Charles Manby Smith was born the son of a struggling cabinet-maker in Bristol, 1804, and apprenticed to a printer. The 1820s were a time of high unemployment, and he was obliged to look for work in London and then Paris, where he was finally employed by the famous printer Firmin Didot. He returned to England to avoid the 1830 'July Revolution'. He was reportedly 'indefatigable in self-improvement', having only received a very modest education as a boy. He began to write articles for the burgeoning periodicals market, abandoning his earlier profession and living solely by the pen. His articles, focusing on the London poor, were a regular feature in the Leisure Hour (a popular magazine, founded in 1852) although, in the fashion of the period, they were printed anonymously. He died in Loraine Road, Holloway, in 1880.
This first collection was published in 1853. It has many parallels with both Dickens's Sketches by Boz and later journalism, as well as Henry Mayhew's famous study of the London poor, published on a few years previously. The great joy of the book is in its variety of subject matter. Some of the characters are familiar enough - crossing-sweeps, mudlarks et al. - but Manby Smith ranges further afield. There is, for instance, a piece about the Eastender's unlikely love of angling; the progress of a failing but 'obstinate' shop, which has been everything from a fishmonger's to a confectioner's (and never made a shilling for any of its proprietors); the 'grand army' of City clerks, who 'wield weapons proverbially thirsty, and dripping all day long with gore, both black and red'; and a marvellous description of a London Christmas in 1851 (as 'commercialised' as anything we have today).
Manby Smith is particularly good on the details of daily life. He describes, for example, the advertisements for Christmas presents which perennially appear in December:
'... a monster line in the posters on the walls and in the shop-windows. Infantine appeals in gigantic type cover the hoardings. "Do, Papa, Buy Me" so-and-so; so-and-so being blotted out in a few hours by "The New Patent Wig," so that the appeal remains a perplexing puzzle to affectionate parents, till both are in turn blotted out by a third poster, announcing the sacrifice of 120,000 gipsy cloaks and winter mantles at less than half the cost-price ...'
He chronicles passing trends, like the disappearance of the street pieman and the rise of the penny pie-shop:
'They abound especially in the immediate neighbourhood of omnibus and cab stations, and very much in the thoroughfares and short - cuts most frequented by the middle and lower classes. But though the window may be of plate-glass, behind which piles of the finest fruit, joints, and quarters of the best meat, a large dish of silver eels, and a portly china bowl charged with a liberal heap of minced-meat, with here and there a few pies, lie temptingly arranged upon napkins of snowy whiteness, yet there is not a chair, stool, or seat of any kind to be found within.'
Like Dickens and Mayhew, he also tackles the staple of the period's 'social investigators' - crime. There are several 'underworld' pieces: ranging from a study of dog-stealers, to 'auction gangs' (of the sort that still occasionally plague Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road to this day).
In short, if you are fascinated by the social history of London and the seemingly inexhaustible variety of Victorian 'low life', then I am confident you will find this a most entertaining read.