29 September 2018

Victorian Street Life in London

In 1876, six years after the death of Charles Dickens, the streets of the English capital still looked very much like the famous author had described. Poverty, disability and filth were everywhere: people lived a precarious and marginal existence working on the streets of London. Two men became determined to document this – and the book they produced shocked a nation.

Radical journalist Adolphe Smith conducted interviews with the poor and down and outs of London. Yet this had been done before. The unique selling point of this book was his collaboration with photographer John Thomson. These pictures - such as the one above of a young girl searching drinking houses for an inebriate parent, were taken with a camera using the glass plate method (Eastman would not develop film until the next decade). They stunned the British middle classes and made their book – Street Life of London – an immediate best seller.

Their subjects included John Day, above, known as the temperance sweep. Thrown out at ten by his alcoholic father he struggled till finally securing consistent work as a sweep he never touched a drop of liquor. The book is now seen as a seminal work in the history of documentary photography and pictures from Street Life of London have recently been released in to the public domain by the London School of Economics.

They show a structured reality of their day – due to the length of exposure the subjects of the photographs had to be posed. Yet their lives come down, many in their own words, through three centuries, as clearly as the day they were written down by the erudite Mr Smith.

Here we have the ancient and wonderfully named Jacobus Parker who, as well as being a shoe shine, described himself to the author as a pedlar and dramatic reader.  Although still financially struggling at the age of almost seventy he has no regrets: "Greed of gain, sir, has never been my motto. It is but a poor object to fill up every nook and cranny of a human heart from boyhood to old age, as it does with many."

Britain still had an empire to run and in 1876 any young men ardent for some desperate glory would make their way to the Mitre and Dove public house. There the grizzled and boozy recruiting sergeants of any number of regiments would cajole young aspirants to military honors.  Smith notes the presence, in this picture, of the local police officer. “This group would not, however, have been complete without giving a glimpse at Mr. Cox, the policeman, to whose discretion and pacific interference may be attributed the order which is generally preserved even under the most trying circumstances at the Mitre and Dove."

Having driven an omnibus for almost half a century, 1876 was to see the retirement of Cast-Iron Billy (left).  Younger drivers had continually overtaken the old man, consistently stealing his passengers from him and so his firm had no choice but to pay him off.  “I’m lost, I’ve been put off my perch. I don't mind telling of you I’m not so ‘andy wi' the ribbons as in my younger days I was. Twice in my life I’ve been put off, and this finishes me. I'll never hold the whip again that's been in my hand these three and forty year, never! I can't sit at 'ome, my perch up there was more 'ome to me than 'anythink.' Havin' lost that I'm no good to nobody; a fish out o’ water I be."

Then there is the door to door doctor with his club foot and ointments to sell.He had been virtually blind, due to what medical experts classified as atrophy. "I fell in with a gentleman selling ointment, he gave me a box, which I used for my eyes. I used the ointment about a month, and found my sight gradually returning. The gentleman who makes the ointment offered to set me up in business with his goods. I had no money, but he gave me everything on trust. It was a good thing for both of us, because I was a sort of standing advertisement for him and for myself." Whether or not he was telling Adolphe Smith the whole truth and nothing but the truth is known only to him and so lost to time.

The whole set is fascinating - you can watch through it above. Or, if this has whetted your appetite, the LSE has the complete book available free here (64mb PDF).