One of the great, all-too-neglected artifacts of the era’s reformist zeal is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, a far-ranging, four-volume illustrated catalogue of the city’s underclass, largely drawn from the words of the study’s subjects themselves. Mayhew’s “cyclopædia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work” is an unmatched, if idiosyncratic, record of a country getting to know itself. The interviews and accounts contained in it depict the clamor and bustle, the liveliness and sorrow, of lower-class London life, as in this passage describing a workingmen’s market:

Here, alongside the road, are some half-dozen headless tailors’ dummies, dressed in Chesterfields and fustian jackets, each labelled, “Look at the prices,” or “Observe the quality.” After this is a butcher’s shop, crimson and white with meat piled up to the first-floor, in front of which the butcher himself, in his blue coat, walks up and down, sharpening his knife on the steel that hangs to his waist. A little further on stands the clean family, begging; the father with his head down as if in shame, and a box of lucifers held forth in his hand. . . . This stall is green and white with bunches of turnips—that red with apples, the next yellow with onions, and another purple with pickling cabbages. One minute you pass a man with an umbrella turned inside up and full of prints; the next, you hear one with a peepshow of Mazeppa, and Paul Jones the pirate, describing the pictures to the boys looking in at the little round windows. Then is heard the sharp snap of the percussion-cap from the crowd of lads firing at the target for nuts; and the moment afterwards, you see either a black man half-clad in white, and shivering in the cold with tracts in his hand, or else you hear the sounds of musk from “Frazier’s Circus,” on the other side of the road, and the man outside the door of the penny concert, beseeching you to “Be in time—be in time!” as Mr. Somebody is just about to sing his favourite song of the “Knife Grinder.” Such, indeed, is the riot, the struggle, and the scramble for a living, that the confusion and uproar of the New-cut on Saturday night have a bewildering and saddening effect upon the thoughtful mind.

Fact-finding commissions had reported on the “Condition of England” before (for example, in the Board of Trade’s “Blue Books”) and such lights as Thomas Carlyle had weighed in on the question. The London press played a part in the conversation, too, with articles, pamphlets, and editorials. But for all their solutions about what was to be done, few writers took the time to understand the objects of their pity; “the poor” under consideration served mainly as mouthpieces for predetermined opinions. Mayhew was the first to develop a form that took a rational approach to the situation and worked as a call to arms all at once. London Labour blends together personal observation, oral accounting, and a proto-sociology based on hundreds of interviews conducted by Mayhew and his team, as well as reams of statistical evidence (46,800 pounds of refuse under-waistcoasts, mostly destined for the paper mills, were bought, collected, or found in the streets of London annually). It was a revolutionary innovation in journalism—the first real “bottom-up” history ever written—and it remains, in many ways, just as relevant today.

Jeffrey Greggs is the associate editor of The New Criterion.