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C.A.Mathew, Photographer

April 20, 2012
by the gentle author

I am republishing my story about C.A. Mathew to commemorate the centenary of the day he walked out of Liverpool St Station and spent an afternoon taking photographs in Spitalfields. His pictures have subsequently become our primary visual record of that time, and tomorrow you can see my photographs of the same views as they are now.

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.

How populated these pictures 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 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 Crispin St.

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.

Photographs courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

26 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    April 20, 2012

    Glorious photos. On another note, I just read the article in the Guardian Weekly, about this blog, and dear Gentle Author, it made this fan even more devoted!

  2. April 20, 2012

    Lovely! I just love old photos, and there’s something especially magic about seeing them 100 years exactly after they were taken. One of those times when the veil is thin and you could step back in time?

  3. April 20, 2012

    I love old black & white photos. “Frying Pan Alley” – what a name!!

  4. April 20, 2012

    Incredible! Looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

  5. Sharon M permalink
    April 20, 2012

    The photographs are wonderful, your story, equally so. It left me thinking, how many other readers might have noticed your description of C.A. Matthews bears a striking resemblance to yourself. “Let me admit, it is hard to resist a sense of connection to him because of the generous humanity of some of these images” and so on. He with his camera, you with your words and a hundred years in between and this reader is thankful we have the opportunity to read your “images” every day.

  6. Suzanne Shelton permalink
    April 20, 2012

    I have no idea how I first found your daily newsletter, but this Chicago girl enjoys it, so much, everyday. Thank you.

  7. April 20, 2012

    Lovely celebration of 100 years of Spitalfields history with these photographs from C.A. Mathews – and looking forward to your photos tomorrow of the same views. The first photo ‘In Crispin Street looking towards the Spitalfields Market’ is at the top of Dorset (later Duval) Street, which was unjustly described as the ‘worst street in London’… thank goodness Mathew’s photo has recorded the truth, and the more vibrant and joyful reality of Spitalfields life. Big and small ‘L’ – and you are his worthy successor.
    When you take your photo of this corner spot, you will find there now the elegant Portland stone rear wing of the ‘Spitalfields Market Auction Rooms and Offices’ or the London Fruit and Wool Exchange, built in 1929. The pub that was there in 1912 was called the Horn of Plenty, which is probably a nod towards the bountiful produce of the Market, although somewhat of a newcomer as a Market pub.
    Before this, on a corner site which seems to be one that was quite prized, were the china showrooms of Thomas Wedgwood, the g-g-nephew of Josiah Wedgwood. His family arrived in Spitalfields from Staffordshire in the 1820′s and by the 1840′s there were quite a community of china (and glass) dealers with premises in these streets. This 1846 leaflet produced at an Old Bailey trial gives us another picture of life on this corner of Crispin Street: “Diabolical outrage! Cowardly attempt at murder! Handsome reward! Whereas, on the evening of Monday last, between nine and ten o’clock, Jesse Phillips, manager to Edward Wedgwood Phillips, Esq., earthenware manufacturer, from Longport in Staffordshire potteries, No. 75, Bishopsgate-street without, was grossly and cowardly attempted to be murdered, on the premises of Thomas Wedgwood, Crispin-street, Spitalfields, by James Richardson*, Thomas Wedgwood, and others; this is to give notice, that a handsome reward will be give to all and every person who witnessed the same, coming forward to give their evidence before the Grand Jury. Apply to M. Jacobs, Esq., solicitor, Berwick-street, Soho.
    May 21st, 1846.”
    The Wedgwood showrooms were replaced by the Horn of Plenty and then by the London Fruit Exchange of 1929 – which is now under threat of demolition, so your photo will be particularly poignant. Hopefully, you will not be capturing another Spitalfields Market building before it is demolished and gone forever.
    * James Richardson’s china and glass shop still stands and continues as a Spitalfields shop: Verde’s at 40 Union, later Brushfield Street. If only C.A. Mathew’s had gone on and taken more photos…but at least we have these gems. Perhaps he will be an appreciative ghost at your elbow tomorrow. May the rain stay away for you both!

  8. julie permalink
    April 20, 2012

    Frying Pan Alley still exists.

