Henry Mayhew, the son of Joshua Mayhew, a London lawyer, and Mary Ann Fenn, was born on 25th November 1812. After being educated at Westminster School, he worked with his father for three years. However, it was a stormy relationship. According to his biographer, Deborah Vlock: "One of seventeen children and the fourth of seven sons, Mayhew failed to live up to his father's expectations; a prominent solicitor and a rigid patriarch, Joshua Mayhew apprenticed each of his sons to the law, and each, except one, eventually pursued other interests. Almost all of them, including Henry, were disinherited as a result (after his father's death, Henry received a legacy of £1 per week). Henry was particularly ill-suited to legal study, and nearly caused Joshua's arrest by neglecting to file some important documents."
In 1831 Mayhew decided to become a writer. For the next eight years worked for the journal, Figaro in London. Mayhew also wrote a well-received play, The Wandering Minstrel (1834). He also co-wrote But However (1838).
In 1841 Mayhew joined with Mark Lemon, a fellow journalist and playwright, to start a a new journal, Punch Magazine. The two men were initially joint-editors and recruited a group of talented writers and illustrators to join the venture, including Douglas Jerrold, Shirley Brooks, Angus Reach, John Leech and Richard Doyle. In the early years the magazine sold about 6,000 copies a week. However, sales of 10,000 were needed to cover the costs of the venture.
In December 1842 it was decided to sell the magazine to Bradbury & Evans. Mark Lemon was reappointed as editor and Henry Mayhew was given the role of "suggester-in-chief". Mayhew wrote his last article for Punch Magazine in February, 1845. Mayhew now launched Iron Times, a railway magazine that lost him so much money that in 1846 he ended up in the Court of Bankruptcy.
The summer of 1849 saw a serious outbreak of cholera. Within three months, an estimated 13,000 people in London died from the disease. On 24th September, Mayhew wrote an article on the impact of cholera on the working-class district of Bermondsey. Soon afterwards Mayhew suggested to the editor, John Douglas Cook, that the newspaper should carry out an investigation into the condition of the labouring classes in England and Wales. Cook agreed and recruited Angus Reach, Charles Mackay and Shirley Brooks to help Mayhew collect the material.
The first article appeared on 18th October 1849. Mayhew concentrated on London and the rest of the team were assigned other parts of England and Wales to investigate. An article appeared every day for the rest of the year and for most of 1850. Mayhew wrote two of these a week and the rest were written by Reach, Brooks, Mackay and some unnamed provincial journalists.
The articles in the Morning Chronicle received a lot of attention. The Economist attacked the publication of such material that it believed was "unthinkingly increasing the enormous funds already profusely destined to charitable purposes, adding to the number of virtual paupers, and encouraging a reliance on public sympathy for help instead on self-exertion."
Douglas Jerrold wrote to a friend in February, 1850: "Do you read the Morning Chronicle? Do you devour those marvellous revelations of the inferno of misery, of wretchedness, that is smouldering under our feet? We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes me sick. We know nothing of this terrible life that is about us - us, in our smug respectability. To read of the sufferings of one class, and the avarice, the tyranny, the pocket cannibalism of the other, makes one almost wonder that the world should go on. And when we see the spires of pleasant churches pointing to Heaven, and are told - paying thousands to Bishops for the glad intelligence - that we are Christians!. The cant of this country is enough to poison the atmosphere."
Christian Socialists, such as Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hughes and F. D. Maurice praised Mayhew and the Morning Chronicle. Radicals also approved and newspapers such as the Northern Star and the Red Republican published substantial extracts from these reports. Octavia Hill was one of those who read Mayhew's work and was inspired into action. It is also claimed that the articles influenced the writings of Charles Dickens.
Henry Mayhew's collected articles on poverty were eventually published as London Labour and London Poor (1851). Mayhew's investigation into the plight of the poor revealed the impact that unemployment, starvation and disease was having on the working class. Deborah Vlock has argued: "It remains a seminal study of London street life in the middle of the century, and has been often reprinted. It is required reading for anyone interested in the minutest details of Victorian lower-class life, such as what kinds of foods were sold on the streets, how financial transactions with street-sellers were conducted, and how vendors ‘cried’ their wares."
In a talk he gave to a group of tailors Mayhew attempted to defend the moral behaviour of the working-classes: "It is easy enough to be moral after a good dinner beside a snug coal fire, and with our hearts well warmed with fine old port. It is easy enough for those that can enjoy these things daily to pay their poor-rates, rent their pew, and love their neighbours as themselves: but place the self-same "highly respectable" people on a raft without sup or bite on the high seas, and they would toss up who should eat their fellows. Morality on £5,000 a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing to morality on slop-wages in Bethnal Green."
In 1856 Mayhew started a new series of articles for the Morning Chronicle entitled The Great World of London. The articles appeared monthly and those dealing with crime and punishment were collected together and published as a book called The Criminal Prisons of London (1862). Another book based on newspaper articles he had written was published as London Characters (1874).
Mayhew wrote books on a wide variety of different subjects including novels, The Good Genius (1847) and Whom to Marry (1848), and historical work such as German Life and Manners in Saxony (1864) and The Boyhood of Martin Luther (1865).
Henry Mayhew died on 25th July, 1887, and was buried at Kensal Green.