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Dr Alistair Robinson (Northeastern University): Spring, Streets, and Chimney Sweeps: Charles Dickens’s ‘The First of May’ (1836)


May Day was once a time of celebration in London. The May Fair (which gave that salubrious part of the West End its name) was established in the seventeenth century, and was part of a broad weave of May Day celebrations inside and outside the capital. Later, in the eighteenth century, milkmaids and chimney sweeps danced through the streets of London, creating scenes of frivolity, licence, and disturbance. These festivities still took place in 1836, when Charles Dickens wrote his short sketch ‘The First of May’, but there was a sense that they had become tawdry, debasing, somehow corrupt. ‘How has May-day decayed!’ Dickens lamented. 

This session will focus on Dickens’s sketch and a short excerpt from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor in which he describes the May Day festivities as one of the ‘curious customs among the London sweepers that deserve notice’. These texts occupy similar territory as pieces of early Victorian journalism that address the same theme, but Mayhew’s account complicates the decline-and-fall narrative that Dickens adopts. Their different treatments of May Day open up this strange pocket of London’s history and make excellent, enlivening springtime reading.


Charles Dickens, ‘The First of May’, in Sketches by Boz (1833-6)

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Conditions and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, 4 vols (London: Frank Cass, 1967), II, 370-71. From page 370 ‘There are some curious customs among the London sweepers that deserve notice.’ to page 371 ‘but the money got by other individuals is mostly spent in drink.’


Alistair Robinson is an Assistant Professor at Northeastern University London. He is the author of Vagrancy in the Victorian Age: Representing the Wandering Poor in Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2022, and is an editor of Cultures of London: Legacies of Migration (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2024). He is the Secretary of the Literary London Society.

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