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Jack London, Photographer

November 25, 2014
by the gentle author

Jack London took photographs alongside his work as a writer throughout his life, creating a distinguished body of photography that stands upon its own merits beside his literary achievements. In 1903, the first edition of his account of life in the East End, The People of the Abyss, was illustrated with over a hundred photographs complementing the text and a new edition published by Tangerine Press & L-13 reinstates these original images, which were omitted in later reprints, permitting a full appreciation of London’s work as he intended it for the first time in over a century.

Homeless people in Itchy Park, Spitalfields

“In the shadow of Christ Church, Spitalfields, I saw a sight …

… I never wish to see again”

“Tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud”

Drunken women fighting on a rooftop

Frying Pan Alley, Spitalfields

Before Whitechapel Workhouse in Vallance Rd

Casual ward of Whitechapel Workhouse

“Only to be seen were the policemen, flashing their dark lanterns into doorways and alleys”

Homeless sleepers under Tower Bridge

“For an hour we stood quietly in this packed courtyard” – Salvation Army Shelter

London Hospital, Whitechapel

In Bethnal Green

Working men’s homes, Wentworth St

A small doss-house

An East End interior

Click here to buy a copy of THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS with Jack London’s photographs published by Tangerine Press & L-13

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At Frying Pan Alley with Jack London

In Itchy Park with Jack London

19 Responses leave one →
  1. November 25, 2014

    I read that Jack London went to London as an undercover reporter to detail the many injustices that were widespread in the public welfare system. He even went so far as to pass himself off as a homeless person to spend a night in the shelter.

    But once inside, he found that the aid offered to the homeless often came at the cost of the self respect of the hungry, as they had to buckle to many a belief they otherwise would not subscribe to.

    I think the report he offered to the newspapers was scandalous and raised many eyebrows in America and England.

  2. November 25, 2014

    Amazing pictures, sad as ever re homeless people.
    Quite a sombre set.

  3. November 25, 2014

    Brilliant stuff. The truth about poverty in Victorian society .Talk to anyone of my mother’s generation and scenes like theses haunted them and informed their politics .Well done once again

  4. gary permalink
    November 25, 2014

    An important post because it shows that the words of Karl Marx were true “When England was the wonder of the world it was also the work house of the world”

  5. Libby Hall permalink
    November 25, 2014

    People of the Abyss has always meant a great deal to me and all this time I didn’t know there had originally been photographs! I ordered the book at once.

    Jack London and my maternal grandmother were friends. How I wish I hadn’t been as young as I was when my grandmother died and could have asked her to tell me more about her life and her friendship with my hero Jack London.

    (This extraordinary ‘Southern Belle’ grandmother, when still very young, travelled to the Klondike on her own because she was worried about a letter she’d had from her brother. When she arrived he had killed himself the day before, a tragic story not unlike many of London’s stories.)

  6. November 25, 2014

    Very evocative photos. ‘The people of the Abyss’ is well worth reading. Valerie

  7. Peter Holford permalink
    November 25, 2014

    The pictures of people sleeping out in the open during day-time supports the comments made by Jack London about the idiotic vagrancy laws of that time. If a person was sleeping rough at night he could be arrested for vagrancy – but not during the day. This had the effect of homeless people wandering the streets at night and sleeping during the day-time. It had a knock-on effect that they were in no fit state to seek employment which was, of course, mainly a day-time activity.

    It’s good to see a photo of Itchy Park which was one of the places for day-time sleepers. Reputedly it got its nickname from the stinging nettles that grew there. It was made famous by the Small Faces hit of 1968 (slightly renamed).

  8. Ken permalink
    November 25, 2014

    The third photo shows an external pulpit attached to Christ Church – these were features of some London churches. When was this one constructed and when removed I wonder?

  9. November 25, 2014

    Some astonishing impressions recalling a long gone past …

    Love & Peace

  10. Dai Smile permalink
    November 25, 2014

    London’s book, and the subsequent reactions, inflamed most people in the East End who complained that it tarred them all with the same brush. As many memoires from those who grew up in the area show, most locals were the “respectable poor”. They lived a desperately hard life but never declined into the criminality and squalor portrayed almost solely by conditions in the Nichol, a notorious slum. I don’t deny the importance of London’s journalistic approach, which exposed extreme poverty close by extreme wealth. But it was no more representative of the East End than Dorset Street was of Spitalfields

  11. November 25, 2014

    plus ça change…

  12. Phyllis Oberman permalink
    November 25, 2014

    My late father, Hymie Kanter, was born in the East End in 1905, left school at 13 and was largely self-educated and an ardent reader and seeker after knowledge all his life. I have a few of my father’s Jack London books, and I know how much The People of the Abyss influenced him. As I developed, Jack London;s books were an early introduction to fine writing.

  13. Pete permalink
    November 25, 2014

    Read this great book many years ago, I never knew it was originally illustrated with photos, ( why ever did later editions do away with the pics ?? ) gives so much more meaning to see the actual people he was writing about and mixed with… I bought a copy right away !

  14. Ana permalink
    November 26, 2014

    Jack London is one of the most underrated writers. He was the most adventurous of all American writers. What struck me about People of the Abyss, was the striking detail. And of course, this type of detail can only be provided by a writer who lives and moves within his material, which London did. One of the heartbreaking details was how the police would usher the homeless, just so as they didn’t sleep. So all these homeless people were lucky to have a straight uninterrupted period of sleep. Most of all, the book highlights how such a city like London, was incapable [or not interested in] of dealing with its population and poverty.

  15. Rupert Neil Bumfrey (@rupertbu) permalink
    November 26, 2014

    abject misery………..

  16. December 30, 2014

    Dear GA

    Do you know if the arch in the photo of working mens housing on Wentworth Street is the same one that is now positioned as the entrance to the Flower and Dean estate?

    I got the Jack London book for Christmas, and after my collection of Spitialfield Life publications (!), it is top of the tree for 2014.

    Thank you for all the wonderful stories and pictures over 2014. I am looking forward to a Spitialfield Life 2015 and wish you a peaceful one.


  17. diogenes permalink
    April 9, 2016

    I worked on the large-scale excavation undertaken at Spitalfields Market some years ago on the site of St Mary’s ‘Spital just off Bishopsgate near Liverpool Street station. I had a copy of Jack London’s book at the time and lent it to the director of works and it was of interest for the light it throws upon the livelihood of the inhabitants of more recent times and descriptions of the area. You can get hold of the volumes brought out about the results of the excavations there from the Museum of London bookshop and/or MOLA’s online website. Old ‘Spitalfields Market is redeveloped but some standing medieval remains are preserved and are viewable within the basement of the buildings put up over the area. Today, there is more news about the thousands of photographs Jack London took – what a great archive he left documenting east London life. May they never return.

  18. Chris Whittall permalink
    November 2, 2017

    I live in Australia and am researching St Simon Zelotes’ Bethnal Green in the period around 1900-1925, for a biography on one of the clergy of that parish Arnold Lomas Wylde.

    This book is so helpful and the photographs moving. If anyone has any further informationor photographs on St Simon’s, Wylde (or his predecessor G K S Marshall), or Bethnal Green in those early twentieth century years, I’d be thrilled.

  19. Donald Baker permalink
    October 26, 2018

    My own Grandmother was born at 11 Crown Court in 1875 so seeing photographs like this has certainly brought home to me How lucky she was to ESCAPE the degradation of Whitechapel
    She and all her siblings bar one were Christened in the Christs Church the other was christened in Bethnal green and only found as the cousins were Christened there and she was on the same page

    The Family Name was Marshall

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