Friday, August 27, 2010

From the Rarified Air to the Lower Orders of London

Over the past two weeks, Booktryst contributor Cokie Anderson has written about How the Other .0001 % Lives, Part I and II, presenting us with the splendid estates and extravagant parties of the wealthy as documented in a few rare and sumptuously exquisite volumes.

We now turn our attention away from the thin-air blue-blood status exosphere to its polar opposite, the thick swamp gas red-blood low-life troposphere where most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries' population endured its have-not existence.


By its title and subtitle, Costume of the Lower Orders of London Painted and Engraved From Nature, a volume of twenty-four hand-colored etched plates by Thomas Lord Busby published in 1820, succinctly expresses the contemporary view amongst a certain socio-economic class that other socio-economic classes of people were of a lower order of primate. There is an almost zoo-like quality to this suite of plates, the viewer (undoubtedly of means; this was not an inexpensive book when originally issued) fascinated by these strange creatures heard about but rarely seen - you had to leave the castle, cross the defensive social moat, and step in the muck to meet them.

Billy Waters.

Match Girl.

You will have perhaps noticed that these portraits have been cleaned up to keep the visual stink of reality from offending the viewer; it is a Hollywood-lesque version of a reality that was deeply begrimed and malodorous.

No such visual euphemism is employed in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor.

Mayhew was “the first to strike out the line of philanthropic journalism which takes the poor of London as its theme. His principal work, in which he was assisted by John Binny and others, was ‘London Labour and London Poor,’ a series of articles, anecdotic and statistical, on the petty trades of London, originally appearing in the ‘Morning Chronicle.’ Two volumes were published in 1851, but their circulation was interrupted by litigation in chancery, and was long suspended, but in March 1856 Mayhew announced its resumption, and a continuation of it appeared in serial monthly parts as ‘The Great World of London,’ which was ultimately completed and published as ‘The Criminal Prisons of London,’ in 1862. The last portion of it was by Binny. ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ appeared in its final form in 1864, and again in 1865” (DNB).

In the London of this era a large number of people had no fixed place employment and a significant number had no fixed place to live; you earned your money on the streets and slept there. At the lowest rung of the social ladder stood the "mudlarks" who searched the reeking sludge on the banks of the Thames for wood, metal, rope and coal from passing ships, and the "pure-finders," whose job it was to gather dog feces to sell to tanners. These do not make for pretty portraits; let's leave Smell-O-Vision to the next century. No amount of scrubbing, with soap or paint brush, could make this class of untouchables clean enough to be viewed by those highest in England's pecking order.

While Mayhew took a journalistic and, at times, maddeningly pedantic approach to his research, Lord Busby went slumming and the result was a romanticized, nobless oblige view of the impoverished yet  apparently happy, carefree, laughing, singing, dancing folk whose spirit and love of life were as inspiring to the British nobility as the noble Tom, Jemima, and pickaninny were to the plantation owner of the antebellum American South.

In short, poverty and degradation ennobled as a blessing. Oh, long green envying deep grime! If only all our money could buy their joie de vivre but, alas, we're filthy rich and will just have to make the best of it. (Heavy sigh). Now, let's get out of this zoo and get back home; I feel gamy.

[BUSBY, Thomas Lord]. Costume of the Lower Orders of London. Painted and Engraved from Nature, by T.L. Busby. London: Published for T.L. Busby, by Messrs. Baldwin, Craddock, and Joy… [1820]. Quarto (11 1/4 x 9 1/16 inches; 286 x 231 mm.). iv, [24] pp. Twenty-four hand-colored etched plates. Text watermarked 1817, plates watermarked 1822. Abbey, Life 423. Colas 491. Hiler, p. 129. Lipperheide 1025. Tooley 123.

MAYHEW, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor: The Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Cannot Work, and Will Not Work. London: Griffin, Bohn and Co. 1851-61. Four octavo volumes (numbered I-III and “Extra Volume” subtitled, “a cyclop√¶dia of the condition and earnings of those that will work…,” etc.). With ninety-seven wood-engraved plates. Text in two columns.

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