of Mayfair, toshers crawled in the ooze a few yards beneath their feet. The police paid toshers to dredge for missing persons, though it was a rare corpse retrieved that had any money about it.

Mayhew was the first journalist to elevate London's poor to the dignity of print. …

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