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John Claridge’s East End Portraits

May 4, 2024
by the gentle author



Boy, E7 1961 – “He was the son of  a friend of my father’s – Peter, an electrician who worked down the docks. To find out if anything was live, he’d stick his finger in the socket!”

Eaten up by the consumption of chocolate, this lad is entirely unaware of the close proximity of photographer John Claridge‘s lens. And, judging from the enthusiasm with which he is sticking the chocolate in his mouth, it looks like he took after his father when it came to poking fingers into holes.

These vibrant photographs reveal the range of John’s approaches to portraiture. “Most of the time I ask,” he admitted to me, “and sometimes people ask me to take their pictures, but at other times you just see something and grab it. I’ve no single way of doing it.”

“I talk to them and it is through talking that you can open a door,” he continued, ” if you’ve known someone for a while, it is very different from if they only have ten minutes to give me their soul.  So I never set people up to look foolish, I treat them with dignity because I need to win their trust.”

Offering a variety of moods and contrasted energies, these portraits share a common humanity and tenderness for their subjects. In particular, John’s self-portrait fascinates me. He says he took it in a semi-derelict toilet “for the hell of it,” but, in retrospect, it is emblematic of his extraordinary project – he was a photographer in a world that was spiralling down.

The body of work from which these photos have been selected – of which I have published hundreds in weekly instalments over the last few months – is believed to be the largest collection of images by any single photographer covering this period in the East End. In their quality, their number, and their range, they will come to represent the eye of history – but it makes them especially interesting that they were taken by an insider. When he took these photographs, John Claridge was an East Ender looking at the East End. John was taking portraits of his own people.

Clocking Off, Wapping 1968 – “He was a neighbour and I arranged to meet him down at the warehouse after work.”

Boxer, E16 1969 – “A chap putting on his wraps at Terry Lawless’ gym in Canning Town. I walked in and I was talking to the guys – and I just took the picture.”

Man at Booth House Salvation Army, Whitechapel 1982 – “I printed this picture for the first time the other day. They guy is somewhere else, but I didn’t notice until this week the man with the camera taking the picture on the television.”

Children at the Salvation Army Care Centre,  Whitechapel 1970s – “Some children were permanently in care and others were just there for the day. I can’t tell which these were. People only came in these places if there was a problem, if their dad was in the nick or their mum couldn’t take care of them.”

Worker at the Bell Foundry,  Whitechapel 1982 – “You expect a man who works lugging bells around to be brawnier than this, but he’s got his cardigan on and he looks like a watchmaker.”

Antiques Dealer, E6 1962 – “He sold everything, penny farthings, paintings, cigarette cards … everything. I used to go down there and see him, and have cup of tea and poke around.”

My Dad in the Back Yard, E13 1961 – “He had a deck chair and he sat in the garden with a cup of tea. I said to him, ‘Just sit and don’t do anything,’ and he’d just laugh. Great times! There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about him.”

Mates in Wapping, 1961 – “I think we were going down to the Prospect for a drink. I was seventeen years old, so everyone’s seventeen. It was Sunday and everyone’s got polished shoes. I haven’t been in touch, but they’re still around – I haven’t seen them for years.”

Man and Mannequin, Spitalfields 1965 – “This was just off the market. He’s listening to a portable radio on earphones. It looks like he has a mate with him and their bellies are almost touching.”

Edward and Mrs Simpson,  Spitalfields 1967 – “Another kind of portrait. I love the military jackets for sale and Edward’s got one on, while Wallace is hiding and pointing him out.”

Caretaker at Wilton’s Music Hall, Wapping 1964 – “It said, ‘Please ring for caretaker.’ So I rang for the caretaker. I said, ‘Are you the caretaker?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So I said, ‘May I take a photo of you?’ and he gave me this lovely smile.”

Self-Portrait, E14 1982 – “It was an old toilet in Poplar, in use but at the end of its day. The mirror was still there. People asked me if I ‘d done self-portraits, so I thought I’d do one down there for the hell of it.”

My Mates, 1961 – “We all went out from the East End for the day somewhere. It might have been Southend, Brighton or Clacton, but I remember it was freezing.”

