15.2. «Dickens’ London»

There is no documentation of the very poor and their activities in London around 1800-1820, although there were a number of poor dress- and clothes-makers. It was to be expected that an increase in the population from 1820 would cause more poverty, due to the structural problems of the metropolis. Firstly, there was no heavy industry, or factories with repetitive machines (high cost of coal). Secondly, much of the production of clothes was based on changing fashions, which meant that it was not worthwhile investing for machinery or tools for long production runs. Thirdly, there certainly was a change to mass production, but as this was not accomplished by mechanization, the only way to reduce unit costs was by division of labour and greater specialization. Fourthly, the search for reduction of labour costs was channelled into employing more women instead of men. Fifthly, in a number of trades, the costs in the counties were less than in London, and so the production “migrated” to other regions, leaving the Londoners without work; in some cases, the rough work “migrated” and the fine work remained in London, which meant that there were few jobs, but well paid.

We might suppose that the existence of this segment of the very poor was caused by the Industrial Revolution, or by the social policies of the governments of the time.

But actually, we do have an academic commentary on the change in the 1830’s and 1840’s in London, and it comes from M. Faucher, the French economist who visited London and Manchester in 1844.

“Let us commence with the poverty, which explains the rest. A few years ago, London was less burdened with poor people than the rest of the country. One found few beggars in the streets, and the “work-houses”, the retreats of the workers, were not full ….

The British metropolis descended rapidly from the pedestal where fortune had placed her. A series of calamitous years brought want to the families. The commerce lost some of its outlets, and the workers, who were now not employed, or employed less frequently, passed to the responsibility of the parish. …

At the end of 1843, the poorhouses of the capital did not contain less than twenty-five thousand poor, who were almost exclusively old persons and children. Additionally, more than one hundred thousand paupers received assistance at home. …

Thus, while the number of poor relieved in England, which was, as a proportion of the population8 6/10 of 100 in 1840, increased to 9 4/10 in 1841; the proportion, which had been 7 1/6 of 100 in London, increased the following year to nearly 11 of 100. 


Let us see what happened to London a few years ago. An army of half-naked wretched poor, expelled by hunger from the agricultural districts, from the towns of Lancashire, from Scotland, from Ireland, invaded the streets of the metropolis. One can follow, using the records of just one Union [Administrative District of the Poor Law], that of the City, the advance of this impressive flood. In 1838, the number of casual paupers [non-residents], asking for assistance, was not more than 356; in 1839, it was 2,403; in 1840, it was 11,203; in 1841, it was 26,703; and 45,000 in 1842.

A letter written by Mr. Thwaites, “relieving officer” [“Poor Law Administrator”] of the City, shows with impressive interest the details of the epidemic vagrancy which afflicted London during the winter of 1843. “The vagrancy”, says the magistrate, “is increasing in an alarming manner in the metropolis; this is due in part to the distress in the manufacturing districts, and in part to the stoppage, in the agricultural districts, of the works for the railways.””

(Translation by this author)

(Faucher, 1845, Études sur l’Angleterre, pp. 61-68)

Thus we see that there was not a large number of very poor in London before 1840. The influx from that date was due principally to the recession of 1839-1842. The pictures that we have of the poor in London in generally from years after 1840, and should not be taken as continuously existing during all the period of the Industrial Revolution.

The first complete description of the very poor in London was made by Henry Mayhew in 1851, with the title “London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those who Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work.” The information is very detailed, based on interviews with a number of people in each segment of this society, and referring to their trades, habits, domestic arrangements and standards of living.

The first three volumes describe the “street-people”, who he divides into six groups:

  1. Street-Sellers (of fish, of vegetables and fruit, of eatables and drinkables, of stationery, literature, and the fine arts, of manufactured articles, of second-hand articles, of live animals, of mineral productions and of curiosities;
  2. Street-Buyers (of hare-skins, old clothes, old umbrellas, bottles, glass, broken metal, rags, waste paper, and dripping);
  3. Street-Finders (literally “pick up” their living; see below);
  4. Street-Performers, Artists, and Showmen (street-performers, street showmen, street artists, street dancers, street musicians, street singers, proprietors of street games);
  5. Street-Artizans, or Working Pedlars (those who make things in the streets, those who mend things in the street, those who make things at home and sell them in the streets);
  6. Street-Labourers (cleansers, lighters and waterers, street-advertisers, street-servants).