  9. Gary permalink
    April 20, 2012

    It is interesting to note the sign on the site on the corner of Seward Street,
    “To let on building lease”. This was a trap that many people fell into in those times.
    The lessee built a building on the site and paid the ground rent, but when the lease expired the landlord refused to renew it and the building became his by law and the lessee had nothing.
    Gary

  10. Adrienne permalink
    April 20, 2012

    The thing I love in photos such as these are the faces of the children – cheeky or sombre or pensive. I always wonder what kind of life they went on to have…

  11. Dai Smile permalink
    April 21, 2012

    Every time I study these pix I hope for a glimpse of my grandparents. I know they were living in Hanbury Street during the 1911 census but my dad was born in 1914 in Fort Street [long gone now], so they may have been in the area in 1912. The children in their best clothes make me think it was a weekend, probably Saturday, when Jews dressed up for Shabbos.

  12. Daniel Welch permalink
    April 22, 2012

    On Artillery Lane, the posts appear to be old cannon buried muzzle up. Wonder if they are still there.

  13. Joan Tasker permalink
    April 23, 2012

    I love the old photos. My great grandfather lived and worked in Ellison Street, which was off Middlesex St. This street is not there anymore, maybe disappeared after the war. Does C A Matthews have Ellison Street in his archives?

  14. Richard Matthews permalink
    September 30, 2012

    My late fathers family all lived in the East End albeit his family were nearer to the Isle of Dogs . I wonder if CA Matthews was possibly visiting family ?

  15. marianne isaacs permalink
    December 5, 2012

    Seeing these photos is very special. My husbands great grandmother died in 1912 and the family lived at 1 North Block Houndsditch .I am not sure where that is but I am sure it isnt far away from where these photos were taken . They also lived in Harrow Alley and in the Exchange Buildings off Cutler Street. I was amazed to find a photograph and floor plan of these dwellings in a history of the Houndsditch murders which happened in 1911.and in the house next door to where they lived.The internet is a wonderful thing !!

  16. Terry Basson permalink
    December 5, 2012

    It is noticeable how people gathered at the occasion, when a photograph was about to be taken.
    Now you would have to ask permission or risk a nasty comment!

  17. George Lloyd permalink
    December 5, 2012

    Worked for a couple of years in Artillery Lane in the 80′s and these photographs serve to confirm how “near” I wandered during working hours!.

  18. March 2, 2014

    Wonderful and important historical record, just look at the joy these images can give to so many.
    Thank you.

  19. Arthur Lindley permalink
    March 2, 2014

    Thank you so much for saving and publishing these photographs.

  20. Mike Gordon permalink
    March 2, 2014

    I wonder if Flower & Dean Street survives in pictures? My grandmother lived in Fournier Street. She would be amazed at the gentrification.

  21. Susan permalink
    March 3, 2014

    Looking at these photos, it suddenly struck me – I have always thought there was something stark and harsh about old photos of London, and now I realize why. There is no greenery whatsoever – no trees, no grass, no flowers, nothing but stone and brick and (sometimes) glass.

    This is simply an observation, no judgement intended.

  22. Colin permalink
    March 3, 2014

    Smog!

  23. Derek Benning permalink
    March 3, 2014

    My great great grandfather Frederick Christopher Brinkman was the publican in residence at the Cheshire Cheese public house in West Road, Spitalfields from 1871-9. Neither the pub nor the street seem to have survived. He had emigrated from Germany in 1853 and initially worked in the sugar refining industry in the east end of London.

  24. C Curry permalink
    March 3, 2014

    Where have all the children gone?

  25. geoff. Radnor permalink
    March 3, 2014

    The 1911 census has Charles Arthur Mathew and his wife Ellen Amy living at 158 Tower street in Brightlingsea, Essex. No children listed. He was aged 46 and Ellen was 49, she was born in Southampton. ( Is it Tower or Lower Street?)

    More on his family could be found.

    Geoff Radnor

  26. Geoff Radnor permalink
    March 3, 2014

    Is it possible that C. A. Mathew came back to his boyhood haunts? It is a common thing to do.
    He was with his family at 35 Wentworth Road, Mile End Road Old Town, when he was 6 years old. If that is Wentworth Street, and it seems as if that is most likely, then he lived next to Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane). The family moved around East London quite a bit and Charles Arthur was still living at home when he was 26. He finally got married in 1896 to Ellen May Mann when he was 32. His house at 158 Tower Street is one of the very few still standing. I think it is the one with the Blue Door. There must be family descendents although Charles and Ellen did not have any children.
    Great to see his work, only wish i could come and see the exhibition, but it’s a bit of a long trip from Ottawa.

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