Wednesday, 15 February 2017

A bit more of the “other side” of London life in 1851

"The first rats I caught was when I was about nine years of age. I ketched them an Mr Strickland’s a large cow keeper, in Little Albany –street, in Regent’s park.”  

Now if you wanted a pretty colourful way of being invited into the life of a nine year old on the streets of London this is as good as you can get.

It comes from observations of Henry Mayhew whose descriptions of London life appeared first as articles in the London daily press, and were then published under the title London Labour & the London Poor in 1851.*

And the rat catcher Jack Black was just one of hundreds Mr Mayhew interviewed.

Just over a century later my edition of Mayhew’s London was issued, bought by mum and long ago passed to me, and for Christmas our Saul bought me a new edition.

All of which I like because of that sense of continuity.

And like so many books which reported on the conditions of the working classes in the 19th century it has a direct relevance to BHC because although the scheme began almost a full twenty years after Mayhew began publishing his accounts, many of those who walked across his pages will have had children and some of those might have been migrated.

Now that is not to suggest for one minute that most of the people he wrote about were feckless or bad parents merely that his stories show those Londoners on the very margin and by extension could represent the urban poor in any one of a dozen British towns.

And that makes his book compelling reading because there is no doubt that a full two or three decades after its publication a lot of the descriptions in London life could be replicated.

I have no idea what happened to Jack Black who went on to tell Henry Mayhew “at that time Little Albany –street, in Regent’s park was all fields and meaders in them parts  and I recollect there was a big orchard on one side of the sheds I was only doing it for a game ........... When a rat bite touches the bone, it makes you faint .... in a minute and it bleeds dreadful.”

What is interesting is that amongst all the gruesome details of rat catching Mr Black revealed that at the age of 15 he had got interested in birds and during his conversation he gave a series of renditions  of different bird songs.

On one level we shouldn’t be surprised but it does challenge that picture that many have of the urban poor in the middle of the 19th century.

And that is all I am going to say, other than that it is a fascinating read.

Location; London

Picture; the Boys Crossing-sweepers,  from London Labour & the London Poor 1851

*Henry Mayhew, Introduction, London Labour & the London Poor 1851

*A bit of the “other side” of London life in 1851 ................. stories from Henry Mayhew,

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