Work, poverty and modernity in Mayhew's London

Loftus, Donna (2014). Work, poverty and modernity in Mayhew's London. Journal of Victorian Culture, 19(4) pp. 507–519.



Mayhew's understanding of work in London has not been considered a great success. His accounts of workers were sentimental and erratic and his ambivalence to political economy prevented him from fully understanding the relationship between work and poverty. As the century progressed, it was Marx and Booth who provided systematic and sustained studies of the labour question. However, as this article argues, the circulation of facts, moral judgements and guesswork that filled the pages of London Labour and the London Poor offers a fair representation of a metropolitan manufacturing economy that was characterized by uncertainty, speculation and shifting boundaries of capital and labour. In particular, Mayhew's demonization of small masters, the working poor who set up as independent producers and whom he blamed for over-competition, drew out a contradiction in contemporary understandings of capitalism: large-scale capital and well-organized labour were seen as progressive and modern but small businesses were flexible and adaptable and were for many the only hope of escaping poverty and breaking out of the ranks of labour. As such, it is Mayhew rather than Marx or Booth that best exposes the tensions between the aspirations of the working poor and the paradigms of social investigators that insisted on distinguishing capital from labour.

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