Lesa Scholl, “Irish Migration to London During the c.1845-52 Famine: Henry Mayhew’s Representation in London Labour and the London Poor


The Great Irish Famine (c. 1845-52) was marked by mass emigration that had a significant impact on the British mainland. This paper examines Henry Mayhew’s representation of Irish migration to London during the height of the famine in his ethnographic study, London Labour and the London Poor. Mayhew’s ambivalence to Irish migration speaks to the widespread fears within Britain of the spread of disease, overpopulation, and increased pressures on wages and employment, but also expresses empathy for the Irish at a time when British sympathies were waning. The domestic spaces of the Irish migrants depict the tensions between mobility and settlement in a way that reinforces their permanence in the British social landscape

Engraving of Mayhew

Engraving of Henry Mayhew, 1861

There are, then, no less than 100,000 individuals of the lowest, the filthiest, and most demoralised classes, continually wandering through the country; in other words, there is a stream of vice and disease—a tide of iniquity and fever, continually flowing from town to town, from one end of the land to the other. (Mayhew 3: 397)

From the 1830s, the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation were becoming visible in Britain, with the technological advances in transportation and communication being darkly complemented by overcrowded towns and cities, increased rates of poverty and crime, and the spread of disease. As Jill Matus has argued, this newly industrialised world was one of “turbulence, upheaval and disruption, all of which affect the mind in various destabilizing ways” (61). Within this domestic context, it is unsurprising that the increased emigration of the Irish to Britain during the Great Irish Famine (c. 1845-52) resulted in the demonization of the migrants, although Brantlinger and Ulin observe that the compulsion of the British to equate vagrancy with Irish migrancy was well in place even in the early 1840s (41).

Michael De Nie goes further, suggesting that the 1840s “resurrected” earlier perceptions of the Irish “as violent and alien” (28). While Christine Kinealy suggests that famine emigration began in 1846 (297), it is difficult to pin down exact dates. Indeed, as Christopher Morash points out, the period of the famine itself is in many ways undefinable, both because of the complexities of its causes (disease, crop failure, land mismanagement) and the politics surrounding the discourse of famine and famine relief (Writing the Irish Famine 2). Although the British government declared the Famine ended in 1849, and official aid ceased as a result, such overt declarations are constructed political narratives; the cessation of aid, and the British drawing a line in the sand, does not necessarily correlate with the Irish lived experience that is determined by the complexities of climactic events and political narrative. Questions still remain as to how to determine food shortage, and in what manner the end of shortage can be ascertained: access to goods is notoriously difficult to pin down. Furthermore, given that it has never been possible to determine the body count of the Famine or when the deaths directly resulting from the Famine began and ended, it is likewise impossible to suggest a definitive end-moment. As Morash states, unlike a war, there are no written texts or defining discrete events that can “frame” famine; and it was not until it was “acknowledged as a complete event in the mid-1850s that ‘the Famine,’ or ‘the Great Famine,’ could be distinguished from the endemic food shortages of the previous century” (3). Therefore, while this paper addresses the event of Irish migration to London during the Great Famine, I acknowledge that the parameters of this event or period are significantly blurred. The causes of emigration are also complicated, in that the improvement of communication and transportation between Ireland and Britain made immigration an “increasingly feasible proposition” (Swift, “Thomas Carlyle” 76). Robert Swift argues that famine migration to Britain was on the increase from the 1830s, but was much greater in “the Famine decade” of the 1840s—it virtually doubled during the peak of the Famine, which Swift marks as 1845-52 (75-76). Swift’s concept of a famine peak is a more useful construction to suggest the borders of the Famine because it acknowledges that there is no definite beginning and end to the event; it is only through retrospective narratives that such borders can be applied, but they must be recognised more as a historical convenience than as historical accuracy.

Historian Roy Foster observes that “emigration is the great fact of Irish social history from the early nineteenth century” (qtd in O’Sullivan 53). Historians and economists alike have noted that, retrospectively, the Great Famine was one of the most lethal in terms of mortality and population loss. While exact numbers have not been ascertained, most scholars have estimated that between 800,000 and one million Irish died as a direct result of the famine, while at least one million more emigrated across the globe during that period, the most popular destinations being North America, Australia and Britain.

