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John Thomson’s Street Life

March 7, 2021
by the gentle author

In Brick Lane, almost everyone carries a camera to capture the street life, whether traders, buskers, street art or hipsters parading fancy outfits. At every corner in Spitalfields, people are snapping. Casual shutterbugs and professional photoshoots abound in a phantasmagoric frenzy of photographic activity.

It all began with photographer John Thomson in 1876 with his monthly magazine Street Life in London, publishing his pictures accompanied by pen portraits by Adolphe Smith as an early attempt to use photojournalism to record the lives of common people. I contemplate the set of Thomson’s lucid pictures preserved at the Bishopsgate Institute, both as an antidote to the surfeit of contemporary imagery and to grant me a perspective on how the street life of London and its photographic manifestation has changed in the intervening years.

For centuries, this subject had been the preserve of popular prints of the Cries of London and, in his photography, Thomson adopted compositions and content that had become familiar archetypes in this tradition – like the chairmender, the sweep and the strawberry seller. Yet although Thomson composed his photographs to create picturesque images, in many cases the subjects themselves take possession of the pictures through the quality of their human presence, aided by Adolphe Smith’s astute texts underlining the harsh social reality of their existence.

When I look at these vivid pictures, I am always startled by the power of the gaze of those who look straight at the lens and connect with us directly, while there is a plangent sadness to those with eyes cast down in subservience, holding an internal focus and lost in time. The instant can be one of frozen enactment, like the billboard men above, demonstrating what they do for the camera, but more interesting to me are the equivocal moments, like the dealer in fancy ware, the porters at Covent Garden and the strawberry seller, where there is human exposure. There is an unresolved tension in these pictures and, even as the camera records a moment of hiatus, we know it is an interruption before a drama resumes – the lost life of more than one hundred and thirty years ago.

The paradoxical achievement of these early street photographs is they convey a sense that the city eludes the camera, because either we are witnessing a tableau that has been composed or there is simply too much activity to be crammed into the frame. As a consequence it is sometimes the “wild” elements beyond the control of the photographer which render these pictures so fascinating – the restless children and disinterested bystanders, among others.

I long to go beyond the bounds of these photographs, both in time and space. And reading Adolphe Smith’s pen portraits, I want to know all these people, because in their photographs they appear monumental in their dignified stillness – as if their phlegmatic attitudes manifest a strength of character and stoicism in the face of a life of hard work.

Street Doctor – “vendors of pills, potions and quack nostrums are not quite so numerous as they were in former days. The increasing number of free hospitals where the poor may consult qualified physicians have tended to sweep this class of street-folks from the thoroughfares of London.”

An Old Clothes Shop, St Giles – “As a rule, secondhand clothes shops are far from distinguished in their cleanliness, and are often the fruitful medium for the propagation of fever, smallpox &c.”

Caney the Clown –  “thousands remember how he delighted them with his string of sausages at the yearly pantomime, but Caney has cut his last caper since his exertions to please at Stepney Fair caused the bursting of a varicose vein in his leg and, although his careworn face fails to reflect his natural joviality, the mending of chairs brings him constant employment.”

Dealer in Fancy Ware (termed swag selling)  – “it’s not so much the imitation jewels the women are after, it’s the class of jewels that make the imitation lady.”

William Hampton of the London Nomades – “Why what do I want with education? Any chaps of my acquaintance that knows how to write and count proper ain’t much to be trusted into the bargain.”

The Temperance Sweep – “to his newly acquired sobriety, monetary prosperity soon ensued and he is well known throughout the neighbourhood, where he advocates the cause of total abstinence..”

The Water Cart – “my mate, in the same employ, and me, pay a half-a-crown each for one room, washing and cooking. It costs me about twelve shillings a week for my living and the rest I must save, I have laid aside eight pounds this past twelve months.”

Survivors of Street Floods in Lambeth – “As for myself, I have never felt right since that awful night when, with my little girl, I sat above the water on my bed until the tide went down.”

The Independent Bootblack – “the independent bootblack must always carry his box on his shoulders and only put it down when he has secured a customer.”

Itinerant Photographer on Clapham Common – “Many have been tradesmen or owned studios in town but after misfortunes in business or reckless dissipations are reduced to their present more humble avocation.”

Public Disinfectors – “They receive sixpence an hour for disinfecting houses and removing contaminated clothing and furniture, and these are such busy times that they often work twelve hours a day.”

Flying Dustmen – “they obtained their cognomen from their habit of flying from from one district to another. When in danger of collison with an inspector of nuisances, they adroitly change the scene of their labours.”

Cheap Fish of St Giles – ” Little Mic-Mac Gosling, as the boy with the pitcher is familiarly called by all his extended circle of friends and acquaintances, is seventeen years old, though he only reaches to the height of three feet ten inches. His bare feet are not necessarily symptoms of poverty, for as a sailor during a long voyage to South Africa he learnt to dispense with boots while on deck.”

Strawberries, All Ripe! All Ripe! – “Strawberries ain’t like marbles that stand chuckin’ about. They won’t hardly bear to be looked at. When I’ve got to my last dozen baskets, they must be worked off for wot they will fetch. They gets soft and only wants mixin’ with sugar to make jam.”

