The son of a London lawyer, Mayhew was educated at Westminster School and then worked with his father for three years. However, it was a stormy relationship, and in 1831 Mayhew abandoned law for journalism. For the next eight years, he worked for the journals, Figaro in London and the Thief. Mayhew also wrote plays such as The Wandering Minstrel (1834) and But However (1838).
In 1841, Mayhew joined with Mark Lemon, a fellow journalist and playwright, to start a a new journal, Punch magazine. The two men were initially joint editors and recruited a group of talented writers and illustrators to join the venture, including Douglas Jerrold, Shirley Brooks, Angus Reach, John Leech, and Richard Doyle. In the early years, Punch sold about six thousand copies a week. However, sales of ten thousand were needed to cover the costs of the venture. In December 1842, it was decided to sell the magazine to Bradbury & Evans. Lemon was reappointed as editor and Mayhew was given the role of “suggester-in-chief.” Mayhew wrote his last article for Punch in February 1845 and launched Iron Times, a railway magazine that lost him so much money that in 1846 he ended up in the Court of Bankruptcy.
The summer of 1849 saw a serious outbreak of cholera. Within three months, an estimated thirteen thousand people in London died from the disease. On September 24, Mayhew wrote an article on the impact of cholera on the working-class district of Bermondsey. Soon afterward, Mayhew suggested to the editor of the Morning Chronicle, John Douglas Cook, that the newspaper should carry out an investigation into the condition of the laboring classes in England and Wales. Cook agreed and recruited Brooks, Reach, and Charles Mackay to help Mayhew collect the material. The first article appeared on October 18, 1849. Mayhew concentrated on London, and the rest of the team were assigned other parts of England and Wales to investigate. An article appeared every day for the rest of the year and for most of 1850. Mayhew wrote two of these a week and the rest were written by Brooks, Reach, Mackay, and some unnamed provincial journalists.
The articles in the Morning Chronicle received considerable attention. The Economist attacked the publication of such material that it believed was “unthinkingly increasing the enormous funds already profusely destined to charitable purposes, adding to the number of virtual paupers, and encouraging a reliance on public sympathy for help instead on self-exertion.” Christian Socialists, such as Charles KINGSLEY, Thomas HUGHES, and F. D. Maurice praised Mayhew and the Morning Chronicle. Radicals also approved and newspapers such as the Northern Star and the Red Republican published substantial extracts from these reports. Mayhew’s collected articles on poverty were eventually published as London Labour and London Poor (3 vols., 1851–52). Mayhew’s investigation into the plight of the poor revealed the impact that unemployment, starvation, and disease were having on the working class.
In 1856, Mayhew started a new series of articles for the Morning Chronicle entitled “The Great World of London.” The articles appeared monthly and those dealing with crime and punishment were collected together and published as a book called The Criminal Prisons of London (1862). Another book based on newspaper articles he had written was published as London Characters (1874). Mayhew wrote books on a wide variety of different subjects including novels, The Good Genius That Turned Everything into Gold (1847) and Whom to Marry and How to Get Married (1848), and historical works such as The Boyhood of Martin Luther (1863) and German Life and Manners in Saxony (2 vols., 1864). In 1949, Peter QUENNELL edited Mayhew’s London, followed by London’s Underworld (1950) and Mayhew’s Characters (1951).
Bibliography Humphreys, A., H. M. (1984); MacKay, L., “H. M.,” in Kelly, G., ed., British Reform Writers, 1932–1914, DLB 190 (1998): 180–88
Born in London, the son of a solicitor, and educated at West-minster School, Mayhew worked for a while in his father's office...
His best-known work is London Labour and the London Poor (4 vols, 1851-62), a combination of vivid reportage and amateur...