This paper focuses specifically on Irish migration to London for a number of reasons. First of all, emigration to Britain was politically unique, in that the Irish were migrating to the nation that many held responsible for Ireland’s demise (Swift, “Thomas Carlyle” 77). The blame on the British government was not just prevalent amongst the Irish; The English MP George Poulett Scrope was a “particularly insistent critic” of the way the Protestant Anglo-Irish landlords were managing their estates and tenantry, accusing them of “exposing Britain to danger and expense,” through the need for aid or English military intervention, or, perhaps more pressing, the risk of increased migration to England (Berol 104).[1] London was significant for the Irish migrants as a port of transit as well as a place of urban settlement, but it was also the ideological, economic and political centre of the British Empire. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) entered the public mind in this context, providing a groundbreaking ethnographic study of an empire looking inward; and his presentation of the Irish migrants critiques the national and imperial tensions between pity, compassion and fear that signalled the British response to the visible Irish presence at their very core.

As a social commentator and advocate for reform, Mayhew’s journalistic reputation as both popular and controversial was established when he co-founded Punch in 1841. London Labour and the London Poor appeared as a series of articles in the Morning Chronicle throughout the 1840s, before being compiled into three volumes in 1851. The articles were innovative in the way they articulated the voices of the poorer classes of London. As an ethnographic study, Mayhew’s work explores the multicultural textures of Britain’s centre, drawing attention to the ethnic diversity within a nation determined to maintain a stable national and cultural identity. The Irish migrants are a part of this foreign presence, yet they stand apart due to Ireland’s closeness to Britain both geographically and as a colony—being recolonised was seen as a threat to civilisation. In London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew articulates a binary that situates people-movement in relation to civilisation: “there are—socially, morally, and perhaps even physically considered—but two distinct and broadly marked races, viz., the wanderers and the settlers—the vagabond and the citizen—the nomadic and the civilized tribes” (1: 1). Yet this binary is complicated by the foreigner’s presence. Mayhew’s perspective in this groundbreaking work reflects the inconsistencies and terrors in the British public mind. On the one hand, he buys into the popular angst regarding mobility by suggesting that people groups are civilised and moral to the extent that they remain in one place, while “wandering and rootless men” are the “potential ruin of London” (Scanlon 191). Yet even more terrifying than the dynamic transmission of social and actual disease throughout the nation is the resounding permanency of the Irish presence within London, the perceived economic and cultural capital of the British Empire. Mayhew is not without empathy for the plight of the starving Irish; however, there remains in his narrative an economic and social pragmatism that challenges the value of their presence within London and, by extension, the nation. This paper reads Mayhew’s articulation of the Irish migrants as existing within a doubly demonised position: as wanderers they are the vehicles of criminality, disease and greater localised unemployment. They move from place to place looking for employment, along with the many impoverished British people moving to urban locations in an attempt to find work in factories or in other trades, leading to “a doubly malefic effect. . . there are consequently the most sellers when there are fewest buyers” (Mayhew 1: 105). Yet the greater ambivalence toward the Irish is revealed through Mayhew’s discussion of Irish homes: their settlement within London suggests a permanent disruption and subversion of British social structures. Mayhew recognises the demonisation, but he seeks to highlight, rather than remove, British prejudice.

Although Mayhew presents an imperialist ethnographic gaze, his inclusion of interviews with the Irish migrants at least gives the appearance of giving space to their voices. In this way, the impact of famine migration to London can be read from both the Irish and the British perspectives. This inclusion can be problematic; Bryan Green points out that Mayhew at times homogenises the voices of his interviewees to assert his own agenda (126), and it is evident that his Irish spokespeople confirm many of the fears and prejudices that were commonly being represented in the London press, such as Punch, the Times and the London Illustrated Daily News. However, even within this bias, it is possible to read the specific trauma of famine migration written on the isolated Irish communities, as well as their need to maintain a sense of Irish identity. Much literature of the mid to late nineteenth century continued after Mayhew to interrogate the position of the Irish migrant in British culture, while interdisciplinary scholarship continues to be done on the psychological impact of Great Famine migration to Britain in terms of the collective cultural heritage. These two crucial aspects are out of the scope of this paper. My purpose here is to examine Mayhew’s influential account of Irish identity and assimilation within London during the crucial years (1845-52) of the Great Famine and famine migration.

