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John Thomson’s Street Life in London

March 28, 2011
by the gentle author

In Brick Lane these days, almost everyone carries a camera to capture the street life, whether traders, buskers, street art or hipsters parading fancy outfits. At every corner in Spitalfields, people are snapping. Casual shutterbugs and professional photoshoots abound in a phantasmagoric frenzy of photographic activity.

It all began with photographer John Thomson in 1876 with his monthly magazine Street Life in London, publishing his pictures accompanied by pen portraits by Adolphe Smith as an early attempt to use photojournalism to record the lives of common people. I like to go into the Bishopsgate Institute and contemplate the set of Thomson’s lucid pictures preserved in the archive there – both as an antidote to the surfeit of contemporary imagery, and to grant me a perspective on how the street life of London and its photographic manifestation has changed in the intervening years.

For centuries, this subject had been the preserve of popular prints of the Cries of London and, in his photography, Thomson adopted compositions and content that had become familiar archetypes in this tradition – like the chairmender, the sweep and the strawberry seller. Yet although Thomson composed his photographs to create picturesque images, in many cases the subjects themselves take possession of the pictures through the quality of their human presence, aided by Adolphe Smith’s astute texts underlining the harsh social reality of their existence.

When I look at these vital pictures, I am always startled by the power of the gaze of those who look straight at the lens and connect with us directly, while there is a plangent sadness to those with eyes cast down in subservience, holding an internal focus and lost in time. The instant can be one of frozen enactment, like the billboard men above, demonstrating what they do for the camera, but more interesting to me are the equivocal moments, like the dealer in fancy ware, the porters at Covent Garden and the strawberry seller, where there is human exposure. There is an unresolved tension in these pictures and, even as the camera records a moment of hiatus, we know it is an interruption before a drama resumes – the lost life of more than one hundred and thirty years ago.

The paradoxical achievement of these early street photographs is they convey a sense that the city eludes the camera, because either we are witnessing a tableau that has been composed or there is simply too much activity to be crammed into the frame. As a consequence it is sometimes the “wild” elements beyond the control of the photographer which render these pictures so fascinating – the restless children and disinterested bystanders, among others.

I long to go beyond the bounds of these photographs, both in time and space. And reading Adolphe Smith’s pen portraits, I want to know all these people, because in their photographs they appear monumental in their dignified stillness - as if their phlegmatic attitudes manifest a strength of character and stoicism in the face of a life of hard work.

Street Doctor - “vendors of pills, potions and quack nostrums are not quite so numerous as they were in former days. The increasing number of free hospitals where the poor may consult qualified physicians have tended to sweep this class of street-folks from the thoroughfares of London.”

An Old Clothes Shop, St Giles - “As a rule, secondhand clothes shops are far from distinguished in their cleanliness, and are often the fruitful medium for the propagation of fever, smallpox &c.”

Caney the Clown -  ”thousands remember how he delighted them with his string of sausages at the yearly pantomime, but Caney has cut his last caper since his exertions to please at Stepney Fair caused the bursting of a varicose vein in his leg and, although his careworn face fails to reflect his natural joviality, the mending of chairs brings him constant employment.”

Dealer in Fancy Ware (termed swag selling)  – “it’s not so much the imitation jewels the women are after, it’s the class of jewels that make the imitation lady.”

William Hampton of the London Nomades - “Why what do I want with education? Any chaps of my acquaintance that knows how to write and count proper ain’t much to be trusted into the bargain.”

The Temperance Sweep - “to his newly acquired sobriety, monetary prosperity soon ensued and he is well known throughout the neighbourhood, where he advocates the cause of total abstinence..”

The Water Cart - “my mate, in the same employ, and me, pay a half-a-crown each for one room, washing and cooking. It costs me about twelve shillings a week for my living and the rest I must save, I have laid aside eight pounds this past twelve months.”

Survivors of Street Floods in Lambeth - “As for myself, I have never felt right since that awful night when, with my little girl, I sat above the water on my bed until the tide went down.”

The Independent Bootblack - “the independent bootblack must always carry his box on his shoulders and only put it down when he has secured a customer.”

Itinerant Photographer on Clapham Common - “Many have been tradesmen or owned studios in town but after misfortunes in business or reckless dissipations are reduced to their present more humble avocation.”

Public Disinfectors - “They receive sixpence an hour for disinfecting houses and removing contaminated clothing and furniture, and these are such busy times that they often work twelve hours a day.”

