The Costermonger and the Donkey – Eve Harrison

Mayhew. H., (selections made and introduced by Neuburg. V.) ‘Of the Donkeys of the Costermonger’, London Labour and the London Poor, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1985), pp. 27-28

Image 1 of costermonger and donkey
The Costermonger and the Donkey (Fig. 1)

‘These animals are often not only favourites, but pets, having their share of the costermonger’s dinner when bread forms a portion of it, or pudding, or anything suited to the palate of the brute. Those well-used, manifest fondness for their masters, and are easily manageable: it is, however, difficult to get an ass, whose master goes regular rounds, away from its stable for any second labour during the day, unless it has fed and slept in the interval.’

Henry Mayhew began his work on London Labour and the London Poor during the late 1840s. The costermonger was one of the first groups of people who he wrote about, with some of the work on them beginning as early as November 1849.[1] Mayhew writes that of the many different types of street-folk there were living in the slums, the costermongers were ‘by far the largest and certainly the mostly broadly marked class.’[2] The costermonger differed from any other street seller as they went on ‘rounds’ in order to sell their produce, whether that may be within the city or further a field to do a country round.[3] This was one of the reasons why the donkey was so integral to the work of a costermonger, as without it they would not have been able to sell their produce as far from home as they were able to.

Mayhew writes about the way that the costermonger used donkeys for their work, showing how important the donkey was to a costermonger’s trade. However, one can see that there was a certain amount of sentimentality attached to the costermonger’s donkey; they were seen as pets as well as something that would aid their work. W. H. Auden and Raymond Williams both complimented Mayhew’s work due to the amount of information he was able to get out of the people living in the slums. Raymond Williams particularly notes Mayhew’s care for detail about the kinds of work that ‘street folk’ would get into.[4]

Costermonger in the Home
A donkey in the house? (Fig.2)

The kindness that the costermonger is reported to show to their donkey differs from many other reports of animals found in the slums. Costermongers were aware of the fact that without looking after their donkeys they would not be able to do as much work in one day. As the extract above shows, a better fed and well-rested donkey could do more work that one that was forced to go on extra rounds with no rest. Some could say that this is purely care for an animal for work purposes, but Mayhew opens this particular section with the statement that ‘Many a costermonger will resent ill-treatment of a donkey, as he would a personal indignity.’[5] This shows the care and affection they had for their donkeys; it is also noted that this kindness was almost universal . Not only was it the case that a better fed donkey would have done more work, but it is also stated that they would have been more easily manageable, something that would have been important to the costermongers.

Neil Pemberton has looked at the connections between humans and animals in his article about the Rat catcher Jack Black. He discusses the relevance humans and animals have had on each other’s lives and the close proximity that people and animals were living in during the nineteenth century.[6] This is relevant to this source because the donkey would be so involved in the costermonger’s life that it would even be provided with a portion of its owners food: ‘Many costermongers told me that their donkeys lived well when they themselves lived well.’[7] Pemberton’s article provides other examples of when animals were important for trade, for example ferrets and dogs for a rat catcher; without these animals to aid him, Jack Black would have been far less successful in his pursuits. Mayhew also recognised this when looking at the importance of the donkey to the costermonger. Whether going on trips to sell goods outside of one’s town or going to fetch supplies the donkey was an integral part of how the costermonger would make his living. Mayhew provides examples of when costermongers got into difficulties as a result of the loss or illness of their donkey.

Emily Cuming has written about the feeling of home in the nineteenth century slum and she shows the effect that animals had on the way that the home was written about during the period. She argues that when describing a slum house, writers would rarely use the word home; instead, they would use animalistic terms such as ‘lair’, ‘hovel’, ‘sty’ or ‘dog-holes’, and ‘hive’.[8] This shows the extent to which animals had an effect on the negative impressions many people would have had about the slums. This source, however, shows that the animals that were in the slum were not always there without the choice of its residents, and were sometimes important to a person’s living.

Mayhew’s work also often addressed issues of dirt and filth. This is relevant to animals as the negative impression of animals that has been discussed so far was due to their association with the spread of dirt and disease. Christopher Herbert looks at the Victorian values of cleanliness and purity, arguing that they gave it divinity.[9] The importance of cleanliness can be seen to have been one of the reasons the slums were judged so harshly. Herbert describes the rat as an animated form of this uncleanliness, giving yet another negative image that people had of animals in the slums.[10] Much of this negativity seems to have stemmed from the presence of rats in the slums and this could have had a lot to do with their link to dirt and filth. This negative light that has been placed on animals in the slum is important to note as it seems that the example of the costermonger and his donkey is not a typical case of sentiment towards an animal during this period.

This source provides a different view to an animal’s involvement in the slum to so many others that have been written about. Whether in fictional literature or secondary reading, the animals that were connected to the slums have been written about in a negative light. This source however shows sentimentality towards an animal, and shows the importance of it to the costermonger’s work. One often finds that animals are reported as being a nuisance, whether that was due to spread of disease or just a contribution to the amount of filth that has also often been described as part of the slum. This is why this source has been chosen as part of the collection in this exhibition, it is interesting to see such positive writing about animals in the slums.

Eve Harrison


[1] Maxwell. R., ‘Henry Mayhew and the Life of the Streets’, Journal of British Studies, 17:2 (1978), p. 87.

[2] Mayhew. H., (selections made and introduced by Neuburg. V.) London Labour and the London Poor, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1985), p. 9.

[3] Mayhew,  London Labour, p. 10.

[4] Maxwell, ‘Henry Mayhew and the Life of the Streets’, p. 88.

[5] Mayhew, London Labour, p. 27

[6] Pemberton. N., ‘The Rat Catcher’s Prank: Interspecies Cunningness and Scavenging in Henry Mayhew’s London’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 19:4 (2014), p. 522.

[7] Mayhew, London Labour, p. 27.

[8] Cuming. E., ‘‘Home is home be it never so homely’: Reading Mid-Victorian Slum interiors’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 18:3 (2013), p. 372.

[9] Herbert. C., ‘Rat Worship and Taboo in Mayhew’s London’, Representations, 23 (1988), p. 8.

[10] Herbert, ‘Rat Worship and Taboo in Mayhew’s London’, p. 14.


Fig. 1 ‘The Costermonger and the Donkey’. Available online: Accessed on: 11/12/2015

Fig. 2 ‘A donkey in the house?’ Available online: Accessed on 11/12/2o15