Social Visibility

Roger Swift argues that against the backdrop of “urban squalor, disease, disorder, vagrancy, and unemployment. . . the Irish became an easy target and the poor Irish, who were the only visible Irish, became convenient scapegoats for environmental deterioration” (“Thomas Carlyle” 77). The visibility of the poor migrants was crucial to the British reception of migration, for although there were skilled, professional and middle-class Irish migrants during the famine years, these migrants were invisible in comparison to the “largely illiterate and unskilled” majority, who “entered the lowliest and least healthy of urban occupations” (78). Andrew Tolson writes of social visibility in terms of agency and the “recognition it gives to cultural diversity” (114), and he celebrates the way in which Mayhew gives voice to the poor of London through interviews and detailed descriptions. Any kind of empowerment for the Irish migrant subjects falters, however, because the social visibility created by Mayhew’s account is constructed through his ability to edit, rewrite and select the way he uses the voices of his interviewees.

Although Irish migration to Britain had dramatically increased from the 1830s, Mayhew’s representation of the Irish in London capitalises on the politics of the Famine by centring on the increase of migrants from 1846-51. His work specifically focuses on the poor, as his title suggests, and the Irish are positioned on the lowest rung within that context. Writing at the end of the Famine, Mayhew provocatively maintains the Irish at the fore of the public mind when Britain most wanted to deny or ignore them. In 1853, Harriet Martineau, often an advocate for Ireland, wrote:

The world is weary of the subject of Ireland; and, above all the rest, the English reading world is weary of it. The mere name brings up images of men in long coats and women in long cloaks; of mud cabins and potatoes; the conacre, the middleman, and the priest; the faction fight, and the funeral howl. The sadness of the subject has of late years increased the weariness. . . . Something ought to be done for Ireland; and, to readers by the fireside, it is too bewildering to say what. (35)

Martineau suggests an apathetic powerlessness amongst the British, and consequently an imaginative desire to position the situation firmly back within Ireland’s shores. Mayhew, however, reinforces the Irish presence within Britain, and therefore the need for Britain at least to recognise that presence, if not to act. While acknowledging that the number of Irish street-sellers in London has “doubled in number,” and that the “greater part of the Irish artisans who have arrived within the last five years are to be found among the most degraded of the tailors and shoemakers” (1: 104), Mayhew also directly addresses British prejudice:

I found among the English costermongers a general dislike of the Irish. In fact, next to a policeman, a genuine London costermonger hates an Irishman, considering him an intruder. Whether there be any traditional or hereditary ill-feeling between them, originating from a clannish feeling, I cannot ascertain. The costermongers whom I questioned had no knowledge of the feelings or prejudices of their predecessors, but I am inclined to believe that the prejudice is modern, and had originated in the great influx of Irishmen and women, intermixing, more especially during the last five years, with the costermonger’s business. An Irish costermonger, however, is no novelty in the streets of London. (104)

Importantly, Mayhew points out that the Irish presence is not new to London, whereas the prejudice against them is. While there is a perception that more Irish—an influx—have arrived, due to the famine, and that they are compromising English business, Mayhew seeks to challenge this bias. Gordon Bigelow suggests that there was a perception leading up to the famine that “the Irish [were] completely outside the systems of market value that encompassed English society” (112), yet the infiltration by the Irish into the British marketplace within the centre of London disturbs this assumption. Furthermore, if the idea of intermixing is taken beyond the marketplace to consider the threat of cultural intermixing, the depth of British fear can be ascertained. They are not merely concerned with economics, but the maintenance of Protestant ideology. Mayhew goes on to evoke the stereotypes of a flood of Catholicism and a rejection of conventional British morality within the Irish settlement. He remarks on the “religious fervour” of the Irish, and “marvel[s] at the strength of [their] zeal” (108) in a way that elevates the sincerity and power of Catholicism. The intensity of religious faith that Mayhew identifies in the Irish Catholics (108) contrasts with the lack of religious sentiment in the British London poor, and potentially compromises the purity and continuance of Britain’s Protestant national identity.