Man in a Knitted Hat, E17 1964 – “This was at Walthamstow Town Hall. He’d finished his fight, had a shower, put his hat on to keep warm, and we were chatting over a cup of tea. He was a visiting fighter from the States and his shirt says, ‘The Big Apple.'”

Woman in Her Kitchen, E12 1969 – “She had no home and a young family, and was staying in a building that was derelict. The council didn’t want people to use it, so there was barbed wire outside. It was a shelter, and they asked me to go down and take pictures to show how people were living there.”

Tony Moore and Joe Gallagher, Wapping 1970 – “Tony was an ex-heavyweight boxer and Joe was my ex-father-in-law. They look like they’re about to sort somebody out.”

My Friend JB, E14 1972 – “We met when we were both fifteen years old and working at McCann Erickson. We were both Eastenders. He was an incredible designer. He had a wonderful sense of humour. He died of a heart attack. He looked like a villain, and one day we went to New York together, and were in Little Italy in a restaurant, and this guy came in and said, ‘I remember you!’ I said, ‘We’d better get out of this place.'”

My Son, Spitalfields, 1982 – “I went along on a home visit with the Salvation Army and I saw this picture on the sideboard. I said, ‘Is that your son?’ and she said, ‘Yes, he was killed in the war.'”

Headless Bear, E2 1964 – “I just came across it. He had his head burnt off. He was lying there at the edge of a bomb site.”

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s East End

Along the Thames with John Claridge

At the Salvation Army with John Claridge

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    May 4, 2024

    What a start to the weekend.
    Lovely captions.
    Y’Dad seems nice.

  2. Francesca oddi permalink
    May 4, 2024

    Wow what wonderful photographs,I grew up in King’s Cross from 1957 and these photos capture what life was like in that time.Easy to forget the London that was then when you look at what it is now.I try to explain to my kids how London was full of derelict buildings and bomb sites that made up our playgrounds .
    Such soulful pictures.

  3. May 4, 2024

    A great selection of John Claridge’s portraits, explained by himself. From a time when polished shoes were still important. It takes courage to approach people and photograph them. I always lack this courage when taking photos. For example, you are no longer allowed to take photos of children today. Everything has become much more difficult because the (supposed) level of privacy is so high. And that in times of ‘smartphones’ and ‘social media’ …

    As a bear expert, I was shocked by the last image. I have to confess here and now: I once ‘rescued’ an old, shaggy bear from a scrap container. Since then, he has been sitting on the couch next to my own bear, who is over 60 years old. They are now best friends.

    Love & Peace

  4. May 4, 2024

    (Still have my childhood bear………….)
    Surely John Claridge was a messenger for his own generation, documenting his OWN locale, interacting with his own community, using his own unerring eye to such magnificent effect.
    His gift of composition is always spot-on — he is the master/commander directing our eye to the desired focal point, and then rewarding us with a secondary surprise as a bonus. The variety 0f moods just in this discreet grouping are breath-taking. I felt quite fond of the “mates” he captured; as he seemingly brought them together to “meet” the viewer. Come, meet my mates!
    Their offhand natural poses and body language provided glimpses of their personalities — how I wish Claridge had been able to join them in the frame, so we could see the collective group.
    He coaxes us to feel so much empathy and connection — We simply can’t look away and forget
    these folks. We’ve seen them, and now we will never forget.

    Thank you, GA for introducing me to John Claridge. (a book of his photos is one of my
    favorite art books in my studio library.)

  5. Jillian Foley permalink
    May 4, 2024

    What wonderful atmospheric photos. The one with the photo of the son lost in the war reminds me of my grandmother who had her lost son’s photo on the mantlepiece. a smiling blonde haired young man, never to return. She always believed he would return. In fact, on taking her out one day in Brighton to the Devils Dyke a blonde haired young man approached and she walked up to him and asked him if he was her son. He was so polite and understanding.

  6. Cherub permalink
    May 6, 2024

    The lady in the Salvation Army uniform looks so severe. I wonder what happened to the children, I always look at pictures like this hoping they went on to have a better life.

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