London Labour was a story that grew in the telling. Initially, The Morning Chronicle commissioned Mayhew to cover the 1849 cholera epidemic in London, the “King Cholera” that killed nearly fifteen thousand of the city’s denizens, most of whom resided in slums south of the Thames. Mayhew decided to go directly to the source. Writing as the Metropolitan correspondent from Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey—a stew Dickens once described as the “filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London”—Mayhew turned out a forceful polemic arguing that poor sanitation either caused or exacerbated the contagion: “the masses of filth and corruption round the metropolis are . . . the nauseous nests of plague and pestilence.” (a visit to the cholera districts of dermondsey, The Morning Chronicle, Monday, September 24, 1849.)
Mayhew’s first dispatch resembles a traditional opinion piece more than the interview-heavy accounts that are the hallmark of London Labour, but it received an overwhelmingly positive response nonetheless. He was put in charge of the London portion of the Chronicle’s series “Labour and the Poor,” which, during the Parliamentary recess in the winter of 1849, regularly made up the majority of the paper’s content. (Following their falling out in October 1850, both Mayhew and the Chronicle’s editors claimed credit for the series’s genesis.) Mayhew contributed some eighty letters, at the rate of two or three per week, and, in the course of the concentrated effort such production demanded, his vision began to take shape.
Mayhew’s biographer Anne Humphreys maintains that his reputation was at its highest during these months, and the series’s reception bears this out. In Punch (which Mayhew had helped to found), the author William Makepeace Thackeray called it:
A picture of human life so wonderful, so awful . . . so exciting and terrible, that readers of romances own they never read anything like to it. . . . [Y]ou and I—we are of the upper classes; we have had hitherto no community with the poor . . . until some clear-sighted energetic man like the writer of the Chronicle travels into the poor man’s country for us, and comes back with his tale of terror and wonder. (Punch, March 9, 1850)
The series inspired philanthropic societies and political organizations to mount new campaigns, and the offices of the Chronicle were flooded with individual donations from readers, usually in response to the particular plight of one or another of Mayhew’s subjects. This led to criticism in certain quarters: James Wilson’s Economist opined that the publication was “unthinkingly increasing the enormous funds already profusely destined to charitable purposes, adding to the number of virtual paupers, and encouraging a reliance on public sympathy for help instead on self-exertion.”
Although Mayhew interviewed the innocent and scoundrels alike—although he depicted scenes that highlighted the dignity as much as the pathos of poverty—stories of high heartbreak elicited the greatest reactions. One of his most famous accounts was of an eight-year-old flower seller, a watercress girl, who “although the weather was severe, was dressed in a thin cotton gown, with a threadbare shawl wrapped round her shoulders”:
I go about the streets with water-creases, crying, ‘Four bunches a penny, water-creases.’ I am just eight years old—that’s all, and I’ve a big sister, and a brother and a sister younger than I am. On and off, I’ve been very near twelvemonth in the streets. Before that, I had to take care of a baby for my aunt. . . .