The Street-Finders are those who “literally “pick up” their living in the public thoroughfares. They are the “pure“ pickers, or those who live by gathering dog’s dung; the cigar-end finders, or “hard-ups”, as they are called, who collect the refuse parts of smoked cigars from the gutters, and having dried them, sell them as tobacco to the very poor; the dredger-men or coal-finders; the mud-larks, the bone-grubbers; and the sewer-hunters”

(Vol. I, p. 3)

The information about this lowest section of the poor is rather embarrassing, as we can find similar activities in an encyclopedia about China, written by the Jesuit missionaries there in the eighteenth century: “Things that seem to be the most useless, they know how to make a profit from them: a number of families in Peking do not subsist from anything except selling wick and matches; others have no other profession than picking up on the street pieces of fabric of silk, of linen, of cotton, and of hemp; chicken feathers, dog bones, pieces of paper that they wash and then sell to other people,”

(Du Halde, Jean-Baptiste; Description géographique, historique, politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise, …, Henri Scheurleer, La Haye, 1736; https://archive.org/stream/descriptiongog02duha#page/n5/mode/2up, Vol. 2, p. 86)  

The people in this segment in London run the whole gamut from absolute destitution in food, living quarters, and clothes, to long term businesses (street restaurants) with steady revenues. There were about 50,000 people working in the street. Mayhew estimates the average net income of being about 8 shillings a week (the agricultural labourers had basic wages of 8 to 12 shillings, and bricklayers in Manchester 27 shillings).

We have a small “cross-section” of the lowest manual workers. These are data which were collected about the previous activities of 67 men, who had presented themselves to work at a company of “scavengers” (road cleaners). We see that they eat well, but apart from this, they do not have good lives.

Ages                                       10 from 20 to 30, 13 from 30 to 40, 24 from 40 to 50,
15 from 50 to 60, 4 from 60 to 70, 1 above 70

Previous occupations         22 labourers, 3 had been scavengers, 3 dustmen,
3 ostlers, 2 stablemen, 2 Carmen, 2 porters,
2 gentlemen’s servants, 2 greengrocers, 12 artisans,
14 other unskilled workmen

Time of having been at scavenging
            3 “all their lives”, 1 about 27 years, 6 from 16 to 20 years,
6 from 10 to 15 years, 4 from 5 to 10 years,
34 from 1 to 5 years, 13 twelve years or less

State of education                49 could read and write, 5 could only read,
12 could neither read nor write

Go to church or chapel?      22 answered Yes, 9 went to church,
4 went to the Catholic Chapel                         
Why did they not go to church          
12 had no clothes, 55 no answer 
Did they bathe?                    59 answered No, 3 replied Yes, 2 Yes, in the Thames

Were they married or single? 56 married, 5 widowers, 6 single

How many children?              1 had 15, 1 had 6, 2 had 5 each, 11 had 4 each,
19 had 3 each, 9 had 2 each, 16 had none,
2 reported “grown-up children”

What were the ages of their children?
 11 were grown up, 2 between 30 and 40,
9 between 20 and 30, 49 between 10 and 20,                  
                            80 between 1 and 10, 8 one year and under  

Did the children go to school? 13 answered yes, 13 to the National School,
5 to the Ragged  School            
Did their wives work?         15 answered no, 12 yes, 10 “sometimes”

What were wives’ earnings?  10 “uncertain”, average around 2s. 6d.a week

What wages were they in the habit of receiving?
      3 had 16s. 6d. a week, 2 had 16s.,
28 had 15s. 3 had 14s. 6d., 1 had 14s.,
2 had 12s., 15 had 9s., 4 had 8s.,
5 had 7s., 4 had 1s., 4 had 1s. 1 ½ d. a day and 2 loaves

Weekly expenses rent           Majority 2s. or 2s. 6d.

Weekly expenses bread        Majority 2s. or 3s. 6d.

Weekly expenses meat         Majority 2s. 6d. or 3s.

Weekly expenses tea and     Majority 1s. 6d. or 2s. sugar

Weekly expenses fish            23 spent 6d., 23 spent nothing

Weekly expenses bacon       14 spent 6d. or 8d., 43 spent nothing

Weekly expenses butter        Majority 6d. to 1s.

