The best of times, the worst of times

School doorOriginally a project for Luton Museums Service at Wardown Park Museum to accompany gallery exhibits showing contrasts in Victorian childhood.

Rather than offering fictional tales here I rely directly on interviews from Henry Mayhew’s ‘London Labour & the London Poor’ to speak about the lives and work of real children (and adults) in the teeming mid nineteenth century city. Mayhew and Charles Dickens worked together, both as journalists and social reformers, so many of the former’s subjects appear recognizably as (sometimes composite) characters in the latter’s novels.

Dickens’ prose works best read aloud – so I also give themed short dramatic readings from some of Dickens’ novels to illustrate the link between the two.

Children do connect especially with their Victorian counterparts – from the child crossing sweepers and gymnastic tumblers of the Haymarket (who combine as Little Joe in Bleak House) to the Thames foreshore toshers and mudlarks and the labourers on the Capital’s dustheaps.

They also enjoy being shocked by the real worst jobs in the world – most especially the miserable life and desperate, disgusting labour of the Purefinder…

Women’s Institute and social history groups tend to prefer the struggles of the dollymops and daywalkers of the Strand: Many of these prostitute women’s interviews were possibly conducted by Mrs Jane Jerrold Mayhew (rather than her husband) who taught herself the American Short Hand in order to keep accurate records.

More conventional storytelling also draws on Dickens, referencing haunting short stories of the modern age such as the The Signalman. Those with sufficiently strong nerves can also hear tales of the Indian Mutiny: the truly brave may even decide to discover the Secret of the Monkey’s Paw…

Monkeys Paw


NEW FOR 2011 – A Victorian Album

My real Victorian phtograph album has gradually filled with both familiar and forgotten lives from the middle of the 19th century: Her Majesty appears, as does her friend the Queen of Hawaii and also the royal ward Sally, The African Princess. While all have heard of Florence Nightingale – and many of Mary Seacole – fewer recall James Barry’s life-long deception.

Sometimes a face looks out from more than a century and a half away and the eyes make contact directly with the viewer, demanding that an identity be retrieved…



Brunel, Bazalgette, Stephenson and Darwin feature as do a selection of literati (followed by Mrs Dickens and Nel Ternan who face each other – oblivious – across a page…)



In a now more controversial flavour of the age some of those exhibitors who toured for Barnum, had ‘residencies’ in his American Museum, or as frequently courted publicity on their own account, are discretely included and their stories told.

Kept carefully under wraps – and shown only respectfully and on request – are some of the most touching photographs in my collection, early ‘post mortem’ pictures of both children and adults.

Mrs Rudd

Mrs Rudd c1830 – 1909

Unfortuntely, there are no early pictues of Mrs Rudd, only this from the final year of her life. I have recently researched and developed an oral biography for her: she is my partner’s great, great, great grandmother Annie Athow, nee Anna Maria Jeary, aka Mrs Rudd.

This indomitable Norfolk woman played a vital – if unsung – role in Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Great Sewer Work for London; fiercely embraced The Married Women’s Property Acts and battled the Chinese tongs in Clerkenwell – hand to hand when necessary!

She terrified her children and grandchildren and unnerves me a little, even in her photograph…