DataViz History: Henry Mayhew’s 1850 London Labour and the London Poor

A tosher at work c. 1850 Personal Note:

As many of you know, I was a History major as an undergraduate in college. I started in Computer Science (thus the minor degree), but began to love history because of the influence of my Freshman History Survey course and its amazing teacher, Dr. Bruce E. Seely. His focus was history of technology. I told him many times that he was the one who influenced me to change my major to History. His course has had a profound effect on me and I still repeat stories he taught us back then.

20+ years and one year of law school later, I am now firmly in the computer sciences. However, my History degree gave me strong writing and logical thinking skills as well as my interest in data visualization.

One of my favorite periods and places in history was 1850s London. Basically, London smelled like shit at this point in time. There were people who literally spend their nights marching through this muck to ink out a living.

I hope you will read this fascinating blog post about a small slice of that time. Think of this as a precursor to my multi-series blog on the 1854 London Cholera Epidemic and Dr. John Snow’s amazing Ghost Map coming up next week.

PHOTO UPPER RIGHT: A tosher at work c. 1850, sieving raw sewage in one  of the dank, dangerous and uncharted sewers beneath the streets of London. From  Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

To live in any large city during the 19th century, at a time when the state  provided little in the way of a safety net, was to witness poverty and want on a  scale unimaginable in most Western countries today. In London, for example, the  combination of low wages, appalling housing, a fast-rising population and  miserable health care resulted in the sharp division of one city into two. An  affluent minority of aristocrats and professionals lived comfortably in the good  parts of town, cossetted by servants and conveyed about in carriages, while the  great majority struggled desperately for existence in stinking slums where  no gentleman or lady ever trod, and which most of the privileged had no idea  even existed. It was a situation accurately and memorably skewered by Dickens, who in Oliver Twist introduced his  horrified readers to Bill Sikes’s lair in the very real and noisome Jacob’s Island, and who has Mr. Podsnap, in Our Mutual  Friend, insist: “I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss  it; I don’t admit it!” [SOURCE]

Out of sight and all too often out of mind, the working people of the British  capital nonetheless managed to conjure livings for themselves in extraordinary ways. Our guide to the enduring oddity of many mid-Victorian occupations is Henry Mayhew, whose monumental four-volume study of London Labour and the London Poor remains one of the classics of  working-class history. Mayhew, describing the lives of London  peddlers of this period–was a pioneering journalist-cum-sociologist who  interviewed representatives of hundreds of eye-openingly odd trades, jotting  down every detail of their lives in their own words to compile a vivid,  panoramic overview of everyday life in the mid-Victorian city.

Among Mayhew’s more memorable meetings were encounters with the “bone grubber,” the “Hindoo tract seller,” an eight-year-old girl  watercress-seller and the “pure finder,” whose surprisingly sought-after job was  picking up dog mess and selling it to tanners, who then used it to cure leather.  None of his subjects, though, aroused more fascination–or greater disgust–among  his readers than the men who made it their living by forcing entry into London’s  sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching  out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above:  bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if  they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the  gutters.

PHOTO LEFT: A London sewer in the 19th century. This one, as  evidenced by the shaft of light penetrating through a grating, must be close to  the surface; others ran as deep as 40 feet beneath the city.

Mayhew called them “sewer hunters” or “toshers,” and the latter term has come  to define the breed, though it actually had a rather wider application in  Victorian times–the toshers sometimes worked the shoreline of the Thames rather  than the sewers, and also waited at rubbish dumps when the contents of damaged  houses were being burned and then sifted through the ashes for any items of  value. They were mostly celebrated, nonetheless, for the living that the sewers  gave them, which was enough to support a tribe of around 200 men–each of them  known only by his nickname: Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-eyed George, Short-armed  Jack. The toshers earned a decent living; according to Mayhew’s informants, an  average of six shillings a day–an amount equivalent to about $50 today. It was  sufficient to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class–and, as the  astonished writer noted, “at this rate, the property recovered from the sewers  of London would have amounted to no less than £20,000 [today $3.3 million] per  annum.”

The toshers’ work was dangerous, however, and–after 1840, when it was made  illegal to enter the sewer network without express permission, and a £5 reward  was offered to anyone who informed on them–it was also secretive, done mostly at  night by lantern light. “They won’t let us in to work the shores,” one  sewer-hunter complained, “as there’s a little danger. They fears as how we’ll  get suffocated, but they don’t care if we get starved!”

