Sociology is a subject that is extremely important. By understanding the circumstances of other people’s lives we learn to become more empathic and objective. Viewing life though the eyes of another person is a great way to find the problems in society and think of solutions to those problems so that society can progress. Human beings are constantly evolving via our technological capabilities which often impact our social structures and systems. Yet human beings are also thinking and feeling creatures and so we also aim to make changes in society that will improve the quality of life for many. The living conditions in Western societies have improved drastically in the past one hundred years and a direct cause for much of this change was the dedicated work on the part of social activists and journalists throughout the 1800s and 1900s.
The mid-to-late 1800s saw a rapid increase in concerns about social welfare, especially in cramped and overcrowded cities like London, England. In the 1800s London was a hotspot for commerce and business. It was one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world and it boasted a high class full of successful entrepreneurs, society women, lavish balls, and enormous and beautifully crafted mansion estates on the outskirts of the city. Yet, for all the rich who lived in London, there were many more poor people. Additionally, at that time, there were little to no social services available to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Hence, many parts of 1880s London had serious poverty-fueled problems including rampant crime, child labor, illness and poor sanitation. Dysfunctional prison and asylum systems made the situation even worse and so many of the city’s poorest residents were simply left to eke out lives of squalor. Most people who were unfortunate enough to live in the disadvantaged areas died before they reached the age of 50.
The social problems in London during the Victorian Era were notoriously appalling. Although most members of the wealthy portion of society simply ignored the problems, there were a few human rights activists with a lot of social power who were extremely disturbed by the realities of life in the poverty-stricken East End. One such individual was Henry Mayhew.
Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was an English journalist and social researcher who advocated for social reforms that would help to lessen the hardships on London’s poorest residents. In the 1840s, horrified by the dreadful conditions he had witnessed while reporting about crimes in the East End, Henry Mayhew decided to use his educational background (that included knowledge of research tactics) to start a newspaper column that would chronicle the lives of London’s poorest residents. Such a column would make their squalid conditions known to the upper and middle classes who regularly read the newspaper. Henry Mayhew firmly believed that raising public awareness about the situations was the key to finding a solution to them and he considered his position as a newspaper man as a means of giving voices to the voiceless.
In order to get the true-to-life, detailed, and first-person-perspective stories of the poor, Henry Mayhew daringly took it upon himself to wander around the most disadvantaged and dangerous parts of the city and interview residents about their daily lives. He spent years interviewing residents and then writing down their accounts with precision (he frequently wrote the interviews in a way that relayed the jargon and the accent of the interviewee). This incredible feat of qualitive research ultimately resulted in one of the most groundbreaking social surveys of all time titled “London Labour and the London Poor.”
“London Labour and the London Poor” was eventually published in three volumes in 1851; a fourth volume was included in an 1861 production run. Most of the interviews were conducted in the 1840s during the earlier years of the Victorian Era. Henry Mayhew was a dedicated researcher and he interviewed practically everyone and anyone willing to speak with him including factory (or sweatshop) workers, street entertainers (including a “Punch & Judy” man), food merchants, barmaids, butchers, prostitutes, ex-cons and more. During the interviews, the interviewees were questioned about what they felt could be done to help better their circumstances. Those in illegal professions were also asked how they fell into such dire straights in the first place. Their answers offered incredible insight into the psychology of people that were largely ignored; unseen and unheard by the wealthy and powerful until the publication of the interview.
Furthermore, Henry Mayhew offered detailed descriptions of the conditions on the streets and the way that people behaved while in the busy and bustling market areas. Whenever he interviewed someone he described their clothes, how they lived, where they lived and what they did for entertainment as well as work. Henry Mayhew was determined to give a vivid background of the people that he interviewed in order to make it clear to readers that they were reading about a real person—not a fictional character. Hence, many interviewees also spoke about their families and childhoods.
The results of Henry Mayhew’s efforts are breathtaking and emotionally moving depictions of people that lived over 100 years ago. Despite all the time that has passed, the interviews are still relevant and it is eerie to think that the stories told in “London Labour and the London Poor” were the true life stories of people who actually existed. The work was incredibly influential in helping to promote the social movements that would eventually take hold and improve conditions drastically in even the poorest sections of the city. At present, London still has its poor areas but nothing even remotely akin to the sheer desperation that plagued the city at the time of Henry Mayhew’s interviews.
“London Labour and the London Poor” is a dazzling description of the not-so-dazzling lives of people who lived on the poorest streets of London in the Victorian Era. Although these works were written long ago the issues presented in them still exist today in many places. Thus, the stories still resonate. In fact, if such a work was compiled today perhaps there would be more insight into how to decrease the problems that human society still faces at present.
To read the entire collection of the “London Labour and the London Poor” interviews online visit: http://web.archive.org/web/20080923195808/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/...
Anyone who is interested in history, sociology or even the human condition in general should read these texts carefully and remember how human society has benefited over the years, but also consider what must be done in order to progress in the future.