The Victorian age, preceded by the urban/industrial migration led to an increase in the population of the major cities in the United Kingdom. Although this period heralded an industrial revolution in which there was an improvement in the overall economy of the country, there was a growing disparate distinction between classes of the citizens. Set in London, Henry Mayhew, in his narrative titled “London Labor and the London Poor” sheds light on the predicament of the youth on the lower rungs of the economic ladder in the city. John Rosenberg describes the economic class distinction as “a vast, ingeniously balanced mechanism in which each class subsists on the droppings of the stratum above…”(1108), with Mayhew elucidating on the lowest class citizens of which the majority were the youth.
In all honesty, it is probably a stretch referring to the girl first interviewed in this narrative as a “youth”, however, her experience characterizes the quite unusual maturity possessed by the youth of that period. At the tender age of eight, the amount of responsibility shouldered by the girl is remarkable, and one that Mayhew finds difficult to come to terms with initially. Trying to adapt to this scenario, Mayhew “treated her as a child, speaking on childish subjects” so as to “remove all shyness, and get her to narrate her life freely. However, maybe even more incredulous is the way in which she takes her unusual situation in her stride. Mayhew narrates that her response to his attempts at childish prompts was a “look of amazement that…soon put an end to any attempt at fun”(1108).
Youth is quite rightly associated with a reckless abandon with possessions and a less to no-considered approach to wealth or money. The young girl in this narrative however responds to an inquisition on her spending habits with an interesting response. Mayhew writes that she says:
“All my money I earns I put in a club and draws it out to buy clothes with. It’s better than spending it in sweet-stuff, for them as has a living to learn.”(1110)
This highlights the maturity of the youth in this period, necessitated by the economic situation and the reluctance of family to add on responsibility besides themselves. Abandonment and having to fend for oneself is the theme of the narrative on the crossing-sweeper boy.
The youth of that period possessed independence along with the maturity earlier discussed. Even though she was the only family he had left, his sister gave him some money and told him to go get his own living. (1111) With that in mind, it is important to note, however, that the youth of that period still had that innate nature of the common youth with the need to be cared for. The boy narrates that “I saw sister after I left her, many times. I asked her many times to take me back…”(1112)
Mayhew’s narrative paints a picture of an unusual breed of youth forged by the difficult economic times, and in my opinion, neglectful adults, who have evolved to develop maturity way beyond their years and survive in the independence forced on them.