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Whitechapel Lads

May 3, 2014
by the gentle author

Seen for the first time in over a century, these are a series of portraits taken around 1900 at the Working Lads Institute, known today as the Whitechapel Mission. After my first visit with Colin O’Brien to take portraits at the Mission on Easter Tuesday, I returned this week to select these glass plates from the archive.

Founded in 1876, the Institute offered a home to young men who had been involved in petty criminal activity, rehabilitating them through working at the Mission which tended to the poor and needy in Whitechapel. Once a lad had proved himself, he was able to seek independent employment with the support and recommendation of the Institute.

The Working Lads Institute was the first of its kind in London to admit black people and Rev Thomas Jackson, the founder, is pictured here with five soldiers at the time of World War I

Stained glass window with a figure embodying ‘Industry’ as an inspiration to the lads

In the dormitory

Rev Thomas Jackson & the lads collect for the Red Cross outside the Mission

Click here to learn more about The Whitechapel Mission

You may also like to take a look at

Colin O’Brien at the Whitechapel Mission

21 Responses leave one →
  1. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    May 3, 2014

    Fascinating photo’s, apart from the people who run the mission I doubt hardly anyone even knew they had an archive, I certainly never knew and I walk right past this place almost every day, well done GA for bringing such an important piece of significant local history to a wider audience, EXCELLENT posting.

  2. sprite permalink
    May 3, 2014

    such pathos in so many of those eyes! so many untold stories! one of the most haunting series of portrait so far…


  3. May 3, 2014

    Wonderful photos, the Missions were an important part of life in Whitechapel, helping those who otherwise would not have had a chance. Valerie

  4. May 3, 2014

    … and the Flat Cap has survived more than a century – I wear it with firm conviction every day!

    Love & Peace

  5. May 3, 2014

    Oh wow! How ignorant are we, to not know what kind of people living in London? So many facets of life, each individual has a story to tell and how they end up at the Whitechapel Mission and be given a second chance in life. Heartwarming. Beautiful photos.

  6. Lisa Steinhauser-Gleinser permalink
    May 3, 2014

    Wow, deeply impressed.
    Tief, tief beindruckt!

  7. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    May 3, 2014

    I love their poses, their shoes, their hats, and the roof scenery around the edges of the backcloth.

    I remember riding the Tube in 1977, where an old white man and a young black woman were sitting side by each, both wearing flat caps, and thinking they each had entirely different reasons for wearing that particular style of hat.

  8. DameYveBuckkand permalink
    May 3, 2014

    Fantastic and evocative …love the diversity in these photos so rare for the era

  9. Susan Goldman permalink
    May 3, 2014

    A wonderful collection of photographs. Thank you Gentle Author.

  10. May 3, 2014

    Your blog is wistful and compelling in a way that transports one to the time and place in question. I often wonder what their voices sounded like, how they expressed themselves and how it was being there. We are incapable of knowing but the narrative gives delicious pause.

  11. Molasses permalink
    May 3, 2014

    It so wonderful that 100 years ago, with such challenges in the world, people got together to help the downtrodden.

    Food was scarce 100 years ago – the poor now can only afford junk food that belies their physical health – the poor in these pictures are physically healthier in appearance.

  12. Vicky permalink
    May 3, 2014

    I find these pictures very moving, looking so directly into other lives.

  13. sarah ainslie permalink
    May 3, 2014

    Extraordinary portraits and with just a hint of the background of the place they are living in. The inspiring dignity that they inhabit, some of the most powerful portraits I have seen of this period and so very moving. A wonderful find, Sarah

  14. Philip Elkins permalink
    May 4, 2014

    Such wonderful photographs, each one tells its own story. A unique vision back into the past, so marvellous and interesting.

  15. Jill Dion permalink
    May 5, 2014

    What powerful photographs! They break my heart.

  16. May 7, 2014

    Having just returned from volunteering at the Street Child World Cup in Rio, these are particularly poignant pictures. We had a UK girls team with us from a youth project in Islington, but these girls live like royalty compared to the kids from the 19 other countries who came to play football, and add to the campaign ” No Child Should Live On The Streets.” Sad that such a slogan is still relevant today as it was when these soul filled photographs were taken.
    Thank you for taking the trouble to hunt them out and post them for us

  17. May 10, 2014

    What a wonderful showcase of social history. The young men are proud not bowed. Thank God for people like Rev Thomas Jackson who were (and are) prepared to help those that others would condemn as irredeemable.

  18. Nancy Clark permalink
    June 7, 2014

    Oh my, those faces – such a shame there is no names known, what a wonderful resource for family historians!

    Have you considered uploading the WW1 ones onto the Imperial War Museums project – Faces of the First World War. The one in particular that really moved me were of the four lads with the vicar in uniform. Amazing.

  19. September 8, 2014

    Fascinating image of the five soldiers with Rev. Jackson. The cap badge suggests they may have enlisted in the West Yorkshire Regiment. Was the photo dated? From mid-1918 British Army recruited West Indian subjects living in the US, many of whom served as garrison troops in the UK. I have come across many individual examples in my research but very unusual to see group photograph of black soldiers who in this case may well have been born and raised in the Britain. The black population in UK before WWI was around 20,000 and mainly settled in East London, Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff, also Glasgow and Tyneside.

  20. Shawdian permalink
    December 29, 2016

    Such desperation on those faces and probably the majority perished in WW1.
    Interesting to see coloured people given refuge and included in the photographs, not something you often see from this era. One wonders what stories these men could tell and given the chance what lives they could have lived had the oppertunites been theirs for the taking.

  21. Susan Tailby permalink
    July 18, 2022

    How brilliant Rev Jackson was in trying to meet practical needs and caring for everyone. I found more of his biography here –
    I appreciate that it’s not perfect – but there are considerate, humanising touches – like the coverlets on the beds made things homely rather than another institution. I love that the affection for the Rev shows clearly in the photo of the World War One soldiers. I do wonder where the lads ended up though – were they like the Nippers and survived to live happy and long lives?
    Thank you for bringing the work of the Missions back into our thoughts – for me, as a Christian, you’re providing me with lots of role models and inspiration!

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