In London Labour and the London Poor (1861), Henry Mayhew recorded seeing a watercress girl who, eight years old and 'dressed only in a thin cotton gown and a threadbare shawl wrapped round her shoulders', walked the streets crying 'four bunches a penny'; and mudlarks, principally young boys, girls, old men and many old women, who spent the day with 'their trousers tucked up, groping about picking out pieces of coal, iron, wood and copper nails' from the mud on the banks of the Thames. Unlike the street-sellers, whose lives were solitary, the mudlarks formed organised communities. But they were loosely connected. Indeed, Mayhew noted their lack of cohesiveness, observing that they 'peered anxiously about' and held 'but little converse with one another'. Chimney-sweeps, on the other hand, formed distinct and coherent communities, their filthy appearance and offensive smell forcing them into collective isolation. This resulted in the acquisition and nurturing of 'unique habits and peculiarities'. In some communities, the tendrils of continuity reached far back into the past. The fish market at Billingsgate, for example, whose official records date back to the 11th century but whose origins most likely lie in antiquity, remained the geographical and economic centre of fish-selling. While operating within the context and constraints of higher-order organising influences such as the common law, town-planning and the dictates of city guilds, the detail of London's physical and social structure originated according to a dialectic between such 'top-down' principles and less well understood 'bottom-up' self-organisation emerging from the life of the city itself.
LRB 21 March 2002 | PDF Download