Secret bible of the paleo-steampunks: Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor"

On Sunday, I was on a panel about steampunk at the Eastercon in Bradford with Tim Powers, one of the original creators of steampunk literature (see his Anubis Gate). Halfway through, Powers mentioned casually that he came to write a science-fictional book influenced by Victorian England after reading, London Labour and the London Poor , a classic text by Henry Mayhew. Powers said that the book was KW Jeter's (Jeter coined the term "steampunk") and that it was passed around to both Powers and James Blaylock, three friends whose works were, arguably, the first steampunk novels ever written.

Powers said words to the effect of, "After reading this book, I realized that I had a whole novel's worth of research right there." It struck me that I'd never heard this story before, and that here, in this book, there was an important origin story about one of the major ways that an entire genre of literature, making, film and comics came into being.

I've just ordered my copy. Can't wait to read it.

London Labour and the London Poor


  1. I feel very envious when someone is about to read a book I know is a treasure. Everyone I know who’s read ‘London Labour…’ came to it accidentally. I found it in a charity shop. It’s brilliant, and when you see the poverty in my home city in the relatively recent past, it puts current economic woes into perspective. Enjoy.
    Mark Brentano

    [PS Sorry I didn’t open an account. Will do when more time. Excellent blog]

  2. Hi Cory. I’m glad you posted this as, having picked up on it at the panel, I couldn’t remember the name of the book. Happily, its in my library so I can pick it up later today.

    Happy reading,

    Vee (Venetta Uye)

  3. It’s available free on-line (there’s volumes 1-3 + the extra volume.)

    I’d consider it a stretch to call The Anubis Gates steampunk, unless anything that includes speculative elements and a Victorian London setting is steampunk. (It is, though, a great book, and high on the list of things I mean to re-read.)

  4. Hope you enjoy it. It’s an amazing work in its own right, both as reportage and a gallery of characters. There’s enough in there for a shelf of novels: mudlarks, the Punch and Judy man, those who will not work

  5. I found a copy of London Labout and the London Poor in a massive pile of remaindered Penguin books about a decade ago, and it was one of the most eye opening pieces of sociological research I’ve ever encountered. I’ve routinely returned to it as a reference since.

  6. Yes, it’s remarkable stuff – I’d also recommend Gustav Doré and Blanchard Jerrold’s “London: A Pilgrimage”; Doré’s engravings of terraced houses overshadowed by railway lines want only airships to be the perfect steampunk illustrations.

  7. “London Labour and the London Poor” is also available as an e-text online — links are in the Wikipedia entry about the book. As others have said, it’s wonderfully fascinating.

    I first heard of it (as well as Louis Adhemar Timothee Le Golif’s “Memoirs of a Buccaneer”, wonderful for entirely different reasons) when it was quoted in GURPS Goblins.

  8. I was only just told that the stuff I adore in life is actually steampunk. Thanks for more info *^_^*

  9. Other fun historical reading (along the same line of “contains more plot bunnies than you can shake a stick at”):

    I think BB linked to Nathan Bailey’s Canting Dictionary (1736), but a nice follow-up is the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence.

    Guide to the Unprotected in Every-day Matters Relating to Property and Income. by A Banker’s Daughter. (1864) A glorious collection of money matters, including stocks, bills, property, and how to format a telegram.

    Domestic medicine; or, A treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines (1798). Includes “A LIST of the MEDICINES commonly ufed in Practice, with their proper Dofes”, information on inoculations, a full discussion of nightmares (under Chapter 43, “Of Nervous Difeafes), and a large number of very gross sounding things.

    The Miseries of Human Life: An Old Friend in a New Dress (revised ed. 1853) A book of historical schadenfreude, essentially — lists of common “augh” moments, many of which have not changed in the intervening centuries, but all of which provide fascinating insight to the age. For instance:

    “Being called in as an umpire in a matrimonial quarrel, which leaves you the choice of splitting on one of the six following rocks, viz.:–

    “1. That of remaining silent–(for which both parties hate you; each supposing that you secretly favor the other).

    “2. That of pronouncing that both are in the wrong–(for which you are, obviously, hated by both).

    “3. That of insinuating that both may be in the right–(hated again on both sides: each being more enraged at your contre, than grateful for your pour).

    “4. That of defending the lady at the expense of the gentleman–(still hated by both; by her, for attacking her caro sposo, whom she will suffer no one to despise but herself; by him, for siding with the enemy).

    “5. That of defending the gentleman at the expense of the lady–(this case is, inversely, the same with the last).

    “6. That of endeavoring to make peace, by treating the matter “en badinage”–(for which both are far too much in earnest, as well as far too eager for victory, not to hate you most of all). The best course, perhaps, if you cannot steal away, is to be taken with a sudden and violent fit of the toothache, which may last ad libitum.”

  10. sorry – I d9 have an account but I can never manage to retrieve it —

    I saw this when it first came out and it’s my fave movie of all time — If you can find it in public library (I found ONE old VHS in the US) see ‘The Fool’, with Derek Jacobi – also based on this book. It’s not as much about steampunk, as about Madoff – a perfect, perfect story about the art of the ponzi and how to play it on the rich, while the poor conduct their lives unseen..

  11. The abridged version leaves out some of the tables and economic breakdowns and keeps all the interesting interviews and anecdotes.

  12. I usually like to piss and moan about the verbing of nouns (“friending”, “texting”), but this time I’m going to complain about the nouning of a verb, i.e. “making”

  13. Mayhew and the canting dictionaries cited @9 are old favorites of writers of historical mysteries as well as of literature scholars with a social-historical bent. I recall a Dover edition of the whole set, but (like their complete Child ballads) it’s probably OP and pricey now.

    Herbert Asbury’s accounts of urban low life (most famously Gangs of New York) were the rough equivalent for thriller writers focusing on American settings, though Asbury’s are popular histories (written long after the events covered) rather than current sociology and thus filled with legend and gossip. Great grist for writers, though.

  14. Heh! Last time I was unemployed (2004) I was casting around for something useful to absorb my attention without requiring massive efforts, and lit upon the Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders project. (You register, you get a scan of a page of a work in progress and the matching OCR’d text, and correct typos.) Mayhew’s classic, which I was taught about in school 25 years ago, was one of the first books I ended up working on. I ended up getting completely absorbed in the text; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Sadly when I last checked a year or two ago, the text I worked on was stalled in the final-pass bottleneck…. hmmm, anyone out there got unexpected free time and a network connection? ….

    (reCaptcha, before I noticed BB’s logged me out again (WTF?): “19th-Cen- course” )

  15. There was a TV documentary about Henry Mayhew some time ago (BBC?). He’s buried in Brookwood Necropolis, just outside London.

  16. I only know about The London Poor because I was looking for stuff about Punch and Judy and found that bit online. It’s the best resource I found.

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