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C. A. Mathew, Photographer

September 23, 2021
by the gentle author

Since my walking tour of Spitalfields is fully booked, I am doing two extra walks on Saturday 2nd & Sunday 3rd October at noon. Email to book. Click here for full details

On the tour we visit some locations of C. A. Mathew’s photographs

Map of the Gentle Author’s Tour drawn by Adam Dant


In Crispin St, looking towards the Spitalfields Market


On Saturday April 20th 1912, C.A.Mathew walked out of Liverpool St Station with a camera in hand. No-one knows for certain why he chose to wander through the streets of Spitalfields taking photographs that day. It may be that the pictures were a commission, though this seems unlikely as they were never published. I prefer the other theory, that he was waiting for the train home to Brightlingsea in Essex where he had a studio in Tower St, and simply walked out of the station, taking these pictures to pass the time. It is not impossible that these exceptional photographs owe their existence to something as mundane as a delayed train.

Little is known of C.A.Mathew, who only started photography in 1911, the year before these pictures and died eleven years later in 1923 – yet today his beautiful set of photographs preserved at the Bishopsgate Institute exists as the most vivid evocation we have of Spitalfields at this time.

Because C.A.Mathew is such an enigmatic figure, I have conjured my own picture of him in a shabby suit and bowler hat, with a threadbare tweed coat and muffler against the chill April wind. I can see him trudging the streets of Spitalfields lugging his camera, grimacing behind his thick moustache as he squints at the sky to apprise the light and the buildings. Let me admit, it is hard to resist a sense of connection to him because of the generous humanity of some of these images. While his contemporaries sought more self-consciously picturesque staged photographs, C.A.Mathew’s pictures possess a relaxed spontaneity, even an informal quality, that allows his subjects to meet our gaze as equals. As viewer, we are put in the same position as the photographer and the residents of Spitalfields 1912 are peering at us with unknowing curiosity, while we observe them from the reverse of time’s two-way mirror.

How populated these pictures are. The streets of Spitalfields were fuller in those days – doubly surprising when you remember that this was a Jewish neighbourhood then and these photographs were taken upon the Sabbath. It is a joy to see so many children playing in the street, a sight no longer to be seen in Spitalfields. The other aspect of these photographs which is surprising to a modern eye is that the people, and especially the children, are well-dressed on the whole. They do not look like poor people and, contrary to the widespread perception that this was an area dominated by poverty at that time, I only spotted one bare-footed urchin among the hundreds of figures in these photographs.

The other source of fascination here is to see how some streets have changed beyond recognition while others remain almost identical. Most of all it is the human details that touch me, scrutinising each of the individual figures presenting themselves with dignity in their worn clothes, and the children who treat the streets as their own. Spot the boy in the photograph above standing on the truck with his hoop and the girl sitting in the pram that she is too big for. In the view through Spitalfields to Christ Church from Bishopsgate, observe the boy in the cap leaning against the lamppost in the middle of Bishopsgate with such proprietorial ease, unthinkable in today’s traffic.

These pictures are all that exists of the life of C.A.Mathew, but I think they are a fine legacy for us to remember him because they contain a whole world in these few streets, that we could never know in such vibrant detail if it were not for him. Such is the haphazard nature of human life that these images may be the consequence of a delayed train, yet irrespective of the obscure circumstances of their origin, this is photography of the highest order. C.A.Mathew was recording life.


Looking down Brushfield St towards Christ Church, Spitalfields.

Bell Lane looking towards Crispin St.

Looking up Middlesex St from Bishopsgate.

Looking down Sandys Row from Artillery Lane – observe the horse and cart approaching in the distance.

Looking down Frying Pan Alley towards Crispin St.

Looking down Middlesex St towards Bishopsgate.

Widegate St looking towards Artillery Passage.

In Spital Square, looking towards the market.

At the corner of Sandys Row and Frying Pan Alley.

At the junction of Seward St and Artillery Lane.

Looking down Artillery Lane towards Artillery Passage.

An enlargement of the picture above reveals the newshoarding announcing the sinking of the Titanic, confirming the date of this photograph as 1912.

Spitalfields as C.A.Mathew found it, Bacon’s “Citizen” Map of the City of London 1912.

Photographs courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to read about

The Gentle Author’s Tour Of Spitalfields

People You May Meet On My Tour

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    September 23, 2021

    Surprising to see the pavements and streets with less rubbish and litter than today. And, of course, nice to not see any cars clogging the streets!

  2. Lorraine permalink
    September 23, 2021

    What strikes me is the blackened masonry of the buildings, and this is how I remember the buildings in central London where I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s too. – Presumably the result of all the smokey chimneys.

  3. September 23, 2021

    Thank you again for a wonderful post and the incredible photographs of C.A. Matthew, once again they have stirred my interest in the streets of East End London some of which I know from Census records that my Jewish ancestors lived in. It is so amazing to see the streets with people in them. Of course my mind wanders toward thinking “are any of these people my ancestors” who were out for a stroll or shopping.
    One day I will get back there and spend more time in the East End, not just a very late rainy night as I did in 2008.
    Kind regards
    Adelaide, South Australia

  4. Bernie permalink
    September 23, 2021

    My father could well be among those imaged! He would have been sixteen years old at the time.

  5. Sigrid permalink
    September 23, 2021

    Hi GA, you say that C.A. Matthew took these photos on a Saturday ( the Shabbat), the “nice” clothes might be the “ Shabbat Best” that they are wearing.

  6. September 23, 2021

    Blackened Buildings: in the 1970s, the buildings in the centre of Liverpool were cleaned systematically, street by street. A hundred years of acid rain corrosion and soot was taken off. The dark canyons of Victorian and Edwardian commercial buildings I walked through everyday were revealed in their polychrome splendour. Green and salmon marble, polished granite with fossils clearly visible, white limestone and warm honey sandstone. Ruabon brick shone once again in the rain in the cheaper properties in the side streets.

    As the scaffolding and tarpaulins were removed from each building a small crowd gathered to look at the newly clean stone.

    I presume the same must have happened at a certain point in London.

  7. J Parham permalink
    September 23, 2021

    Very good pictures from the early 20th Century. I’m glad to say though that there are still loads of kids playing on my little street in London E1, despite the ubiquitous ‘No Ball Games’ notices!

  8. September 23, 2021

    Wonderful images, and I love your whimsical take on C.A. Mathew, of his dress, and of his thoughts… Some of the architecture is wonderful around this area, and the streets do look clean, in comparison to today as mentioned above. Photos taken in 1912, this was the year my mum was born, my dad in 1910, but just 40 years later, I recall the air green with the dreadful smogs we had in London by then. They caused me to become a ‘sickly’ child.
    I also love the name of Frying Pan Alley where I understand Charles Dickens once had an office in the yard there.

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