That Mayhew says the Irish are hated second to the police creates a complicated position for the Irish. Much work has been done on the introduction of the Metropolitan police, their modes of surveillance, and the general public distrust; yet it is ironic that Mayhew links the Irish to the same distrust as seen in the law enforcers, given that the Irish were marginalised as a criminal class. Yet this strange positioning is also reflected in Mayhew’s appraisal of the religious life of the London Irish. He controversially presents Irish women as being more virtuous than English women of the same class: “they are chaste, and, unlike the ‘coster girls,’ very seldom form any connection without the sanction of the marriage ceremony. They are, moreover, attentive to religious observances” (104). This appraisal challenges the British morality that the Irish are accused of attacking; however, Mayhew goes on later to say that “when a young Irishwoman does break through the pale of chastity, she often becomes, as I was assured, one of the most violent and depraved of, perhaps, the most depraved class” (Mayhew’s ital. 109). It is interesting that Mayhew does not tell his readers who it is that assures him—whether that assurity is coming from a British voice or an Irish one. It would seem that he is trying to suggest that it is his Irish guide, yet the perspective feeds the prejudices of the British toward the migrants. They are painted as extreme and irrational, controlled to an extent by religious form, but animalistic and brutal once they are freed from that restraint. That he refers to women as “violent” is particularly disturbing in this context, and perhaps can be tied to the emphasis he gives to the Irish devotion to the Virgin. He describes the “religious fervour of the people” as “intense,” and illustrates with a scene where a woman had “a coloured engraving of the ‘Blessed Lady,’ which she never passed without curtseying to” (108). While Mayhew provokes his British readers by flaunting the Catholicism of the migrants, he also shows the migrants’ staunch desire to hold onto their Catholicism as a means to maintain their Irish identity, even though they are displaced from their nation. He observes that he does not hear them “express any love for their country, though they often spoke with great affection of their friends” (106), which perhaps speaks to their desire not to dwell on what they have lost in terms of the physical country, now decimated by famine, but to hold onto their cultural heritage through their connections to community.

Physical Mobility

The loss of community connection preceded Irish migration to London, with increased itinerancy within Ireland leading up to the famine as people looked for employment, food and shelter. The distrust of the nomadic life was not unique to the migrant’s experience in Britain; within the context of starvation and the need to survive, the Irish distrusted each other, especially strangers seeking refuge. If people could no longer trust their neighbours, there would be no sense of communal belonging. The need to survive created an individualistic, selfish mindset. There were also the wandering prophets leading up to the famine, who evoked psychological terror over and above the traumas of starvation, homelessness and mortality by appealing to hysteria and superstition. Ultimately, mobility meant social isolation. Therefore, even before emigrating abroad, the Irish imagination was preoccupied with displacement. Marguérite Corporaal speaks of the way “the collective trauma of hunger, eviction and mass emigration” infuses Irish literature that emerged in the decades following the famine, with distressing images of “blasted, infertile land” juxtaposed with idealistic portrayals of “a green, pastoral Erin” (“From Golden Hills” 331-32).[2] With an imagined past, the emigrants long for a mythical home they will never see again.

Mayhew speaks of the Irish being “driven over from ‘the sister Isle’,” and goes on empathetically to express their experience:

First, they were driven over by the famine, when they could not procure, or began to fear that soon they could not procure, food to eat. Secondly, they were forced to take refuge in this country by the evictions, when their landlords had left them no roof to shelter them in their own. (105)

Yet rather than removing trauma, emigration opened new channels of distress. First of all, their existence within Britain was tenuous: the Laws of Settlement meant that Irish paupers could be removed and taken back to Ireland, “not returned to their own union, but. . . unceremoniously dumped at the nearest port of entry” (Kineally 25). Even for those who managed to find enough employment to stay, though, there were difficulties in terms of cultural assimilation and finding a sense of home and belonging:

At the post-migration phase there are personal, communal, structural and cultural factors, often inter-related which assist or impair healthy settlement. For instance, the personal resources that the migrant may draw on; the migrant’s ability to ultilise cultural and social capital such as education and language skills and the ease with which he or she can find work, fulfil personal goals, build intimate relationship, integrate into social networks, and so on. . . . However, related to the realisation of such potentialities is the degree of acceptance or hostility experienced by the migrant in the host country. (Leavey, Rozmovits, Ryan and King 232)

For the Irish famine migrants, their level of acceptance was limited. Mayhew refers to “nests of Irish” throughout London, the ghettoes formed in the poorest districts: “These people form separate colonies, rarely visiting or mingling with the English costers” (109). While this representation is one of self-exclusion, the prejudice against the Irish by the English costers has already been made clear, which justifies their need to find support within the migrant community. Mayhew also emphasises the poor literacy levels of the migrants, which would limit their access to cultural capital. Importantly, Mayhew also objects to the cultural material that is accessed by the Irish: “the literature, or reading, of she [sic] street-Irish is, I believe, confined to Roman Catholic books, such as the ‘Lives of the Saints,’ published in cheap form” (108). Then, from the British perspective, that these texts have a market in London is disturbing evidence of a growing tide of Papism threatening to overflow.