Weekly expenses potatoes  18 spent 6d., 28 spent nothing

Yearly expenses clothes       17 spent 10s. to 2 pounds, the majority spent little or nothing

Had they a change of dress?  28 had a change of dress, 45 had none

Had they any Sunday clothing? 20 had some, 45 had none

How many shirts had they? 10 had 3 shirts, 54 had 2 shirts, 2 had 1 shirt
How many shoes had they?  27 had 2 pairs, 39 had 1 pair

How much did they spend on drink?     
10 spent 6d. to 2s. a week, 44 gave no return

Did they save any money?    36 answered no, 31 gave no reply

What did they do in case of illness to themselves or their families?  
28 went to the dispensary  

Were they in receipt of alms? Nearly all answered no

Did passers-by give them anything? Nearly all answered no

Did they receive any relief from their parishes?    
56 replied no, 7 received loaves

(the bread is 4 to 7 quartern loaves, the meat is 7 pounds weight, the butter is 2 pounds, potatoes are 3 pounds or nothing)  

“These analyses are not merely the characteristics of the applicants or existent street-orderlies; they are really the annals of the poor in all that relates to their domestic management in regards of meat and clothes, the care of their children, their church-going, education, previous callings, and parish relief. This inquiry is not discouraging as to the character of the poor, and I must call attention to the circumstance of how rarely it is that so large a collection of facts is placed at the command of a public writer.


It will be seen from these statements, how hard the struggle often is to obtain work in unskilled labour and, when obtained, how bare the living. Every farthing earned by such workpeople is necessarily expensed in support of a family, and in the foregoing details we have another proof as to the diminution of the purchasing fund of the country, being in direct proportion to the diminution of wages.


Let it be remembered that, out of 67 labouring men, three-fourths could not afford to buy proper clothing, expending thereupon “little” or “nothing”, and, I may add, because earning little or nothing, and so having scarcely anything to expend.”

(Mayhew, 1851/1861, Vol. II, pp. 264-268)

But there were also “businesses” in the street, which brought in around one Pound per week:

(Mayhew, 1851/1861, Vol. I, plate facing p. 184)

“The coffee stall-keepers usually sell coffee and tea, and some of them cocoa. They keep hot milk in one of the large cans, and coffee, tea, or cocoa in the others. They supply bread and butter, or currant cake, in slices – ham sandwiches, water cresses, and boiled eggs. The price is 1d. per mug, or ½ d. per half-mug, for coffee, tea or cocoa; and ½ d. a slice the bread and butter or cake. The ham sandwiches are 2d. (or 1d.) each, the boiled eggs 1 d., and the water cresses ½ d. the bunch.”

(Vol. I, p. 184)

A fourth volume reports on “Those Who Will Not Work”, and describes the activities of the prostitutes, thieves, swindlers, and beggars (this really is “Dickens’ London”).

The prostitutes in London were estimated to number about 80,000. The income per week was at a maximum of 20 or 30 pounds for those working permanently in theatres, music halls, and gin palaces, to 1 pound for those who had to offer themselves from time to time, because their work gave them very low earnings (seamstresses). The majority of the well-paid women were under the control of men, who received more than the half of the “price”. Many of the women and girls frequented soldiers, sailors, and dock workers. Others lived in sin with men with criminal activities. The prostitutes also made money by stealing from the pockets of their clients. There was also an “industry” of brothel-keepers, and “lodging-house” keepers. 

Thieves made their money from picking pockets, burglary of houses or shops (especially the tills), or picking something from street-stalls or from carts. There may well have been 15,000. Many started at an early age, as abandoned children who had had to find a way to pay for their food. The men often lived in groups in “thieves’ dens”.  The “rookery” in Spitalfields, was of about 400 square yards, and inhabited by about 800 thieves, beggars, and prostitutes. It was a very dangerous place to visit. Associated with the activities of theft, were “dolly shops”, that is, receivers of stolen property; these were often simultaneously dealers in old clothes, and pawnbrokers. In the Metropolitan Police area, there were 163 houses of receivers of stolen goods, 255 public houses (*), 103 beer-shops (*), 154 coffee-shops (*), 101 other suspected houses, 1,076 brothels and houses of ill-fame, and 361 tramps’ lodging-houses; (*) known to be frequented by criminals and prostitutes.

Many goods were stolen from ships on the River Thames and in the Docks, which transported large amounts of merchandise and raw materials. There were “mudlarks”, boys (often orphans) who picked lots of objects from the mud of the Thames: coals, iron and copper objects, pieces of wood, and lengths of rope.

Other illegal activities were: false coinage, embezzlement, forgery, swindling, begging for money, writing begging letters (appears in “Les Misérables”!).  

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