The Soundscapes of Henry Mayhew Urban Ethnography and Technologies of Transcription

Helen Groth


Contemporary reviewers of London Labour and the London Poor were quick to label as inauthentic both the engraved re-mediations of John Beard’s daguerreotype portraits and Henry Mayhew’s transcription of the voices of London’s street habitués. Mayhew’s literal mediations of patter, slang and speech rhythms were the subject of particular scrutiny.  As one critic acerbically observed: ‘The photographs no doubt are accurate enough, but those dialogues smell of the footlights.’  Such criticisms strike at the core of Mayhew’s commitment to the technologies of faithful mimesis and the mediation of an authentic experience of the everyday lives of London’s wandering tribes.  Sound bites of characteristic speech serve as titles for many of the engraved reproductions of John Beard’s daguerreotypes reinforcing the analogy between visual and textual modes of transcription.  Likewise Mayhew insists that his various re-enactments of the multi-sensorial experience of elbowing through London’s crowded marketplaces and streets are ‘unvarnished’ transparent mediations of its various sounds and voices.  Central to Mayhew’s enterprise is the commitment to recording and capturing a dying way of life.  Now silenced voices are captured and remediated to ‘shock’ and teach through the ‘heart’ to use Mayhew’s terminology.  This paper will reconsider Mayhew’s investment in the power of sympathetic communication in the context of broader transformations in mid-nineteenth century conceptions of the media as a conduit for information rather than as a mechanism of persuasion.


British journalism, shorthand, Londoners, sound represented by words

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