Quite how the members of the profession kept their work a secret is something  of a puzzle, for Mayhew makes it clear that their dress was highly distinctive. “These toshers,” he wrote,

may be seen, especially on the Surrey side of the Thames, habited in long  greasy velveteen coats, furnished with pockets of vast capacity, and their  nether limbs encased in dirty canvas trousers, and any old slops of shoes… [They] provide themselves, in addition, with a canvas apron, which they tie  round them, and a dark lantern similar to a policeman’s; this they strap before  them on the right breast, in such a manner that on removing the shade, the  bull’s eye throws the light straight forward when they are in an erect position… but when they stoop, it throws the light directly under them so that they can  distinctly see any object at their feet. They carry a bag on their back, and in  their left hand a pole about seven or eight feet long, one one end of which  there is a large iron hoe.

PHOTO RIGHT: Henry Mayhew chronicled London street life in the  1840s and ’50s, producing an incomparable account of desperate living in the  working classes’ own words.

This hoe was the vital tool of the sewer hunters’ trade. On the river, it  sometimes saved their lives, for “should they, as often happens, even to the  most experienced, sink in some quagmire, they immediately throw out the long  pole armed with the hoe, and with it seizing hold of any object within reach,  are thereby enabled to draw themselves out.” In the sewers, the hoe was  invaluable for digging into the accumulated muck in search of the buried scraps  that could be cleaned and sold.

Knowing where to find the most valuable pieces of detritus was vital, and  most toshers worked in gangs of three or four, led by a veteran who was  frequently somewhere between 60 and 80 years old. These men knew the secret  locations of the cracks that lay submerged beneath the surface of the  sewer-waters, and it was there that cash frequently lodged. “Sometimes,” Mayhew  wrote, “they dive their arm down to the elbow in the mud and filth and bring up shillings, sixpences, half-crowns, and occasionally half-sovereigns and sovereigns. They always find these  the coins standing edge uppermost between the bricks in the bottom, where the  mortar has been worn away.”

Life beneath London’s streets might have been surprisingly lucrative for the  experienced sewer-hunter, but the city authorities had a point: It was also  tough, and survival required detailed knowledge of its many hazards. There were,  for example, sluices that were raised at low tide, releasing a tidal wave of  effluent-filled water into the lower sewers, enough to drown or dash to pieces  the unwary. Conversely, toshers who wandered too far into the endless maze of  passages risked being trapped by a rising tide, which poured in through outlets  along the shoreline and filled the main sewers to the roof twice daily.

Yet the work was not was unhealthy, or so the sewer-hunters themselves  believed. The men that Mayhew met were strong, robust and even florid in  complexion, often surprisingly long-lived–thanks, perhaps, to immune systems  that grew used to working flat out–and adamantly convinced that the stench that  they encountered in the tunnels “contributes in a variety of ways to their  general health.” They were more likely, the writer thought, to catch some  disease in the slums they lived in, the largest and most overcrowded of which  was off Rosemary Lane, on the poorer south side of the river.

Access is gained to this court through a dark narrow entrance, scarcely  wider than a doorway, running beneath the first floor of one of the houses in  the adjoining street. The court itself is about 50 yards long, and not more than  three yards wide, surrounded by lofty wooden houses, with jutting abutments in  many upper storeys that almost exclude the light, and give them the appearance  of being about to tumble down upon the heads of the intruder. The court is  densely inhabited…. My informant, when the noise had ceased, explained the  matter as follows: “You see, sir, there’s more than thirty houses in this here  court, and there’s no less than eight rooms in every house; now there’s nine or  ten people in some of the rooms, I knows, but just say four in every room and  calculate what that there comes to.” I did, and found it, to my surprise, to be  960. “Well,” continued my informant, chuckling and rubbing his hands in evident  delight at the result, “you may as well just tack a couple of hundred on to the  tail o’ them for makeweight, as we’re not werry pertikler about a hundred or two  one way or the other in these here places.”

PHOTO LEFT: A gang of sewer-flushers–employed by the city, unlike  the toshers–in a London sewer late in the 19th century.

No trace has yet been found of the sewer-hunters prior to Mayhew’s encounter  with them, but there is no reason to suppose that the profession was not an  ancient one. London had possessed a sewage system since Roman times, and some  chaotic medieval construction work was regulated by Henry VIII’s Bill of Sewers, issued in 1531. The Bill established eight  different groups of commissioners and charged them with keeping the tunnels in  their district in good repair, though since each remained responsible for only  one part of the city, the arrangement guaranteed that the proliferating sewer  network would be built to no uniform standard and recorded on no single map.