Christine Kineally points out that the perception of Irish immigrants creating “Little Irelands” in Britain where “poverty, disease, alcoholism, crime and children were endemic, was made popular as early as 1831” (330). To an extent, the fears surrounding disease were not unfounded: “many of them, even before they left the shores of Ireland, were unwittingly incubators for and carriers of various diseases” (302). However, this representation was undergirded by the mobility of the migrants in the nation as they looked for work, and was fuelled by contemporary constructions of the diseased social body. Morash observes that in common discourse, “Ireland did not simply have a disease; it was disease (Morash’s ital. 25); and while the logical solution for Ireland was depopulation, that very solution meant the transmission of that disease abroad.

Domestic Assimilation

The tension between mobility and settlement for the Irish migrants is written into Mayhew’s portrayal of their domestic spaces. For some, London is a place of transit, while others seek stability, a new concept of land and home. Terry Eagleton intriguingly suggests that for the Irish, the word “land” is “a badge of cultural belonging, a question of rents as well as roots” (7). While Eagleton is speaking more to the different relationship of the British and the Irish to their homelands, the Irish migrant attempts to find within London that same sense of cultural belonging more through the (literal) furniture of their rented homes than in the land. This perspective, rather than pastoral imaginings, resonates with the urban London landscape for both the British and the Irish; but it is also significant that Irish roots are identified by Mayhew in moveable items such as tables, chairs and pictures, rather than the geographical space of Ireland. Yet even though the objects are moveable, they create a claustrophobic effect in the excess. One room, “fitted up as a parlour,” is described as “crowded to excess with chairs and tables, the very staircase having pictures fastened against the wooden partition” (110), as if in a desperate attempt to recreate a familiar domestic space. The settlers in London crowd their rooms with these objects, claiming a sense of belonging and home, while those planning to move on further exist in a space that “was perfectly empty of furniture, and the once white-washed walls were black, excepting the little square patches which showed where the pictures of the former tenants had hung” (1: 110).

For the Irish migrants to London, putting down roots is no longer about an attachment to place, but in the arrangement of easily transported familiar objects. The domestic space becomes a paradoxical assimilation of settlement and mobility, as there is, in their desire to remain, a constant sense that they may have to move on. In some of the London Irish homes that Mayhew describes, the threat of forced mobility is reinforced in that boxes remain “corded up, and with bundles to the sides” (111). Mayhew constantly reveals his ambivalence to Irish migration through his reception of the domestic space: “In all the houses that I entered were traces of household care and neatness that I had little expected to have seen” (110). Throughout London Labour and the London Poor, domestic arrangements are key for showing, if not civilisation, settlement, and so through the ambiguous spaces the Irish inhabit, the narratives of British resentment and Irish trauma are combined. Mayhew’s use of Irish “nests” rather than “ghettoes,” however, adds to the sense that, regardless of reception, the Irish are in London to stay. Therefore, that the Irish migrant homes are acquiring even “traces” of care and neatness establishes the permanent presence of Ireland—whether deviant, diseased or starved—within the core of London’s economic and cultural space.

Lesa Scholl is the Dean of Academic Studies at Emmanuel College, within the University of Queensland. She has published a monograph, Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman: Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Martineau and George Eliot (Ashgate, 2011) and her other publications include articles and book chapters on Harriet Martineau, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, and pedagogical approaches to translation theory and literature. Her research interests extend to literature as cultural history, forms of translation, and economic fictions. Current projects include literary representations of hunger and homelessness 1800-1940, and an international collaboration, Place, Progress and Personhood in the Works of Elizabeth Gaskell.


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[1] The Anglo-Irish held an interesting marginal cultural and national position in that both the Irish and the British could disown connection with them. However, their appropriation of British cultural and economic value aligns them more closely to the British.

[2] Corporaal’s article is focused on Irish migrants to North America. Very little literature exists that was written by Irish migrants to Britain; however, given the psychological profiling done by scholars such as Leavey, et al., I would suggest that there were similar feelings of loss, trauma and nostalgia.