The Wall-Workers (A system of cheap advertising whereby a wall is covered with an array of placards that are hung up in the morning and taken in at night) – Business, sir! Don’t talk to us of business! It’s going clean away from us.”

Cast-Iron Billy – “forty-three years on the road and more, and but for my rheumatics, I feel almost as hale and hearty as any man could wish .”

Labourers at Covent Garden Market – “it is in the early morning that they congregate in this spot, and they are soon scattered to all parts of the metropolis, laden with plants of every description.”

The London Boardmen – “If they walk on the pavement, the police indignantly throw them off into the gutter, where they become entangled in the wheels of carriages, and where cabs and omnibuses are ruthlessly driven against them.”

Workers on the Silent Highway – “their former prestige has disappeared, the silent highway they navigate is no longer the main thoroughfare of London life and commerce, the smooth pavements of the streets have successfully competed with the placid current of the Thames.”

Old Furniture Seller in Holborn – “As a rule,  second-hand furniture men take a hard and uncharitable view of humanity. They are accustomed to the scenes of misery, and the drunkenness and vice, that has led up to the seizure of the furniture that becomes their stock.”

Mush-Fakers and Ginger-Beer Makers. – “the real mush-fakers are men who not only sell but mend umbrellas. By taking the good bits from one old “mushroom” and adding it to another, he is able to make, out of two broken and torn umbrellas, a tolerably stout and serviceable gingham.”

Italian Street Musicans -“there is an element of romance about the swarthy Italian youth to which the English poor cannot aspire.”

A Convicts’ Home – “it is to be regretted that the accompanying photograph does not include one of the released prisoners, but the publication of their portraits might have interfered with their chances of getting employment.”

The Street Locksmith – “there are several devoted to this business along the Whitechapel Rd, and each possesses a sufficient number of keys to open almost every lock in London.”

The Seller of Shellfish – “me and my missus are here at this corner with the barrow in all weathers, ‘specially the missus, as I takes odd jobs beating carpets, cleaning windows, and working round the public houses with my goods. So the old gal has most of the weather to herself.”

The  “Crawlers” – “old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg.”

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Read the story of Hookey Alf of Whitechapel from Thomson’s Street Life in London

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Simon Davies-Hall permalink
    March 7, 2021

    That’s a brilliant, evocative little piece – thank you

  2. March 7, 2021

    Poignant, moving, sad, beautiful, alive… Thank you, dear G.A.

  3. Greg T permalink
    March 7, 2021

    I’m reminded of “Mayhew”
    IIRC: – “London Life & London Poor”

  4. March 7, 2021

    Really enjoyed this GA. Especially, like you, imagining the lives they were leading at the time these fleeting images were taken. Noticing that the “street doctor” had a massively built up right shoe. Something I remember seeing years ago but not recently. The chimney sweep who preached sobriety. The house I live in was built in 1870 and these pictures bring back a world that I am sitting in 150 years later

  5. March 7, 2021

    Fascinating insight into the late 19th century in London. Life, work and poverty were omnipresent, but even today these kinds of contexts still exist.

    Love & Peace

  6. Richard Smith permalink
    March 7, 2021

    Clearly life was very, very hard for ordinary folk with a daily struggle to survive. The good old days? I think not. Thank you GA.

  7. March 7, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a fabulous collections of old London photos. Well said, “When I look at these vivid pictures, I am always startled by the power of the gaze of those who look straight at the lens and connect with us directly, while there is a plangent sadness to those with eyes cast down in subservience, holding an internal focus and lost in time.”

    Had to look up “plangent” – melancholy.

    Makes us appreciate modern life, especially a handy washer and dryer, eh? Life was so hard then…

  8. paul loften permalink
    March 7, 2021

    You have cut us a slice of London life that only a traveller in time could observe. Thank you GA , John Thomson and the Bishopsgate Institute for carrying us back into this era and coming face to face with the people.

  9. March 7, 2021

    This is a towering grouping of photos. I looked through the first time to observe the people, the second time for the conveyances and things-with-wheels, the third time for the backgrounds, the fourth time for the typography……Well, you get the idea.

    Surely, this is visible evidence of the grand quote: “The man who is tired of London is tired of life.” Why, this is life itself.

    Amazing. GA, you spoil us every day.

  10. David Green permalink
    March 8, 2021

    “Itinerant Photographer on Clapham Common”

    Interesting indeed. Having been an art photographer in the days of film, trotting about with my 4×5 camera and tripod, sheet film holders, dark cloth, it was cumbersome albeit a rewarding pastime. Imagine those itinerant men, with not film even, but tintype in this gentleman’s case; where he had to coat the plate on site with emulsion, place it still wet in the camera, estimate the optimum exposure, and then process it on site, using mercury vapour no less!

  11. David Green permalink
    March 9, 2021

    “The “Crawlers” – “old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg.”

    Or perhaps she was just poor? Or mentally ill? Or a victim of the inhumane ‘justice’ system of the day, with as a woman, no rights to speak of?

    The moralising tone of so many of these captions, denigrating people for being poor, is really appalling.

  12. Boudica Redd permalink
    March 10, 2021

    Great pics this was a always said it if you had a chimney sweep at you’re wedding it would bring you luck

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