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John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana II

November 27, 2011
by the gentle author

Already – I am reliably informed – the police are clearing homeless people from the Whitechapel Rd in advance of 2012 when this route will be transformed into the Olympic Mile. Meanwhile, the imminent opening of a new shopping centre made of sea containers, selling lifestyle brands to young professionals at the junction of Bethnal Green Rd and Norton Folgate, presages a rough time for the fly-pitchers who gather at this spot each Sunday morning to trade a few possessions on the pavement in the hope of earning a little spare cash.

When John Thomas Smith published his Vagabondiana in 1815, he included “remarkable beggars and itinerant traders and others persons of notoriety” and even two centuries later it appears that all manner of street people are treated with equal contempt. Yet there is an irony to Smith’s title because, in his unsentimental portraits, the street hawkers retain their self possession and dignity, revealed as resourceful individuals striving with brave tenacity to forge a modest living.

It was a year ago I first discovered John Thomas Smith’s etchings of vagabonds in the Bishopsgate Archive and yesterday I was excited to come across a further collection from which I publish these examples. Revisiting Smith’s work, I like it even more for the sharp eye and humane sensibility employed to such magnificent effect in these finely drawn images.

Living in Spitalfields, I am constantly aware of the drama of the street traders, arriving early to set up their wares, standing all day in the cold and wearily packing away their heavy goods when everyone else has gone home. Daily, this arduous ritual continues, yet these same traders are tireless in maintaining the buoyant good spirits that are essential in market life. Even so, they are not guaranteed of an income, their livelihoods are at the mercy of the weather, the whims of the passing crowd, or – in the case of the Bethnal Green Rd fly-pitchers – the loutish market inspectors moving them on.

If there is no job and you have no money, then selling things on the street can be a way to survive and achieve self -respect too, asserting your identity as a participant in the drama of urban life. This is why I find these drawings by John Thomas Smith so touching – because he witnesses the quiet heroism of the outcast poor who recreated themselves as street sellers. Equally, it fills me with regret to see their contemporary counterparts treated so poorly. Because this lamentable state of affairs – in which the most vulnerable are exposed to the most harassment – suggests that we have not progressed very far in two hundred years.

Images from Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to see the original post

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana of 1817

and read about

The Fly-Pitchers of Spitalfields

Jason Cornelius John, Street Musician

Mr Gil, Street Preacher

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Clive Jennings permalink
    November 27, 2011

    Hello there Gentle Author

    I have been receiving your daily missives for around four months now and enjoy every word – you are doing an excellent job, well done. They brighten the daily tyranny of the inbox.

    I know your manor well, having worked in Shoreditch for many years in the ’80′s and the ’90′s. I now live in Fitzrovia and write for Fitzrovia News, our quarterly community newspaper. Your enthusiasm for the obscure and quirky has rekindled an idea I had some time ago to create a similar blog covering Fitzrovia And Soho, using my nom de plume Fitzrovia Flaneur, documenting a changing society, though on an occasional rather than daily basis.

    Thank you for wonderful efforts and inspiration.

    Best to you
    Clive Jennings

  2. November 27, 2011

    Love these! And I am alway struck by pictures from these bygone eras, that even the very poor are wearing hat, coat, waistcoat, stock. Old, fourth-hand, mended, and dirty, no doubt, but it still gives them a swagger and raffish charm. Imagine homeless people now wearing three piece suits and a hat and overcoat…

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