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Colin O’Brien’s Kids on the Street

April 12, 2012
by the gentle author

Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien has been photographing children playing on the street since 1948 when, at eight years old, he snapped his pals in the markets of Hatton Garden and the bombsites of Clerkenwell that served as their playground. And now Colin has searched back through his archives, documenting the changing patterns of juvenile street life over more than sixty years, to create this exuberant selection of images for a new exhibition at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.

For Colin in his childhood – as for many others – the bombed-out ruins of London proved the largest adventure playground in the world and the streets of the city and its markets offered as much drama, distraction and delight that any child could wish for. These pictures show how children once inhabited the city and made it their own, exploring and discovering the world that they would inherit, learning to respect it dangers and savour its pleasures. Colin was especially fascinated by the age-old pastimes such as hopscotch and skipping games, and the ingenuity that children displayed in making their own amusement, turning any space into a playground.

Little did Colin know he was photographing the end of a certain street culture, as the age in which children could run freely passed away, and the television and then the computer encouraged them indoors. In the current climate of anxiety over perceived threats, today’s children have lost the freedom of previous generations and consequently are denied the opportunity to become streetwise at an early age. Yet Colin’s superlative photographs exist to remind us that the city belongs to children, as much as to everyone else, and removing their right to the streets sacrifices an important part of the urban experience of childhood.

Colin’s photograph of his pals, taken in 1948 at the age of eight in Hatton Garden.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Playing In or Out? the exhibition featuring Colin O’Brien’s photographs runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green until November 4th 2012.

Take a look at more pictures by Colin O’Brien

Gina’s Restaurant Portraits

Colin O’Brien, Photographer

Travellers’ Children in London Fields

Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane Market

Colin O’Brien Goes Back To School

10 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    April 12, 2012

    playing in the bomb sites reminds me of this post 9/11 poem of new york:
    This is New York. We’ll find a place to dance.

  2. Ros permalink
    April 12, 2012

    Lovely affectionate joyful photos of how things were – and if you hold the mouse over each pic you get more details of when and where they were taken. Thanks Colin, thanks G.A.

  3. April 12, 2012

    Incredible images.

  4. April 12, 2012

    Superb photos – really enjoyed them, thanks.

  5. Pam Smith permalink
    April 12, 2012

    Reminded me of my childhood in Fulham, carefree days of wandering the streets with my Vanguard shoes which I hated ,which you wore for school and best. Days that you think will last forever. Thanks again Colin and Gentle Author for lovely photos.

  6. April 12, 2012

    Wow these pictures are Wonderful! It’s sad to think that with the present climate of paranoia and hostility that now may be the first generation since the invention of the camera that there is not a comprehensive documentation of our kids playing outdoors….

  7. April 12, 2012

    After looking at these beautifully composed pictures I went for a walk and was indeed struck with by the lack of children’s play today. They were little kids being picked up from school by their mums. There were teens in groups trying to intimidate sweetshops. But almost no cihildren at play beyond those in the school playground.

    The grass in the park was empty. The teens had taken possession of the swings. No footballs were being kicked or dens being built or interaction taking place, beyond that of older kids bundling onto busses and being a pain in the arse. ‘No Ball Games Allowed’ – or desired, it appeared. Only in Bethnal Green Road were kids playing, at being gangs; winding up the staff in McDonalds; exploring how far they could push adults without them pushing back.

    We did grow up on bombsites here. We scuffed a Health And Safety officer’s nightmare full of knees. And it’s easy to romanticise that into something more than it was (which wasn’t very much, and pretty dangerous too.) But there was a sense we were at a special age; a distinct time to explore and enjoy and remember. And I think you can see it in the faces of the children in these photographs too.

    Now, where are the kids who populate these pictures; kept indoors, safe from predators, playing Grand Theft Auto and abusing strangers on Facebook until the day their parents can’t contain them anymore?

  8. April 13, 2012

    Absolutely wonderful!

  9. Judy permalink
    April 17, 2012

    Lovely! Brings back so many wonderful (and old…) memories…..
    Thank you so much!

  10. December 23, 2012

    These ARE truly wonderful. Privileged to have seen them. (And thanks, Ros, for comment.) Can remember the days when pointing a camera at someone produced a delighted or cheeky grin. Folk felt honoured to be ‘chosen’. Not so nowadays – and that is photo-history’s loss.
    Gentle Author’s brilliant site certainly does help to redress the balance…

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