Even as its circulation waned, London Labour evolved into a sprawling but ever-changing undertaking: a masterpiece of astonishing complexity suited to a man that had always been a dabbler. The interviews became paramount, searching into the lives of his subjects—what card games they played, what plays they attended, what secret jargons they spoke. And, as he fleshed out daily lives in daily speech, he sorted the sinks of London into further subcategories: “the street-sellers of fish &c.; vegetables; eatables and drinkables; stationary, literature and the fine arts; manufactured articles; second-hand articles; live animals; mineral production and curiosities.” He wrote on street buyers and purchasers of “hare-skins, old clothes, old umbrellas, bottles, glass, broken metal, rags, waste paper and dripping”; on “street-finders” who “picked up their living in public thoroughfares” by gathering “dogs’-dung” and cigar ends. Performers—sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, sapient pigs, and talking dogs—took up the bulk of third installment, and whores, thieves, cheats, and beggars were the subject of volume four.

A typical section of London Labour begins with Mayhew’s brief description of the trade at hand, along with the environments and locales in which it was practiced. The interviews, which varied in number from chapter to chapter, followed. In them, the real wealth of detail about everyday work poured forth. Mayhew kept himself invisible most of the time, working the sense of his questions into the responses he printed. The interviews never suffer from the actuarial tenor of a census-taking. While talking to a middle-aged woman who sold prints from the inside of her umbrella, he manages to call forth information about her customers, her custom, and her earnings, all while preserving a natural and spontaneous tone:

I’ve sat with an umbrella,” she said, “these seven or eight years, I suppose it is. . . . Well, sir, I think I sell most ‘coloured.’ ‘Master Toms’ wasn’t bad last summer. ‘Master Toms’ was pictures of cats, sir—you must have seen them—and I had them different colours. . . . I sell only to working people, I think; seldom to boys, and seldomer to girls; seldom to servant-maids and hardly ever to women of the town. . . . I don’t remember that ever I have made more than 1 s. 10 d. on an evening. I don’t sell, or very seldom indeed, at other times, and only in summer, and when its fine. If I clear 5 s. I counts that a good week. . . . I seldom clear so much. Oftener 4 s.

Mayhew’s easy sociability, to which many of his peers attest, was also crucial to the enterprise in simply convincing his subjects to volunteer. If well-heeled London looked upon the city’s street people as utterly alien, the converse was just as true. Mayhew’s street-side manner allowed him to break through social barriers, which can be seen in his report of an encounter with a brothel-worker:

Did she expect to lead this life till she died? Well, she never did, if I wasn’t going to preachify. She couldn’t stand that—anything but that.

I really begged to apologize if I had wounded her sensibility; I wasn’t inquiring from a religious point of view, or with any particular motive. I merely wished to know, to satisfy my own curiosity.

Well, she thought me a very inquisitive old party, anyhow. At any rate, as I was so polite, she did not mind answering my questions.

Of course, charm and politesse didn’t always carry the day. One costermonger rebuffed Mayhew’s questioning with a line for the ages: “The press? I’ll have nothing to say to it. We are oppressed enough already.” A pity the rejoinder was directed at the grocer’s would-be champion.

London labour is not a text that holds up as a work of science in the manner of Principia or The Descent of Man. Insofar as today’s standards of objectivity are concerned, the methods used to assemble the volumes are quaint. Statisticians would find the numerous lists that pepper the book laughable, not to mention the means employed to ascertain the facts within them. (Though the opportunity to learn the rates of drunkenness among button-molders, carpenters, and the clergy might not be without some appeal.)

Oral historians would find much objectionable as well; and Mayhew’s subjective style is but the first of his sins. He questioned his middle-class assumptions more than most of his contemporaries, but kept many of them: his attitudes towards the Irish, Jews, and people of color were all too commonplace, especially in someone so otherwise perceptive. Mayhew regarded many of his subjects as being “in a state of almost brutish ignorance,” though he felt that the fault for this “national disgrace” was “assuredly an evil of our own [his middle- and upper-class readers] creation.” He also made judgments about which street people were or weren’t deserving of their state, a violation of the rules of oral history, if not advocacy.

Jeffrey Greggs is the associate editor of The New Criterion.