Image: The Watercress Girl by Frederick Ifold (1867).
In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London’s working classes and criminal underbelly.
What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations describing their lives from the people themselves.
The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London’s forgotten underclass.
One of the most famous and heart-wrenching profiles is of an eight-year-old watercress seller from the East End. She is unkempt and emaciated when Mayhew interviews her, and wears nothing more than a thin dress, a ragged shawl and carpet slippers even in the severest weather.
Here is what the ‘ watercress girl’ had to say about her life:
“I go about the streets with water-creases, crying, ‘Four bunches a penny, water-creases’. I am just eight years old – that’s all, and I’ve a big sister, and a brother and a sister younger than I am. On and off, I’ve been very near a twelvemonth in the streets.
Before that, I had to take care of a baby for my aunt. No, it wasn’t heavy – it was only two months old; but I minded it for ever such a time – till it could walk. It was a very nice little baby, not a very pretty one; but, if I touched it under the chin, it would laugh.
“Before I had the baby, I used to help mother, who was in the fur trade; and, if there was any slits in the fur, I’d sew them up. My mother learned me to needle-work and to knit when I was about five. I used to go to school, too; but I wasn’t there long.
I’ve forgot all about it now, it’s such a time ago; and mother took me away because the master whacked me, though the missus use’n’t to never touch me. I didn’t like him at all.
What do you think? he hit me three times, ever so hard, across the face with his cane, and made me go dancing down stairs; and when mother saw the marks on my cheek, she went to blow him up, but she couldn’t see him – he was afraid. That’s why I left school”.