Coal hole plate made in Southwark

Lost Industries of Southwark Education Resources

Document 9 - Using Worksheet 10

Working Lads


Extracts from Mayhew's London (by Henry Mayhew, first published 1851)

Henry Mayhew researched and wrote about the lives of poor working people in London in the 1850s. When you consider how many horses there were in Victorian London and how filthy the streets were in wet weather , it is not surprising that small boys could make some kind of a living by sweeping the streets and pavements when rich people wanted to cross the road. Jack, who worked in the West End ''was a good-looking lad, with a pair of large mild eyes…A cap, or more properly a stuff bag, covered a crop of hair which had matted itself into the form of so many paint-brushes...' Jack told Mayhew that 'When we are talking together we always talk in a kind of slang. We never talks of crossings, but 'fakes'. We don't make no slang of our own, but uses the regular one. A broom doesn't last us more than a week in wet weather, and they costs us twopence halfpenny each; but in dry weather they are good a fortnight.' One boy, called 'Gander' was known as the 'Captain' of the crossing-sweepers, and was known for his 'tumbling' or 'catenwheeling', acrobatic moves which earned him more money if he performed them before or after sweeping. Mayhew described the room in the lodging house where the boy sweepers lived as surprisingly clean and homely and the old woman who kept the house seemed to care for them as well as she could.

In riverside parishes, many, mostly boys, worked as 'mudlarks', scavenging by the Thames for coins, buckles and wood that could be dried out and sold as firewood. This was unhealthy work as by the mid-19th century the river was polluted with raw sewage, though most people did not know that Cholera was waterborne, that is, spread through the sufferer ingesting infected water. Many of the mudlarks are said to have been 'coal-lumpers' children. There must have been times when the mudlarks found nothing of any value, though stealing coal from a barge could mean that you'd be sent to prison for up to a month.

Mayhew interviewed a young mudlark: 'I was born in London - my family all born in Ireland. My father works at London Docks. He is a strong bodied man of 34. I was sent to school with my brothers for about three years and learned reading and writing and arithmetic. One of my brothers has been at sea for about five years. I work in the neighbourhood of Millwall picking up pieces of coal and iron, copper and bits of canvas on the surface. When bargemen heave coal to be carried from the shore…some of it falls in the mud and we afterwards pick it up…the most I ever saw my companions find was one shilling's worth a day. There are generally 13 or 14 mudlarks, boys and girls, around Limehouse in the summer and six boys steadily in the winter…they are generally good swimmers. When a bargeman gets hold of one, he generally throws them overboard when they swim ashore and dry their clothes…I have been chased twice by the police galley. One night I saw a large piece of copper drop down where the vessel was being repaired. That evening as a ship was coming out of the docks, I stripped off my clothes and dived down several feet, seized the piece of copper and carried it away…I…sold it to a marine dealer.'


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