Flying Dustmen - “they obtained their cognomen from their habit of flying from from one district to another. When in danger of collison with an inspector of nuisances, they adroitly change the scene of their labours.”

Cheap Fish of St Giles - ” Little Mic-Mac Gosling, as the boy with the pitcher is familiarly called by all his extended circle of friends and acquaintances, is seventeen years old, though he only reaches to the height of three feet ten inches. His bare feet are not necessarily symptoms of poverty, for as a sailor during a long voyage to South Africa he learnt to dispense with boots while on deck.”

Strawberries, All Ripe! All Ripe! - “Strawberries ain’t like marbles that stand chuckin’ about. They won’t hardly bear to be looked at. When I’ve got to my last dozen baskets, they must be worked off for wot they will fetch. They gets soft and only wants mixin’ with sugar to make jam.”

The Wall-Workers (A system of cheap advertising whereby a wall is covered with an array of placards that are hung up in the morning and taken in at night) - Business, sir! Don’t talk to us of business! It’s going clean away from us.”

Cast-Iron Billy - “forty-three years on the road and more, and but for my rheumatics, I feel almost as hale and hearty as any man could wish .”

Labourers at Covent Garden Market - “it is in the early morning that they congregate in this spot, and they are soon scattered to all parts of the metropolis, laden with plants of every description.”

The London Boardmen - “If they walk on the pavement, the police indignantly throw them off into the gutter, where they become entangled in the wheels of carriages, and where cabs and omnibuses are ruthlessly driven against them.”

Workers on the Silent Highway - “their former prestige has disappeared, the silent highway they navigate is no longer the main thoroughfare of London life and commerce, the smooth pavements of the streets have successfully competed with the placid current of the Thames.”

Old Furniture Seller in Holborn – “As a rule,  second-hand furniture men take a hard and uncharitable view of humanity. They are accustomed to the scenes of misery, and the drunkenness and vice, that has led up to the seizure of the furniture that becomes their stock.”

Mush-Fakers and Ginger-Beer Makers. - “the real mush-fakers are men who not only sell but mend umbrellas. By taking the good bits from one old “mushroom” and adding it to another, he is able to make, out of two broken and torn umbrellas, a tolerably stout and serviceable gingham.”

Italian Street Musicans -”there is an element of romance about the swarthy Italian youth to which the English poor cannot aspire.”

A Convicts’ Home - “it is to be regretted that the accompanying photograph does not include one of the released prisoners, but the publication of their portraits might have interfered with their chances of getting employment.”

The Street Locksmith - “there are several devoted to this business along the Whitechapel Rd, and each possesses a sufficient number of keys to open almost every lock in London.”

The Seller of Shellfish – “me and my missus are here at this corner with the barrow in all weathers, ‘specially the missus, as I takes odd jobs beating carpets, cleaning windows, and working round the public houses with my goods. So the old gal has most of the weather to herself.”

The  ”Crawlers” - “old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg.”

Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

Read the story of Hookey Alf of Whitechapel from Thomson’s Street Life in London

32 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    March 28, 2011

    What a parade of characters and impressions. Thank you, Gentle Author, for these treasures. I especially like the sad clown and the ‘halo’ around the head of the newly-sober sweep.

  2. March 28, 2011

    what a brilliant post – i must admit, i carry my camera at all times too, to capture the subtle changes in my small town, which makes me look like a tourist, because it isn’t so common among the locals to take photos of what seems like ordaniriness (but i suppose we will catch up with this global trait)

    what fascinated me in this set of photographs was that, although the people’s faces have changed, the essence of their tasks have not – there are modern day examples of most of these occupations (which we’ve had the pleasure to see from your own portraits)

  3. March 28, 2011

    That is perhaps the most incredible collection of Victorian photographs I’ve ever seen.. each character could tell so many stories…

  4. March 29, 2011

    Just brilliant (as usual) !

    One small request dear Gentle Author.

    As a child of the 1920′s a constant visitor to the streets around Brick Lane was the Indian Toffee Man.

    Selling what today would be called spun candy, he would sing non-stop this mantra;

    “Indian toffee, good for your belly
    Ask your mummy for a penny !”

    Could you find me a photo, please ?

    Many thanks

    Ron
    ex C&BG Boy’s Club

  5. JohnB permalink
    March 29, 2011

    Almost every photograph is a piece of art; also I’m a complete sucker for old photos. But I do agree, they would be far less colourful without the contemporary pen portraits accompanying them. Thank you so much for yet another piece of magic on your inestimable website.

