Henry Mayhew, from London Labour and the London Poor

[Click on image to enlarge] In 1849, Henry Mayhew (1812–1887) was asked by the Morning Chronicle to be the metropolitan correspondent for its series "Labour and the Poor." His interviews with workers and with street folk convey a vivid sense of the lives of London's poor. Like the interview of the Trouser Maker and the interview of the Coster Girl, this statement by a street vagrant presents his life story in his own words.

[Statement of a Vagrant]

A cotton spinner (who had subsequently been a soldier), whose appearance was utterly abject, was the next person questioned. He was tall, and had been florid-looking (judging from his present complexion). His coat — very old and worn, and once black — would not button, and would have hardly held together if buttoned. He was out at elbows, and some parts of the collar were pinned together. His waistcoat was of a match with his coat, and his trousers were rags. He had some shirt, as was evident by his waistcoat, held together by one button. A very dirty handkerchief was tied carelessly round his neck. He was tall and erect, and told his adventures with heartiness.

[Click on image to enlarge] "I am thirty-eight," he said, and have been a cotton-spinner, working at Chorlton-upon Medlock. I can neither read nor write. When I was a young man, twenty years ago, I could earn 2l. 10s., >> note 1 clear money, every week, after paying two piecers >> note 2 and a scavenger. Each piecer had 7s. 6d. >> note 3 a week — they are girls; the scavenger—a boy to clean the wheels of the cotton-spinning machine — had 2s. 6d. I was master of them wheels in the factory. This state of things continued until about the year 1837. I lived well and enjoyed myself, being a hearty man, noways a drunkard, working every day from half-past five in the morning till half-past seven at night — long hours, that time, master. I didn't care about money as long as I was decent and respectable. I had a turn for sporting at the wakes >> note 4 down there. In 1837, the "self-actors" (machines with steam power) had come into common use. One girl can mind three pairs — that used to be three men's work — getting 15s. for the work which gave three men 7l. 10s. Out of one factory 400 hands were flung in one week, men and women together. We had a meeting of the union, >> note 5 but nothing could be done, and we were told to go and mind the three pairs, as the girls did, for 15s a week. We wouldn't do that. Some went for soldiers, some to sea, some to Stoppard (Stockport) where the "self-actors" weren't agait. >> note 6 The masters there wouldn't have them — at least, some of them. Manchester was full of them: but one gentleman in Hulme still won't have them, for he says he won't turn the men out of bread. I 'listed for a soldier in the 48th. I liked a soldier's life very well until I got flogged — 100 lashes for selling my kit >> note 7 (for a spree), >> note 8 and 150 for striking a corporal, who called me an English robber. He was an Irishman. I was confined five days in the hospital after each punishment. It was terrible. It was like a bunch of razors cutting at your back. Your flesh was dragged off by the cats. Flogging was then very common in the regiment. I was flogged in I840. To this day I feel a pain in the chest from the triangles. I was discharged from the army about two years ago, when the reduction took place. I was only flogged the times I've told you. I had no pension and no friends. I was discharged in Dublin. I turned to, and looked for work. I couldn't get any, and made my way for Manchester. I stole myself aboard of a steamer, and hid myself till she got out to sea, on her way from Dublin to Liverpool. When the captain found me there, he gave me a kick and some bread, and told me to work, so I worked for my passage twenty-four hours. He put me ashore at Liverpool. I slept in the union that night — nothing to eat and nothing to cover me — no fire; it was winter. I walked to Manchester, but could get nothing to do there, though I was twelve months knocking about. It wants a friend and a character to get work. I slept in unions in Manchester, and had oatmeal porridge for breakfast, work at grinding logwood in the mill, from six to twelve, and then turn out. That was the way I lived chiefly; but I got a job sometimes in driving cattle, and 3d. for it, — or 2d. for carrying baskets in the vegetable markets; and went to Shoedale Union at night. I would get a pint of coffee and half-a-pound of bread, and half-a-pound of bread in the morning, and no work. I took to travelling up to London, half-hungered on the road — that was last winter — eating turnips out of this field, and carrots out of that, and sleeping under hedges and haystacks. I slept under one haystack, and pulled out the hay to cover me, and the snow lay on it a foot deep in the morning. I slept for all that, but wasn't I froze when I woke? An old farmer came up with his cart and pitchfork to load hay. He said: "Poor fellow! have you been here all night?" I answered, "Yes." He gave me some coffee and bread, and one shilling. That was the only good friend I met with on the road. I got fourteen days of it for asking a gentleman for a penny; that was in Stafford. I got to London after that, sleeping in unions sometimes, and begging a bite here and there. Sometimes I had to walk all night. I was once forty-eight hours without a bite, until I got hold at last of a Swede turnip, and so at last I got to London. Here I've tried up and down everywhere for work as a labouring man, or in a foundry. I tried London Docks, and Blackwall, and every place; but no job. At one foundry, the boiler-makers made a collection of 4s. for me. I've walked the streets for three nights together. Here, in this fine London, I was refused a night's lodging in Shoreditch and in Gray's-inn-lane. A policeman, the fourth night, at twelve o'clock, procured me a lodging, and gave me 2d. I couldn't drag on any longer. I was taken to a doctor's in the city. I fell in the street from hunger and tiredness. The doctor ordered me brandy and water' 2s. 6d., and a quartern >> note 9 loaf, and some coffee, sugar, and butter. He said, what I ailed was hunger. I made that run out as long as I could, but I was then as bad off as ever. It's hard to hunger for nights together. I was once in "Steel" (Coldbath-fields) >> note 10 for begging. I was in Tothill-fields for going into a chandler's shop, asking for a quartern loaf and half a pound of cheese, and walking out with it. I got a month for that. I have been in Brixton for taking a loaf out of a baker's basket, all through hunger. Better a prison than to starve. I was well treated because I behaved well in prison. I have slept in coaches when I had a chance. One night on a dunghill, covering the stable straw about me to keep myself warm. This place is a relief, I shave the poor people and cut their hair, on a Sunday. I was handy at that when I was a soldier. I have shaved in public-houses for halfpennies. Some landlords kicks me out. Now, in the days, I may pick up a penny or two that way, and get here of a night. I met two Manchester men in Hyde Park on Saturday, skating. They asked me what I was. I said, "A beggar." They gave me 2s. 6d., and I spent part of it for warm coffee and other things. They knew all about Manchester, and knew I was a Manchester man by my talk.'

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