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In the footsteps of C.A.Mathew

September 22, 2010
by the gentle author

It is eighteen months shy of a hundred years since C.A.Mathew visited Spitalfields in April 1912, but yesterday he was my invisible guide as I walked through the close-knit streets to take new pictures in the same locations, and make a photographic assessment of the changes that a century has brought. I had copies of his pictures with me, and in each instance I held them up to ascertain the correct alignment of buildings and other landmarks that told me I was in the same spot exactly.

Being in his footsteps revealed that C.A.Mathew composed his photographs to expose the most sympathetic play of light and shade, demonstrating a subtlety of tone that I dare not attempt to replicate in a different season at another time of day, in another age. Yet there was the delight of recognition when I knew I had found the right place and a sense of dislocation when there was no clue left. Disoriented, I found myself half in the world of a century ago and half in the present day.

When I discovered locations that cross-referenced precisely with the pictures, I felt a sense of elation because the street acquired a whole new dimension and the people in the old photographs took on a more tangible reality, as I contemplated the places where they stood. I relished being party to this secret knowledge and I knew C.A.Mathew was with me.  But equally, I recognised an emptiness in the areas that are unrecognisably changed, and recent buildings appeared mere transient constructions to my eyes that had grown accustomed to the world of 1912. C.A.Mathew forsook me in these places, and I refrained from taking photographs when I could find no visible connection. Yet I told myself to resist sentimentality, because the world that C.A.Mathew photographed two years before World War I was one of flux too, only in his pictures could it be fixed eternally.

All streets belong to cars today and we cannot linger on the roadway or step off the pavement without risking our lives. A fact that became vividly apparent to me when I stood momentarily in the middle of the Bishopsgate traffic, risking my life in my attempt to discover C.A.Mathews’ vantage point upon Middlesex St, before following his path Eastward. I have always been fascinated by the change of scale and atmosphere, walking from the expanse of Bishopsgate through into the medieval streets at the edge of Spitalfields. And in C.A.Mathew’s pictures this change is also emphasised by social contrast, because he found these small streets full of people that lived there. There is a domestic quality that continues to draw me back to these streets, alleys and byways which still evoke their previous inhabitants through scale and form. A century ago, Bishopsgate was a major thoroughfare as it is now – and both my pictures and C.A.Mathews’ of it show people going somewhere. However in the alleys which are no longer inhabited as they once were, people do not occupy the space with the same sense of belonging as their predecessors in these photographs. They were more at home in these streets than we are today.

Unlike C.A.Mathews, my walk was on a working day and I found myself surrounded by suits, participants in the omnipresent corporate drama of the City, as hundreds of anxious business men took to the streets for a lunchtime walk in the September sunshine. They had escaped the office for a furtive cigarette, to make a private call or have confidential discussions about problems at work. Some passersby spied me with suspicious fleeting curiosity as I stood to take my pictures, very different from the people of a century ago who stood in groups to participate in the novelty of a photograph. Yet I delighted in the exotic drama of everyday life in the twenty-first century, seeing it from the perspective of C.A.Mathew.

In this photograph, only the bollard on the left hand side remains from the earlier picture.

C.A.Mathew’s photographs © copyright Bishopsgate Institute

15 Responses leave one →
  1. September 22, 2010

    You found some of the same chimney pots and facades and crooked curve of narrow streets. I almost expected to see a top hat somewhere in the crowd. Thanks for taking us on your Spitalfields time ride.

  2. Annie J permalink
    September 22, 2010

    Brilliant set of contrast and continuity photos. It really makes me feel that then and now are connected!

  3. Kelloggsville permalink
    September 22, 2010

    Is that really Frying pan alley still. The new street layout retained the alley way? wow. What a wonderful walk through time. Thank you.

  4. mcneill permalink
    September 22, 2010

    Very very odd. Where are all the children? It’s like there aren’t any anymore.

  5. Ron Goldstein permalink
    September 22, 2010

    Brilliant!, no other word for it.


  6. Gary permalink
    September 22, 2010

    Well done, a fantastic days work
    The contrast between children and the men on their mobiles is a sign of the times

  7. wellwynder permalink
    September 22, 2010

    Adding fantastic interest and value to yesterday’s post, which was already bursting with both! Just wonderful…

  8. September 22, 2010

    To be enabled to see the man crossing the street where in former times the group of children had stood to be photographed, lends a strange quality to your photos. It is as though he is walking through their ghosts, and who knows, maybe in a hundred years, someone will reflect on your photos and compare them to the Spittlefields of 2110…. Keep snapping…

  9. Cav39 permalink
    September 22, 2010

    What a superb website this is.
    Connecting the past with the present is one of the great blessings of photography, as your readers have noted. The past is all around us but we are usually too much in the present to be aware of it. An acquaintance of mine – a level-headed gent not given to “seeing things” – once saw some ghostly Parliamentary soldiers from the Civil War (1642-46) riding along on horseback at night in an ordinary London suburb.

  10. Anne permalink
    September 26, 2010

    Compelling to look at. Fantastic to see the same spots, almost as good as being there.
    Thankyou so much.

  11. Chris permalink
    January 12, 2011

    Fantastic, thanks for posting these photographs.

  12. January 13, 2011

    and yes, where are those kids?

  13. Mark O'Leary permalink
    September 18, 2013

    Great photographs – thank you so much. Doesn’t London look and feel so much more sanitized and lacking vitality than in the old days?

  14. J Tucker permalink
    March 3, 2014

    Wonderful to see this picture my Ancestors had a Copper Plate printing business in Steward Street in the 1800’s.

  15. Celt permalink
    January 12, 2018

    In the old photos the streets seemed to belong to the people, there seems no such connection now.

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