Review of Henry Mayhew’s ‘A visit to the Cholera District of Bermondsey’
Henry Mayhew was born in London in 1812. He worked as a freelance journalist and writer and was one of the founding editors of Punch magazine. In 1849 he began to write a series of articles for the Morning Chronicle newspaper on the subject of poverty. This collection was eventually published in four volumes in 1861- entitled ‘London Labour and the London Poor’. London Labour and the London Poor, is an unparalleled source of information on how the very poor lived and earned money. As a social investigator, Mayhew conducted hundreds of interviews that recorded first-hand accounts on how London’s underclass struggled to survive. In the following extract Mayhew is describing his visit to Bermondsey in 1849 when cholera was rife.
‘Out of the 12,800 deaths which within the last three months, have arisen from cholera, 6,500 have occurred on the southern shores of the Thames… no localities have contributed so largely as Southwark and Bermondsey… Anyone who has ventured a visit to the last named of these places, will not wonder at the ravages of the pestilence in this quarter. On entering, the air has literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea… the dark streaks of filth down the walls where drains from each house discharge themselves into the ditch on the opposite side, tell you how pollution of the ditch is supplied.
At the back of every house that boasts a square foot or two of outlet- and the majority have none at all-are pig sties. In front waddle ducks, cocks and hens. In deed, the creatures that fatten on offal are the only living things that seem to flourish here. The inhabitants themselves show in their faces the poisonous influence of the mephitic air they breathe. Either their skins are white, telling of impaired digestion and the coldness of their skin peculiar to persons suffering from chronic poisoning or else their checks are flushed, and their eyes are glassy, showing the wasting fever and decline of their body functions. In this wretched place we were taken to a house where an infant lay dead of the cholera. We asked if they really did drink the water? The answer, was ‘They were obliged to drink the ditch’. The last place we went to was Joiner’s -court , with four wooden houses in it, in which there had lately been as many as five cases of cholera. We were taken up to a room in one of the houses by a woman… the room was so dark that it was several minutes before we could see anything within it… there was a smell of must and dry rot… the unnatural size of the pupils of the wretched woman’s eyes convinced us how much too long she had dwelt in this gloomy place. What wonder, then, since debility is one of the predisposing conditions of cholera, that- even if these stenches of the foul tidal ditch water be not the direct cause of the disease-that the impaired digestive functions, the languid circulation, the depression of the mind produced by the continued inhalation of the noxious gases of the tidal ditch, together with –the cold, damp houses- and, above all, the quenching of the thirst and cooking of the food with water saturated with the very excrements of their fellow creatures, should make [Bermondsey] notorious as the Jessore of England.’
 Joiner’s-court was close to where the Shard sits today.
To cite this post : Julie Mathias, “Review of Henry Mayhew’s ‘A visit to the Cholera District of Bermondsey’”, Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), August 30th, 2016. [On line] http://oldoperatingtheatre.com/review-of-henry-mayhews-a-visit-to-the-cholera-district-of-bermondsey/
Julie Mathias is the Head of Learning at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. Her role includes convening the schools programs for students studying the “Medicine Through Time” series and related subjects. As a social historian Julie is interested in the history of ‘ordinary’ peoples’ experiences of health, illness, and death, and how investigating this fascinating phenomena enriches our present day understanding of our own bodies.