Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

3
Dark Satanic Mills?
Economic and Social Change, 1830–1867

The 16-year-old boy, with heavy-lidded eyes and a vacant stare of a face, described his early life to the journalist. His father had died when he was an infant; his mother supported him and his brothers, taking any kind of work available and leaving them at home with only the house key and some bread and butter for lunch. There were times when she had pawned everything in the house and there was no food at all, and the boy and his brothers were so hungry that they cried. “She used to be at work from six in the morning until ten o’clock at night, which was a long time for a child’s belly to hold out again, and when it was dark we would go and lie down on the bed and try to go to sleep until she came home with the food” (Mayhew 2009: 39). At age 8, the boy went to work to support his family, peddling green vegetables in the morning and nuts in the evening. By 14, he was spending part of his wages to take his girlfriend out drinking at the public house, and by the following year, had moved into his own lodgings. He had evolved a cynical philosophy of life: “In course God Almighty made the world, and the poor bricklayers labourers’ built the houses arterwards – that’s my opinion; but I can’t say, as I’ve never been in no schools, only always hard at work, and knows nothing about it.”

The young peddler, or “costermonger,” had his reminiscences duly recorded by the author and social reformer Henry Mayhew, who printed them first in a series of articles and then as a book: London Labour and the London Poor (1861). Mayhew documented for his largely middle-class audience a culture completely foreign to their experience, despite its existence in and throughout the capital and many booming provincial cities. As an amateur ethnographer, Mayhew’s work expanded on what the novelist and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had called in 1842 the “two nations” of England: the rich and the poor.

By 1830, iron furnaces, railroad tracks, and beam engines already dotted the English countryside, and the enclosure of fields and the improvement of agricultural

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