In Crispin St, looking towards the Spitalfields Market
On Saturday April 20th 1912, C.A.Mathew walked out of Liverpool St Station with a camera in hand. No-one knows for certain why he chose to wander through the streets of Spitalfields taking photographs that day. It may be that the pictures were a commission, though this seems unlikely as they were never published. I prefer the other theory, that he was waiting for the train home to Brightlingsea in Essex where he had a studio in Tower St, and simply walked out of the station, taking these pictures to pass the time. It is not impossible that these exceptional photographs owe their existence to something as mundane as a delayed train.
Little is known of C.A.Mathew, who only started photography in 1911, the year before these pictures and died eleven years later in 1923 – yet today his beautiful set of photographs preserved at the Bishopsgate Institute exists as the most vivid evocation we have of Spitalfields at this time.
Because C.A.Mathew is such an enigmatic figure, I have conjured my own picture of him in a shabby suit and bowler hat, with a threadbare tweed coat and muffler against the chill April wind. I can see him trudging the streets of Spitalfields lugging his camera, grimacing behind his thick moustache as he squints at the sky to apprise the light and the buildings. Let me admit, it is hard to resist a sense of connection to him because of the generous humanity of some of these images. While his contemporaries sought more self-consciously picturesque staged photographs, C.A.Mathew’s pictures possess a relaxed spontaneity, even an informal quality, that allows his subjects to meet our gaze as equals. As viewer, we are put in the same position as the photographer and the residents of Spitalfields 1912 are peering at us with unknowing curiosity, while we observe them from the reverse of time’s two-way mirror.
What is immediately remarkable about the pictures is how populated they are. The streets of Spitalfields were fuller in those days – doubly surprising when you remember that this was a Jewish neighbourhood then and these photographs were taken upon the Sabbath. It is a joy to see so many children playing in the street, a sight no longer to be seen in Spitalfields. The other aspect of these photographs which is surprising to a modern eye is that the people, and especially the children, are well-dressed on the whole. They do not look like poor people and, contrary to the widespread perception that this was an area dominated by poverty at that time, I only spotted one bare-footed urchin among the hundreds of figures in these photographs.
The other source of fascination here is to see how some streets have changed beyond recognition while others remain almost identical. Most of all it is the human details that touch me, scrutinizing each of the individual figures presenting themselves with dignity in their worn clothes, and the children who treat the streets as their own. Spot the boy in the photograph above standing on the truck with his hoop and the girl sitting in the pram that she is too big for. In the view through Spitalfields to Christ Church from Bishopsgate, observe the boy in the cap leaning against the lamppost in the middle of Bishopsgate with such proprietorial ease, unthinkable in today’s traffic.
These pictures are all that exists of the life of C.A.Mathew, but I think they are a fine legacy for us to remember him because they contain a whole world in these few streets, that we could never know in such vibrant detail if it were not for him. Such is the haphazard nature of human life that these images may be the consequence of a delayed train, yet irrespective of the obscure circumstances of their origin, this is photography of the highest order. C.A.Mathew was recording life.
Looking at these pictures makes me want to be there with C.A.Mathew, exploring these alleys and byways of old Spitalfields. So now I am going to take my camera, walk out of door and through these same streets in the footsteps of my new acquaintance, to revisit the places he photographed, taking my own pictures to allow you a comparison. And tomorrow you will see my photographs of these locations as they are today.
Looking down Brushfield St towards Christ Church, Spitalfields
Bell Lane looking towards Crispin St
Looking up Middlesex St from Bishopsgate
Looking down Sandys Row from Artillery Lane – observe the horse and cart approaching in the distance.
Looking down Frying Pan Alley towards Sandys Row
Looking down Middlesex St towards Bishopsgate
Widegate St looking towards Artillery Passage
In Spital Square, looking towards the market
At the corner of Sandys Row and Frying Pan Alley
At the junction of Seward St and Artillery Lane
Looking down Artillery Lane towards Artillery Passage
An enlargement of the picture above reveals the newshoarding announcing the sinking of the Titanic, confirming the date of this photograph as 1912.
Spitalfields as C.A.Mathew found it, Bacon’s “Citizen” Map of the City of London 1912
All photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute