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The London Underworld in the Victorian Period

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The London Underworld in the Victorian Period
Authentic First-Person Accounts by Beggars, Thieves and Prostitutes. By Henry Mayhew and Others. (Dover Publications, Mineola, New York: 2005. Illustrated. Pg. vi, 404.) ISBN: 0-486-44006-0.

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - January 2, 2009

The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-Person Accounts by Beggars, Thieves and Prostitutes is an eye-opening account of life in the underbelly of Victorian London. The book is actually three books in one, as it consists of the unabridged text of: Henry Mayhew and his associates set out to examine and report upon poverty and the lives led by the poorest of London's poor. Together, they collected a treasure trove of first-person accounts from the poor themselves. These testimonies were gathered throughout the 1840s and 1850s and where eventually compiled into book form.

The books are 'narrated' by their respective authors, who describe how they obtained their information and what they saw as they walked along slums and the back streets of London. Their narrations are interspersed with first-person accounts, given by the author's informants. These accounts cover a range of subjects covering such topics as how and where they currently live, when appropriate, how they came to be involved in unsavory and illegal pursuits, what they think about their lives and situations, and how they ply their various trades. These three books were originally published in 1861, as Volume IV (Those that will not work, comprising prostitutes, thieves, swindlers and beggars) of London Labour and the London Poor. All three read like pseudo-anthropological / sociological treatises. As such, they provide keen insights into the mind set and cultural life of the informants, and they provide telling historical data from which to view an often overlooked aspect of Victorian culture and history.

I found this a fascinating book to read, and a wonderful reference book for information into Victorian life, criminology, history, and culture. Most accounts of Victorian life in London deal with the Upper Classes or the rising Middle Class. There are few accounts of the Lower Classes, except as referenced to Upper Class attempts at reform and correction of Lower Class ills. This book allows a wide range of normally ignored or shunned members of Victorian society to speak about their own lives and how they view society as a whole.

Delightfully illustrated with period illustrations, The London Underworld in the Victorian Period is essential reading for anyone interested in English history and culture during the Victorian period. It opens a window onto an under represented portion of London society and provides keen insights into the far reaching impact of poverty, and how insidiously this poverty and associated ills permeated the undercurrent of London life. This information is also important because it helps to give students of this period a better understanding of all aspects of London society and of the desperate condition that many of London's residents during this period struggled to survive in.

Related Reviews:

Slum Travelers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920, Edited by Ellen Ross.
A selection of works by middle and upper class women who ventured into the London slums to engage in social and religious work.

Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel, By Hugh Small.
In this revolutionary biography of Florence Nightingale, Small presents the reader with an forthright view of exactly who Florence Nightingale was, what motivated her, and the effect of her activities both in making nursing a mainstream and acceptable occupation for middle and upper class women, for helping to institute academic nursing training, and the impact that she had on public health.

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