The creases is so bad now, that I haven’t been out with ’em for three days. They’re so cold, people won’t buy ’em; for when I goes up to them, they say, ‘They’ll freeze our bellies.’ Besides, in the market, they won’t sell a ha’penny handful now—they’re ris to a penny and tuppence. In summer there’s lots, and ‘most as cheap as dirt; but I have to be down at Farringdon-market between four and five, or else I can’t get any creases, because everyone almost—especially the Irish—is selling them, and they’re picked up so quick. . . . We children never play down there, ’cos we’re thinking of our living. No; people never pities me in the street—excepting one gentleman, and he says, says he, ‘What do you do out so soon in the morning?’ but he gave me nothink —he only walked away.

It’s very cold before winter comes on reg’lar—specially getting up of a morning. I gets up in the dark by the light of the lamp in the court. When the snow is on the ground, there’s no creases. I bears the cold—you must; so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts ’em to take hold of the creases, especially when we takes ’em to the pump to wash ’em. No; I never see any children crying—it’s no use.

Sometimes I make a great deal of money.

Here was a real-life Oliver Twist, spun without the aid of any literary invention. Who wouldn’t weep for those that cannot?

The son of a middle-class law-yer, Mayhew proved a disappointment to his domineering father by not following him to the bar. Although he excelled at his public school, Westminster, he never completed a formal education, opting instead for the bohemian life of a hack writer. Articles, one-shot theatricals, novels—he took whatever paid. For a short while, he fancied himself a chemist and spent some years learning the science in a lab he built at his brother Alfred’s house (he later put some of this knowledge to use in a biography of Humphry Davy aimed at schoolboys). Mayhew was always short of cash, and was briefly bankrupt following the failure of the Iron Times, his paper devoted entirely to railway news. His most notable success was the co-founding of the satirical weekly Punch in 1841, but his tenure as editor lasted just one year, due to erratic work habits. (He was, however, kept on as “suggester-in-chief” for a few years more.)

Mayhew recognized that he was onto something new with his survey of the lower classes, which perhaps explains why he chose to stick with the project for the better part of five years instead of adding it to his long list of half-completed endeavors. After parting ways with the Chronicle over editorial differences—he had grown critical of the paper’s liberal adherence to free trade—he continued to publish his work in small numbers, now titled London Labour and the London Poor. In the preface to the 1861 complete edition, he laid out what he saw as the reason for the project’s popularity:

It is believed that the book is curious for many reasons: It surely may be considered curious as being the first attempt to publish the history of a people, from the lips of the people themselves—giving a literal description of their labour, their earnings, their trials, and their sufferings, in their own “unvarnished” language. . . . 

It may be considered curious also as being the first commission of inquiry into the state of the people, undertaken by a private individual, and the first “blue book” [government report] ever published in twopenny numbers.

It is curious, moreover, as supplying information concerning a large body of persons, of whom the public had less knowledge than of the most distant tribes on earth—the government population returns not even numbering them among the inhabitants of the kingdom.

That’s a tricky set of criteria to satisfy. Social science tends to be dull (and in the case of economics, dismal), advocacy shrill, and twopenny journalism flippant. A combination of the three suggests Dante’s forgotten ditch in the eighth circle, reserved for prattlers. It is our good fortune that Mayhew’s intellectual development left him qualified to write what he did while saving him from the ranks of the bores, the shouters, and the dandies.

Jeffrey Greggs is the associate editor of The New Criterion.