Journalist and writer. He was a lawyer's son and a pupil at Westminster, one of the great public schools. According to one story he went to sea for a time as a boy. Back in London he worked for three years in his father's office until he was fired for negligence. In 1841 he co-founded Punch with Mark Lemon, but lost control the following year. His railway magazine, The Iron Times, bankrupted him. As a result he was disinherited. He struggled to make a living for the rest of life. He was a playwright (of farces), comic novelist, author of children's books, German travel books, and a biographer. He married Jane Jerrold, the daughter of Douglas Jerrold, the writer. They had two children.
In 1849 he wrote an article about an outbreak of cholera. It led to a series of articles in the Morning Chronicle which were collected in three volumes in 1851 under the title London Labour and the London Poor. They covered an astonishing array of people scraping a living not only on the streets of London, but in the sewers, on the foreshore, on the river and docks: patterers and chaunters (see "Rhyming Slang"), mudlarks, toshers (scavengers in the sewers), Punch and Judy men, pure finders (they collected dog droppings for tanneries), rat catchers, dog-nappers and swindlers. Eighty articles in all. A fourth volume, on beggars, thieves, and prostitutes, came out in 1861.
Mayhew was a portly bald-headed Public School man yet he was able to extract secrets from professionally secretive people. London Labour influenced the Christian Socialists and, it is said, Dickens.
Another outbreak of cholera, in Soho this time, in 1854 led to the discovery that the disease is water borne. Helped by the local vicar, Dr John Snow showed that the epicentre of the outbreak was the communal water pump in Broad (now Broadwick) Street. The pump — or a replica of it — is still there, and so is a costermongers' street market around the corner in Berwick Street.
Hotten, John Camden, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words. 2nd Edition, 1860
Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Vol 1, 1851
Last modified 23 January 2007