Thus it was never possible to state with any certainty exactly how extensive  the labrynth under London was. Contemporary estimates ran as high as 13,000  miles; most of these tunnels, of course, were far too small for the toshers to  entert, but there were at least 360 major sewers, bricked in the 17th century.  Mayhew noted that these tunnels averaged a height of 3 feet 9 inches, and since  540 miles of the network was formally surveyed in the 1870s it does not seem too  much to suggest that perhaps a thousand miles of tunnel was actually navigable  to a determined man. The network was certainly sufficient to ensure that  hundreds of miles of uncharted tunnel remained unknown to even the most  experienced among the toshers.

PHOTO RIGHT: Sewer-flushers work one of the subterranean sluices  that occasionally proved fatal to unwary toshers caught downstream of the  unexpected flood.

It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that legends proliferated  among the men who made a living in the tunnels. Mayhew recorded one of the most  remarkable bits of folklore common among the toshers: that a “race of wild hogs” inhabited the sewers under Hampstead, in the far north of the city. This  story­–a precursor of the tales of “alligators in the sewers” heard in New York a century  later–suggested that a pregnant sow,

by some accident got down the sewer through an opening, and, wandering  away from the spot, littered and reared her offspring in the drain; feeding on  the offal and garbage washed into it continually. Here, it is alleged, the breed  multiplied exceedingly, and have become almost as ferocious as they are  numerous.

Thankfully, the same legend explained, the black swine that proliferated  under Hampstead were incapable of traversing the tunnels to emerge by the  Thames; the construction of the sewer network obliged them to cross Fleet  Ditch–a bricked-over river–“and as it is the obstinate nature of a pig to swim against the stream, the wild hogs of the sewers invariably work their  way back to their original quarters, and are thus never to be seen.”

A second myth, far more eagerly believed, told of the existence (Jacqueline  Simpson and Jennifer Westwood record) “of a mysterious, luck-bringing Queen  Rat”:

This was a supernatural creature whose true appearance was that of a rat;  she would follow the toshers about, invisibly, as they worked, and when she saw  one that she fancied she would turn into a sexy-looking woman and accost him. If  he gave her a night to remember, she would give him luck in his work; he would  be sure to find plenty of money and valuables. He would not necessarily guess  who she was, for though the Queen Rat did have certain peculiarities in her  human form (her eyes reflected light like an animal’s, and she had claws on her  toes), he probably would not notice them while making love in some dark corner.  But if he did suspect, and talked about her, his luck would change at once; he  might well drown, or meet with some horrible accident.

PHOTO RIGHT: Repairing the Fleet Sewer. This was one of the main  channels beneath London, and carried the waters of what had once been a  substantial river–until the expansion of the city caused it to be built over and  submerged.

One such tradition was handed down in the family of a tosher named Jerry  Sweetly, who died in 1890, and finally published more than a century later.  According to this family legend, Sweetly had encountered the Queen Rat in a pub.  They drank until midnight, went to a dance, “and then the girl led him to a rag  warehouse to make love.” Bitten deeply on the neck (the Queen Rat often did this  to her lovers, marking them so no other rat would harm them), Sweetly lashed  out, causing the girl to vanish and reappear as a gigantic rat up in the  rafters. From this vantage point, she told the boy: “You’ll get your luck,  tosher, but you haven’t done paying me for it yet!”

Offending the Queen Rat had serious consequences for Sweetly, the same  tradition ran. His first wife died in childbirth, his second on the river,  crushed between a barge and the wharf. But, as promised by legend, the tosher’s  children were all lucky, and once in every generation in the Sweetly family a  female child was born with mismatched eyes–one blue, the other grey, the color  of the river.

