Just how drunk were Victorian East Enders? Did button makers quaff more pints in a day than opticians? Did bookbinders sink more gin than drapers? Hard statistics to collate and crunch you might think, but it didn’t stop the inexhaustible Henry Mayhew, who would die penniless in near obscurity, but whose ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ is still read today.
These days, data journalism is one of the buzz words in publishing, so Mayhew (writing in the 1850s) was arguably 150 years ahead of the game.The problem was that despite a forensic obsession with compiling statistics, Henry didn’t really know what he was doing, being a far better journalist than statistician. But along the way his endless writings about the East End, and especially the East End docks, yielded fascinating colour and detail.
Henry Mayhew comes down to us today as a social researcher and journalist, but he was much more than that – a larger than life man with a remarkable history before he took up his pen. One of 17 children of Joshua Mayhew, he went to Westminster School before heading to Wapping to run away to sea. After several years as a midshipman with the East India Company he returned to London, becoming first a trainee solicitor and then a freelance journalist. Mayhew rarely stood still, moving quickly from job to job (and at one point combining managing a West End theatre with his freelance jobs. His fleetness of foot proved handy when it came to escaping his creditors – a pattern that continued his whole life.
Mayhew found himself at the heart of much pioneering Victorian journalism. In 1842 he co-founded Punch magazine. A year later he was at the heart of the new Illustrated London News. Henry’s stock in trade was a sort of stats-based reportage. He would sail enthusiastically forth into the streets of the East End, his long-suffering wife Jane at his side as a copytaker, and seek out ordinary working people, recording their stories and observations on their (often miserable) lives.
His inability to avoid extrapolating from the facts they gave him generated his famously imaginative statistics. So, finding himself outside a Whitechapel theatre, talking to the sandwich vendor plying his trade there, he set off on one of his sallies. “This man calculated that in the saloons [and] concert rooms … at Limehouse, Mile End, Bethnal Green Road and elsewhere there might be … 70 sandwich sellers in all.” Now Henry extrapolates that the spending on ham sandwiches on the East End streets is “£1820 yearly, or 436,800 sandwiches.” There is much much more, as he goes on to calculate the cost per vendor of setting up in the ham sarnie trade: “2s for a basket, 2d for mustard, 6d for a knife and fork…” and so on, and on, and on.
Mayhew is scathing about official government statistics, with some justification. He believes they have got the number of street children wrong (he is almost certainly right) and attempts to calculate it himself from the returns from workhouses, hospitals and gaols. He tuts over their estimate of the number of London dustmen (so called because they collected coal ash or ‘dust’ in those days) and ups their figure from 254 to 1800, doing a back calculation from the number of London houses and an estimate of how much coal each domicile would burn each year.
And it was the coal trade that led Henry to his calculations on booze. Interviewing the coal whippers, heavers and backers down on the docks of Wapping, he is stunned by the amount they drank. One, who turns out to be “a good Latin and Greek scholar”, asserts: “If I have anything like a heavy day’s work, I consider three pints of porter a necessity.” Another states that: “Of my £1 wages, I need to spend at least 12s (60p) on liquor.” Gathering the other coal men together, Mayhew discovers the reasons. This was hot and thirsty work, the dust got into your throat, and there was precious little chance to slake your thirst if you were on a shift all day. Breaks were few, and there was no fresh water to be had.
This of course got Mayhew thinking: which trade drank the most? So emerged one of his most entertaining (if scientifically questionable) pieces of research, as he questioned an enormous number of East Enders about their drinking. He then collated figures for each trade, rating each for an average level of drunkenness. This, compiled from Metropolitan Police figures which were themselves rather dodgy, said that one person in 114 had an ‘above average level of drunkenness’. It’s hard to pin down what their ‘average level of drunkenness’ was however.
Henry picked up the figures and ran with them regardless. The least drunk East Enders were servants (only 1 in 586 was drunker than the average: unsurprising perhaps as it might lose you your living). Clergymen and grocers were also surprisingly abstemious, as were clockmakers, carvers and gilders – their work perhaps requiring a precision that would be destroyed by strong drink – or perhaps more prosaically it was simply solitary in its nature and they didn’t get out much.
Certainly it was the jobs where men did heavy work in gangs where boozing was at its worst – and perhaps that hasn’t changed so much. Irongmongers, bricklayers, millers and carpenters were very fond of a drink. But almost as soon as we conjure up a convincing argument, so it collapses. Surveyors, hatters and opticians were also notably thirsty (one in every 22.3 of the latter being drunker than your average cockney). Worryingly too, one in 68 doctors were above the average, one in 28.7 cab drivers and one in 11.8 surveyors. But the drunkest East Enders of all? Button makers, with one individual in every 7.2 being a heavier than average drinker. These days Tower Hamlets has no button makers and there seem to be East End pubs closing every day – now there’s a statistical correlation Mayhew could have fun with.