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C.A.Mathew, Photographer

September 21, 2010
by the gentle author

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

21 Responses leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010

    Thanks for your message. Hoping that this comment will ensure my being able to read your posts in future.

  2. September 21, 2010

    Hi and homage to the Gentle Author. I adore your site I think it is so interesting. My father’s family originally came from Old Montague Street and as a child I was taken to the East End most Sundays. Your writings bring the area to life – I read the blog religiously every morning with my cup of tea. I run a community site and you are a real inspiration.

    Best wishes Annette Albert. Creator of

  3. September 21, 2010

    It is stating the obvious but what is most notable in these images is the number of children swarming the streets. We know the necessity for large families in those days of high infant mortality yet it gives an insight into the literature of the period. Children must have always been getting under your feet at every step. And for the children themselves life was one to grow up in raised by peers. I know the eldest of a family of fourteen and most of her childhood was spent in organising her siblings.

  4. wellwynder permalink
    September 21, 2010

    A fine tribute to Mathew’s work, and some real insight into the time and place. Like you I was struck by how well off many of the kids looked – the girls in their immaculate white pinafores, and the boys with the stiff collars.

  5. September 21, 2010

    Amazing photos. One thing I thought: maybe it was because it was the Sabbath that the children were dressed in their best?

    Pity the roads are all so taken over by cars these days..

  6. Anne permalink
    September 21, 2010

    Fabulous, really enjoyed looking at these photos. A glimpse into another world.
    (‘ The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ )

  7. September 21, 2010

    ‘Frying Pan Alley’ Obviously leading onto ‘Saucepan Lane’ & the recently renamed ‘Brevel Snack Toaster Street’. What a great name for a street, it sounds like something out of the Beano or the Dandy. Does it still exist? Any history on how it got that name? I’ve been trying to read the names of the performers on the Theatre and Music Hall posters… The ’10 Loonies’ sound intriguing. Another fascinating post.

  8. September 22, 2010

    Old photos = I’m in heaven! The girl with the jump rope, the man in a glossy top hat, a poster for the Hippodrome, cocoa and starch signs. One of my grandmothers was a young girl on the other side of the Atlantic back then — wearing a big bow in her hair like some of those children. Another was on the family farm in Sweden. Did they ever pause to wonder about the future as we pause to look back at the past?

    I look forward to seeing the pictures you take of all those matching vistas today, but oh for a chance to walk across the brick streets, dodging the omnibus and the wagons, for a peek inside Smith’s Dining Room. I wonder what was on the menu?

  9. December 30, 2010

    To think that the youngest of these children are the same age as my grandparents. The world of these photographs seems so distant, but it’s not. I have touched it’s hands.

  10. September 1, 2012

    Belated thanks for posting these wonderful photos by CA Mathew. Reminded me somewhat of Liverpool photographer N Stephen, who was using a concealed camera to capture pictures of the urban poor around this time. I could stare at these street photos for hours at a time – and do.

  11. March 2, 2014


  12. Catherine Howard-Dobson permalink
    March 2, 2014

    Fantastic photographs. Thank you for your wonderful daily dose of London life.

  13. James Dodds permalink
    March 2, 2014

    Does anyone know if brighteningsea photographer Douglas Went trained with C A Mathew, as Douglas had his studio in Tower Street.

  14. the gentle author permalink*
    March 2, 2014

    Douglas Went had taken over C A Mathew’s studio in Tower St by 1929

  15. Roy Davies permalink
    March 3, 2014

    Fascinating to see these photographs. My Great grandparents migrated from rural Cardiganshire in about 1870 firstly to White’s Row then establishing a grocery shop at 3 Crispin Street. I’ve a photograph of my grand father and grand mother A.J. and C.A. Edwards with staff outside the shop in 1903. My grandmother found the neighbourhood too rough compared with Festiniog..the front door had to be soundly locked on a Sunday..and they moved back briefly to Wales in about 1909. However they returned to London before 1914 to a grocery shop in the Grays Inn Road. Marvellous to see the neighbourhood they lived in at that time and wonder if the collection includes an image of their shop?

  16. James Dodds permalink
    March 4, 2014

    Thank you for your reply gentle author, Douglas Went’s studio burnt down , while it was being rebuilt my grandfather (station master) helped him set up a temporary studio in the railway station cellar. The tower street studio is now an Indian restaurant . Douglas was born about 1887 which I guess make it possible that Went worked for Mathew ?. Douglas Went died 1970 He had been a great friend of Sir Alfred Munnings at took many photos for him.

  17. Tracy Mitchell permalink
    May 6, 2014

    Thanks so much for the posting of these photographs. The one of Widegate street looking towards Artillery passage shows my great-grandparents’ store (Woolf, dealer in all kinds). My grandfather was born there and may well be the natty, young gentleman at the front of the crowd with flat cap, waistcoat and bowtie. He would have been 20 when these photos were taken in april 1912. It was great to find this while researching my family history over the last few years.

  18. marion permalink
    September 26, 2014

    To Tracy Mitchell. My cousins and I believe the Woolf shop was some sort of relation to us, would be interested to hear of any connections, would you be able to email.
    Marion . My cousins all went to the exhibition, they all thought it was great.

  19. October 29, 2014

    Wonderful photos both my paternal grandparents lived in the old artillery ground and at 58 artillery lane my grandad was William Harry woolfson but name was changed to wilson fantastic images

  20. Pat Davies permalink
    February 18, 2016

    Thank you, The Gentle Author, I am so Happy to see these lovely Photo’s.

    I have been trying to find Photo’s or Information of, Union Street. Now Brushfield Street.
    David was born there 1857. At No35 Union St. His Father Charles was a Cornwainer/Shoemaker. His wife later married someone else and lived in Gun Street. The Bishopsgate Institute say, they do not have anything, for this time. I wonder if you have any information of this time, Please.

  21. RLWright permalink
    December 27, 2016

    Another welcome showing of “old London”. thanks

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