  6. March 29, 2011

    Wow, these are brilliant, beautiful little time capsules.

  7. March 30, 2011

    Really enjoyed your blog, thks for sharing

  8. March 31, 2011

    This is a time machine..
    I have no words, incredible photographs..
    hanks so much

    Argante

  9. April 18, 2011

    Wonderful stuff!

  10. May 13, 2011

    LOVE THIS! What a wonderful post! thank you

  11. Shauna Hicks permalink
    July 4, 2011

    Amazing clarity and very poignant – quite sad in some respects. Thanks

  12. July 19, 2011

    Amazing pics! It’s a wonderful experience to gaze at them. It’s like ‘distilled history’ in front of my eyes

  13. August 16, 2011

    makes me want to cry really. What absolutely brilliant photographs of that era… the real nitty gritty.

  14. Sambal permalink
    September 17, 2011

    A real treasure trove of great photos and captions that really capture the essence of the time.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  15. Stephen Saunders permalink
    January 17, 2012

    In the picture titled “a convicts home”. The man in the doorway wearing an apron is Mr Baylis his daughter Victoria can be seen looking out through the window. They are ancestor’s of my grandmother Nellie Parsons born Amelia Ellen Smith in 1920.

  16. February 19, 2012

    WOW thank you for sharing these wonderful images and your words :)

  17. Roger B permalink
    February 28, 2012

    Very interesting pictures. Most of the recent history I have been reading about the East End concentrates so much on the contribution of immigrants in the last century, that it easy to forget that before the Jewish and Muslim immigration the area was of course almost entirely British. The pictures are a reminder of that time.

  18. the gentle author permalink*
    February 28, 2012

    Yes John, but some of these pictures show Irish immigrants of that time. And before them were the Huguenots, the Normans, the Vikings, the Saxons, the Romans etc etc. No-one can deny we British are a mongrel race!

  19. David S permalink
    March 6, 2012

    Beautiful old pictures, showing the hardship of life, it makes you appreciate what so many of us have today, so lets not loose it please.

  20. March 15, 2012

    These are magnificent photos! One can only imagine how life really was back then, but looking at these photos help a lot in taking you back in time.

    Life looked a lot simpler then. Thank you very much for sharing!

  21. omar permalink
    March 15, 2012

    wow! Brilliant pics..how very nostalgic.

  22. Bee permalink
    March 19, 2012

    Brilliant photos, thoroughly enjoyed looking through them

  23. VintageDealer permalink*
    April 13, 2012

    Hello, just doing a search for ‘fancyware’ and was introduced to your site, love the vintage dealing picture. I have tried to take a close up look to see what the vendors are selling, but can’t figure. Best Howard.

  24. ron evans permalink
    April 17, 2012

    My great grandfather was born in Wapping workhouse (Princes st, now Raine st) in 1861. My grandfather was born in Whitechapel in 1883 and my father was born in Stepney Town Hall (Cable st) in 1908. But I have no photos showing them there. So the above photos are fascinating. My great grandfather worked for Dr. Barnardo at one time.

  25. nick oakley permalink
    April 18, 2012

    absolutely fascinating insight into how it really was in victorian london.

  26. April 29, 2012

    Just found this excellent article. Dear GentleAuthor, you are my Tardis! Thank you so much.

  27. May 15, 2012

    A reminder of how hard life could be not so long ago. Thank goodness we have social services that mitigate the extremes of poverty today.

  28. Dawn Holmes permalink
    June 24, 2012

    These photos are an amazing link to the past… A life that was so hard and yet people just got on with things. Thank you so much for sharing these.

  29. Rosylarose permalink
    July 10, 2012

    These are wonderful. My ancestors were scrap merchants and gypsies in Marylebone at about this time. I almost feel their faces are here.

    I was struck by the sad decrepitude of the horses and donkeys.

    Thompson’s photos in the Wellcome collection are also beautiful.

  30. Geraldo Pontes permalink
    August 6, 2012

    As imagens são maravilhoas. Foram captados momentos históricos com uma qualidade impressionante. Parabéns pela iniciativa, congratulations.

  31. Mark O'Leary permalink
    September 18, 2013

    Many thanks Gentle Author. These are awesome photographs and each one could be the basis of a novel. Keep up the great work!

  32. marianne isaacs permalink
    February 26, 2014

    Those are the most amazing photos . The povery is so real . Thankyou so much

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