The Bedroom – Jessica Hickman

Mayhew, H., ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’ (from London Labour and the London Poor, vol 1, 1861-2), in Mayhew, H. and Bradley, J.L., Selections from London Labour and the London Poor (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 51-62

In ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’ (1861-2), Henry Mayhew documented the realities of those living in the lodging houses in city slums. He portrayed different elements of the conditions of the lodging houses, such as the overcrowding of people in rooms.[1] He later links these poor conditions to the immorality of those who reside in them.[2] Mayhew’s association of slum conditions and immorality is an example of Victorian arguments around the idea that slum conditions bred immorality. [3] Mayhew’s piece can also be analysed by comparing his portrayal of the realities of the slums to Victorian middle-class values of privacy and family. Finally, an analysis of Mayhew’s interviewing techniques will question whether his account of the realities of slum conditions is reliable.

Interior of a London lodging house (engraving)
Figure 1: An image portraying sleeping arrangements in a lodging house

Mayhew’s piece is an example of investigative journalism which aimed to portray slums as dangerous and uncivilised places. For example, Judith R. Walkowitz states that the East End of London was portrayed as ‘…a symbol of the social unrest born out of urban degeneracy’. [4] This portrayal of the slum conditions as affecting morality can be seen in Mayhew’s piece. He begins by describing the unhygienic conditions of the lodging houses. He states that one tenant had told him that ‘…he had scraped together a handful of bugs from the bed-clothes, and crushed them under a candlestick…’. [5] Mayhew then goes on to discuss crime in the lodging houses, such as in the ways in which women would act as ‘”fences”, or receivers of stolen goods in a small way’. [6] Such descriptions of the occurrence of crimes in the lodging houses links to the Victorian fear of a ‘criminal class’ in slums. [7] Others who ventured into slum lodging houses also commented on the immoral behaviour. Mary Higgs discussed going undercover into a lodging house, in her piece ‘Three Nights in Women’s Lodging Houses’ from Glimpses into the Abyss, published in 1906. She stated her horror at finding out that many of the residents in the lodging house were acting immorally: ‘The inmates…were living a life of sin…’. [8] Like Mayhew, Higgs blamed the conditions in the lodging houses as the cause for the immoral behaviour witnessed: ‘Here everything tended to demoralisation’. [9] The linking of the conditions the tenants lived in and their immorality is an example of the Victorian debate surrounding the belief that the conditions of the slums caused the slum dwellers to act immorally. Anthony S. Wohl states that the main concern was that the ‘deserving poor’ had to live close to those of the ‘criminal class’, which would lead them to be influenced by their immoral behaviour. [10] This fear of the effects of the ‘criminal class’ on the poor is evident in Mayhew’s piece when he stated that children would be sent ‘out regularly to thieve’. [11] Such a statement clearly shows the fear of the effects of the criminal class, as it portrays children being encouraged into crime in the lodging houses.

Mayhew also described aspects of the lodging houses which would have gone against the middle-class values of privacy and family. Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall discuss how middle-class homes were built around the idea of privacy, as rooms were separated by function, for example, rooms specifically for cooking. [12] Emily Cuming discusses how the fact that slum houses did not have this separation of rooms made them the ‘other’ to the middle class. [13] Mayhew’s description clearly deviates from this middle-class ideal, as he commented on how there were rooms ‘so crammed with sleepers’ that ‘there were 30 where 12 would have been a proper number’. [14] Another middle-class value in which Mayhew’s description of the lodging house deviates from is the value placed on the family. Mayhew stated that ‘men and women, husbands and wives, old and young, strangers and acquaintances, sleep in the same apartment, and if they choose, in the same bed’. [15] Whilst Jane Hamlett argues that there was a sense of domesticity in the lodging houses through the help tenants gave each other, many contemporaries portrayed them as deviations from family values.[16] One such contemporary was George Sims. In How the Poor Live, published in 1883, he described how he explored a lodging house and found a four-year-old child looking after her baby sibling whilst their mother was out.[17] He used emotive language to portray the child as neglected because of her ‘drunken mother’s absence’.[18] Such a statement is reminiscent of Mayhew’s description of the lack of middle-class family values in the lodging house.

