Forget Dickens - London Characters and Crooks

London Characters and Crooks by Henry Mayhew

If you don't find Charles Dickens too sentimental there are plenty of opportunities to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. But if you're interested in knowing more about the truly raw end of life in Victorian London, forget Dickens and try the work that influenced him with Henry Mayhew's London Characters and Crooks. The book is a compilation based on his ground-breaking documentary work London Labour and the London Poor.

Mayhew was the co-founder of Punch magazine (now closed) and habitué of Mayfair's clubland. His chronicling of London's poor grew from pieces written for magazines.

London Characters and Crooks is a highly detailed account and classification of London's Victorian poor, the people at the margins — both workers and criminals, and those that drifted precariously between both camps. Chapters on street-sellers, scavengers, beggars and underworld characters capture their culture in their own words and slang-filled language  - transporting you to a world of bone grubbers, dancing dogs, park women, lucifer droppers and sneak thieves.

The Folio Society

The book is published by The Folio Society, printed at the Bath Press (now closed) on Balmoral Wove paper and bound in full buckram with a block print on the cover and spine. The book is illustrated with the photographs of John Thompson who originally presented these "true types of the London poor" for a monthly magazine called Street Life in London. 

A beautiful thing. The only books that can survive the era of the electronic reader are books that are beautifully crafted from the best materials. The Folio Society in London was founded in 1947 with the explicit aim of creating books as "tactile and aesthetic objects".

I have to reproduce their fighting talk on maintaining standards:

"Our pleasure in reading is enhanced by the book itself, in which typography, illustration, paper, printing and binding all play a part in creating a harmonious whole. In a world of declining publishing standards, where most books are cheaply printed, and bound using low-grade materials, The Folio Society resolutely sets store by traditional values of excellence; for our designers and production personnel the term 'quite good' means 'no good': only the best is good enough."


  1. A choice volume revealing the fascinating and filthily stylish underbelly of London during an extraordinary era.

    1. Thanks. A pity much of the slang died out.


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