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Wonderful London

May 28, 2020
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to publish these dignified and characterful portraits of Londoners, believed to be by photographer Donald McLeish (1879-1950), selected from the three volumes of Wonderful London edited by St John Adcock and produced by The Fleetway House in the nineteen-twenties.

Telescope Man on Westminster Bridge

Old woman who inhabited the alleys off Fleet St

Breton Onion Seller

Costermonger and child

Cats’ Meat Man

Knife Grinder


Islington Window Cleaner

Flower Seller

Concertina Player

Hurdy-Gurdy Man

Gramophone Man


Wandering Harpist

Street Sweeper


District Messenger

Telephone Messenger

Railway Fireman

Railway Engine Driver


Railway Porter

Gold Beaters

Gas Fitters

Chimney Sweep

Telephone Cable Man

Photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You might also like to take a look at

John Thomson’s Street Life in London

London Characters

William Nicholson’s London Types

Julius Mendes Price’s London Types

Geoffrey Fetcher’s Pavement Pounders

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Jean Clements permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Nothing quite tells it like a photo and these are wonderful.

  2. Janet Highland permalink
    May 28, 2020

    This was such a wonderful post – an ancestor of mine was a carman – so interesting to see the picture of one on here. As a Londoner I appreciated these wonderful pictures. Gosh the stories behind those faces and the young men who possibly went to WW1. I adore your posts and regret never commenting before. I am one of your silent fans

  3. Jeanette Hollick permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Fabulous images! Thanks for posting.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Fantastic characters, and I’d love to know their back stories…

    I wonder how many are first or second generation immigrants scraping a living? How long has their family been in London? And where have they come and/or escaped from?

  5. Juliet Jeater permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Does anyone remember the street performances on Tower Hill? There was a fire eater and a man who swung a long chain around his head! BTW wonderful photos.

  6. Deborah permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Another hugely enjoyable, interesting and thought- provoking post. I came to this blog at the start of this difficult period. It has been such a tonic and taken me off via various links down different alleys in London’s past and present and beyond. Thank you.

  7. Adrien von Ferscht permalink
    May 28, 2020

    The onion sellers, who I remember well, we’re called “ONION JOHNNIES”

  8. May 28, 2020

    Oh, dear, the cable man! Wonderful post. Thank you.

  9. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Thank you so much GA. For those of us who have London ancestors these photographs are a wonderful insight into how they would have lived. I have someone who described himself in the census as a street entertainer, I wonder if he was a hurdy gurdy man, or perhaps a harpist or a violinist, who can tell and I guess I will never know, but seeing these pictures helps to conjure up images of him out on the street entertaining passers by.

  10. Duncan mude permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Hi there, love the photos. I was chatting with my dad yesterday on his 94th birthday, and he was telling me about a guy called ginger reeve who used to entertain people on the green at the bottom of brick lane. He used to work in the area,and would go down there at lunchtimes to watch various local characters stand on a soapbox and spout about whatever was on their minds. Like speakers corner I suppose.

  11. parktown permalink
    May 28, 2020

    The Carman – what is on his cap. CCR❓What does it stand for please.

  12. May 28, 2020

    The woman in the second photograph looks just as I imagine the ‘feed the birds’ woman from Mary Poppins. I love the sassy demeanour of the flower seller and the wandering harpest looks so glum, as if all he wants is a permanent position in a orchestra or band.

  13. Chris Webb permalink
    May 28, 2020

    I assume the Telescope Man charged people a penny or something to look at “Big Ben”.

    The “railway porter” is pushing what appear to be mail bags so I wonder whether he is actually a Royal Mail employee. Porters were paid a very low wage which they supplemented with tips so I doubt if one would be willing to push mail bags around.

  14. May 28, 2020

    Your other readers have already rightfully commented on the pure delight of these images —
    It occurs to me that surely this volume of photos MUST have been a staple in Hollywood reference libraries; since I believe I have encountered these “archetypes” in many classic films. The messenger boy! Always rushing into the frame, his bicycle skidding to a stop, a breathless transmission of a telegram, and a paltry tip — then, whoosh, back out of the scene. The flower seller! — the plucky enduring short lady in shawl, ready to sell a bouquet of violets and offer an encouraging wink to Cary Grant. Look at the wardrobe of the Chimney Sweep! — This is a classic wardrobe solution for endless movie “hard luck” parts……think “Grapes of Wrath”, “Meet John Doe”, etc. (and, dare I say, this Sweep could BE a Hollywood character type) Anyhow, forgive an inveterate “research junkie” and History of Costume fiend for this riff. I couldn’t resist.

    I loved this post! Thank you GA, as ever.

  15. Adele Lester permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Wonderful photos. Wonder how many Cable men ended up injured with no form of medical insurance, what a dangerous job!

  16. Joan permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Can someone tell me exactly what a ‘carman’ did? I had a great grandfather who is described on his census as a carman and I am not sure what he did.

  17. Chris Webb permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Joan, the carman is wearing a GCR cap which stands for Great Central Railway (which ran out or Marylebone). Railways used to run a service roughly comparable to today’s DPD, DHL, Hermes etc. in that you could send parcels and luggage from anywhere to anywhere else. They ran carts for pickup/delivery to/from the nearest station. My father told me that when he was a child it was common for people going on holiday to have their luggage sent ahead by rail, and anything else too large or heavy to be posted.
    I wasn’t aware that the horse and cart drivers were called carmen but I would assume it referred to any such driver rather than just those employed by railways. Maybe it is a contraction of cart man.
    Until relatively recently the word was also used to mean a “rep” or anyone who drove a car regularly for work. You used to see signs outside roadside cafes and “greasy spoons” saying “good pullup for carmen”. (Nothing to do with the Bizet opera!)

  18. parktown permalink
    May 28, 2020

    Carman/Charman/Carrier/Carter/Cartman Driver of (horse-drawn) vehicles for transporting goods. Carmen were often employed by railway companies for local deliveries and collections of goods and parcels. Modern day van driver. A Carter typically drove a light two wheeled carriage. Also sometimes someone who drove horse-drawn trams was called a Carman.

  19. May 28, 2020

    Gorgeous Vintage Pictures! Thank You So Much!?????????

  20. David Green permalink
    May 29, 2020

    How much could an itinerant onion-seller possibly have made?? It’s not as though they have ever been expensive or hard to come by…at least, I don’t think so…

  21. May 29, 2020

    Fabulous images, although I admit the one of the telephone cable man made by stomach lurch. I recall the knife grinder of my childhood, and near to my junior school in Chelsea, there was often a Chair Restorer sitting on the corner of a side road off Sloane Street, who sat there re-caning the seat of of a chair. I would often stop for a few moments, fascinated as I watched him weave a perfect pattern on the seat.

  22. Richard permalink
    June 17, 2020

    That was truly wonderful. Photographer Donald MacLeish is a hero, and so are the people he photographed. They knew it.

  23. July 10, 2020

    absolutely stunning – thank you so much for sharing.

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