Historians have discussed to what extent Mayhew’s account of life in the slums can be taken as a truthful account of the slum dwellers’ opinions. Eileen Yeo believes Mayhew’s investigative techniques were effective in encouraging the interviewees to share their opinions with him. [19] However, John Seed, whilst analysing Mayhew’s account of an interview with a coster-girl, argues that Mayhew’s interviews may have been affected by the fact that he may have been seen as an outsider. [20] Another issue surrounding Mayhew’s ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’ is the way in which the interviews are presented. In this piece, interviewees’ answers are presented but not Mayhew’s questions. Also, Mayhew had to decide what responses to put into his piece, as ‘some details, given by coarse men and boys in the grossest language, are too gross to be more than alluded to’. [21] Seed notes the editing process the piece went through and notes how this would affect the opinions presented, but he argues that ‘It would be naïve to read London Labour and the Poor as straightforward documentary writing reflecting an empirical world outside the text, but it would be equally naïve to read it as fiction’. [22] Therefore the reader must take caution whilst reading Mayhew’s ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’ as the portrayal of the opinions as embedded in the text and without Mayhew’s original questions can affect the validity of the opinions expressed.

In conclusion, Henry Mayhew’s ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’ helps us to analyse the association of the slum conditions and morality and the ways in which slum homes were portrayed as going against middle-class values surrounding privacy and family. However, caution must be heeded before taking Mayhew’s account as a true reflection of slum life, as his interviewing techniques and composition of the text may have affected the portrayal of the opinions of the slum dwellers.

Jessica Hickman

 

References:

[1] Mayhew, H., ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’ (from London Labour and the London Poor, vol 1, 1861-2), in Mayhew, H and Bradley, J.L., Selections from London Labour and the London Poor (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 52.

[2] Mayhew, ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’, p. 56.

[3] Wohl, A. S., The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London (London: Transaction, 2002), pp. 55-56.

[4] Walkowitz, J.R., City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c.1992), p. 29.

[5] Mayhew, ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’, p. 52.

[6] Mayhew, ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’, p. 56.

[7] Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, p. 26.

[8] Higgs, M., ‘Three Nights in Women’s Lodging Houses’ from ‘Glimpses into the Abyss’ in Keating, P.J (ed.)., Into Unknown England, 1866-1913: Selections from the Social Explorers (London: Fontana, 1976), p. 275.

[9] Higgs, ‘Three Nights in Women’s Lodging Houses’, p. 283.

[10] Wohl, The Eternal Slum, pp. 55-56.

[11] Mayhew, ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’, pp. 58-59.

[12] Davidoff, L and Hall, C., Family Fortunes. Revised Edition (London: Routledge, 2002). P. 359.

[13] Cuming, E., ‘”Home is home be it never so homely”: Reading Mid-Victorian Slum Interiors’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 18:3 (2013), p. 373.

[14] Mayhew, ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’, p. 52.

[15] Mayhew, ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’, p. 61.

[16] Hamlett, J., At Home in the Institution: Material Life in Asylums, Lodging Houses and Schools in Victorian and Edwardian England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 112.

[17] Sims, G.R., ‘How the Poor Live’, in Donovan, S. and Rubery, M. (eds.), Secret Commissions: An Anthology of Victorian Investigative Journalism (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2012), p. 157.

[18] Sims, ‘How the Poor Live’, p. 157.

[19] Yeo, E., ‘Mayhew as a Social Investigator’ in Mayhew, H., Thompson, E.P., and Yeo, E. (eds.), The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the ‘Morning Chronicle’, 1849-1850 (London: Merlin Press, 1971), pp. 62-63.

[20] Seed, J., ‘Did the Subaltern Speak? Mayhew and the Coster-Girl’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 19:4 (2014), pp. 545-546.

[21] Mayhew, ‘Of the Filth, Dishonesty, and Immorality of Low Lodging-houses’, p. 51.

[22] Seed, ‘Did the Subaltern Speak?’, p. 539.

Figure 1: English School (19th Century)., Interior of a London Lodging House (engraving). Private Collection. Available online: https://www-bridgemaneducation-com.ezproxy.derby.ac.uk/en/asset/585220/summary?context=%7B%22route%22%3A%22assets_search%22%2C%22routeParameters%22%3A%7B%22_format%22%3A%22html%22%2C%22_locale%22%3A%22en%22%2C%22filter_text%22%3A%22slum+lodging%22%7D%7D Date accessed: 08/12/15

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