Queen Rats and mythical sewer-pigs were not the  only dangers confronting the toshers, of course. Many of the tunnels they worked  in were crumbling and dilapidated–“the bricks of the Mayfair sewer,” Peter Ackroyd says, “were said to be as  rotten as gingerbread; you could have scooped them out with a spoon”–and they  sometimes collapsed, entombing the unwary sewer hunters who disturbed them.  Pockets of suffocating and explosive gases such as “sulphurated hydrogen” were also common, and no tosher  could avoid frequent contact with all manner of human waste. The endlessly  inquisitive Mayhew recorded that the “deposit” found in the sewers

has been found to comprise all the ingredients from the gas works, and  several chemical and mineral manufactories; dead dogs, cats, kittens, and rats;  offal from the slaughter houses, sometimes even including the entrails of the  animals; street pavement dirt of every variety; vegetable refuse, stable-dung;  the refuse of pig-styes; night-soil; ashes; rotten mortar and rubbish of  different kinds.

PHOTO LEFT: Joseph Bazalgette’s new sewage system cleared the  Thames of filth and saved the city from stench and worse, as well as providing  London with a new landmark: The Embankment, which still runs along the Thames,  was built to cover new super-sewers that carried the city’s effluent safely east  toward the sea.

That the sewers of mid-19th-century London were foul is beyond question; it  was widely agreed, Michelle Allen says, that the tunnels were “volcanoes of  filth; gorged veins of putridity; ready to explode at any moment in a whirlwind  of foul gas, and poison all those whom they failed to smother.” Yet this, the  toshers themselves insisted, did not mean that working conditions under London  were entirely intolerable. The sewers, in fact, had worked fairly efficiently  for many years–not least because, until 1815, they were required to do little  more than carry off the rains that fell in the streets. Before that date, the  city’s latrines discharged into cesspits, not the sewer network, and even when  the laws were changed, it took some years for the excrement to build up.

By the late 1840s, though, London’s sewers were deteriorating sharply, and  the Thames itself, which received their untreated discharges, was effectively  dead. By then it was the dumping-ground for 150 million tons of waste each year,  and in hot weather the stench became intolerable; the city owes its present  sewage network to the “Great Stink of London,” the infamous product of a lengthy  summer spell of hot, still weather in 1858 that produced a miasma so oppressive  that Parliament had to be evacuated. The need for a solution became so obvious  that the engineer Joseph Bazalgette–soon to be Sir Joseph, a grateful nation’s  thanks for his ingenious solution to the problem–was employed to modernize the  sewers. Bazalgette’s idea was to build a whole new system of super-sewers that  ran along the edge of the river, intercepted the existing network before it  could discharge its contents, and carried them out past the eastern edge of the  city to be processed in new treatment plants.

PHOTO RIGHT: The exit of a London sewer before Bazalgette’s  improvements, from Punch (1849). These outflows were the points through which  the toshers entered the underground labrynth they came to know so  well.

Even after the tunnels deteriorated and they became increasingly dangerous,  though, what a tosher feared more than anything else was not death by  suffocation or explosion, but attacks by rats. The bite of a sewer rat was a  serious business, as another of Mayhew’s informants, Jack Black–the “Rat and  Mole Destroyer to Her Majesty”–explained.”When the bite is a bad one,” Black  said, “it festers and forms a hard core in the ulcer, which throbs very much  indeed. This core is as big as a boiled fish’s eye, and as hard as stone. I  generally cuts the bite out clean with a lancet and squeezes…. I’ve been bitten  nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name to you, sir.”

There were many stories, Henry Mayhew concluded, of toshers’ encounters with  such rats, and of them “slaying thousands… in their struggle for life,” but most  ended badly. Unless he was in company, so that the rats dared not attack, the  sewer-hunter was doomed. He would fight on, using his hoe, “till at last the  swarms of the savage things overpowered him.” Then he would go down fighting,  his body torn to pieces and the tattered remains submerged in untreated sewage,  until, a few days later, it became just another example of the detritus of the  tunnels, drifting toward the Thames and its inevitable discovery by another gang  of toshers–who would find the remains of their late colleague “picked to the  very bones.”


Peter Ackroyd. London Under. London: Vintage, 2012; Michele Allen. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London. Athens  [OH]: Ohio University Press, 2008; Thomas Boyle. Black Swine in the Sewers  of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism. London:  Viking, 1989; Stephen Halliday. The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph  Bazelgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. Stroud: Sutton  Publishing, 1999; ‘A London Antiquary’. A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant  and Vulgar Words… London: John Camden Hotten, 859; Henry Mayhew. London  Characters and Crooks. London: Folio, 1996; Liza Picard. Victorian  London: The Life of a City, 1840-1870. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson,  2005;  Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson. The Lore of the Land:  A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of  Warboys. London: Penguin, 2005.

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