Porters with boxes of plants at Covent Garden market. 1877.
These particular historical photographs were taken between the years 1873 and 1877. They were published in the book Street Life in London, which was one of the first examples of social documentary photography. The book was released in 1877.
The writers, the photographer John Thomson and the journalist Adolphe Smith, set out to show what life was like for poor people in London by using photos and essays in new ways.
John Thomson was a pioneering documentary photographer born in Scotland in 1837. He was one of those people for whom arduous travel in extremely difficult conditions did little to dampen their enthusiasm for what they were doing.
After exploring and photographing China for 10 years (1862–1872), he published his photographs and texts of his journeys in three different books: The Antiquities of Cambodia (1867), Illustration of China and its People (1873–1874), and The Straits of Malacca, Indo China and China (1877).
After returning to London, Thomson focused on the city and released Street Life in London (1877), widely recognized as the first book to use photographs as a kind of social documentation.
After that, he perfected the art of shooting portraits “at home,” was appointed the royal photographer, and worked as the photographic adviser to the Royal Geographic Society. He died in 1921.
British Army recruiting sergeants outside a public house at Westminster. 1877
By the middle of the century, the common perception of the poor had changed. The poor were once considered morally bereft; however, they are now seen as an object to be studied and helped by the charity.
Woodcuts by Richard Beard based on photographs taken by Henry Mayhew were used to illustrate the monumental work London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851.
Although Street Life in London is not nearly as comprehensive a work as Mayhew’s, it does have the advantage that its photographic reproductions not only show the subjects as they appeared but also reveal them in their milieu by capturing the contemporary streetscape of London. This is a distinct advantage over Mayhew’s work.
Although the book is most recognized for the photographs taken on the street, the accompanying text should not be ignored. The bulk of it was written by Adolphe Smith (A. S.), a journalist who later became an activist concerned with labor and unions. Thomson wrote part of it (signed J. T.), but Smith wrote most of it.
Smith’s short essays were based on interviews with many men and women who eked out a precarious and marginal existence working on the streets. These people included flower sellers, chimney sweeps, shoe blacks, chair caners, musicians, dustmen, locksmiths, beggars, and petty criminals, among many others.
Costermonger Joseph Carney sells fresh herring from his barrow in the street market between Seven Dials and Five Dials in London. 1877.
It is impossible not to perceive the compassion that both Smith and Thomson feel for their subjects, who, more often than not, are threatened by deprivation and hunger. It is impossible not to sense both Smith and Thomson’s sympathy for their subjects.
Even though the clothes and settings in Thomson’s photos look pretty to us now, the people in them are stuck in a cycle of poverty that seems impossible to break.
According to The Photobook: A History by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, “Structurally, Street Life is a combination of street portraiture… and interviews with the subjects. Thus it was the direct predecessor of the journalistic picture stories that would appear in illustrated magazines from that period onward. … is a pioneering work of social documentation in photographs and words … one of the most significant and far-reaching photobooks in the medium’s history”.
A vendor sells cough lozenges.
Bill stickers paste placards advertising Madame Tussaud’s waxworks museum. 1877.
An omnibus driver is known as “Cast-Iron Billy.” 1877
A horse-drawn hansom cab. 1877.
A signwriter at work in his studio. 1877.
A street vendor sells halfpenny ice. 1876.
“Mush-Fakers” and ginger beer makers with their carts. 1877.
A man wears a sandwich-board advertisement. 1877.
A chimney sweep and his assistant. 1877.
Barge workers on the Thames. 1877.
A locksmith mends locks at his stall. 1877.
“Caney,” the clown weaves cane strips into the seat of a wooden chair. 1877.
A shoeshine boy at work. 1877.
A dining room for ex-convicts. The owner, left, speaks with Ramo Sammy, a local Indian drummer known as the ” tam man.” 1877.
A water cart. 1877.
A beggar paid to look after a baby. 1877.
A street trader and a shoeshine. 1877.
A fruit vendor. 1873.
A street procession on Bonfire Night, also known as Guy Fawkes Night. 1876.
People in front of a rag shop in Lambeth, London, where the Thames’s annual tidal overflow causes hardship to the locals. 1877.
Friends enjoy a beer outside The Wallmaker, a public house. 1877.
A man waits for fatigued or adventurous promenaders in a London common to approach him for a donkey ride. 1877.
A street photographer at work on Clapham Common. 1877.
A shellfish stall owner sells oysters and whelks. 1877.
A fancy ware dealer sells ornaments from his barrow. 1877.
An Italian harpist entertains local children on the street. 1877.
A “Gypsy” caravan at an encampment near Latimer Road in Notting Hill. 1877.
Public disinfectors sanitize the streets after an outbreak of smallpox. 1877.
Flower women selling bouquets at Covent Garden market. 1877.
A secondhand furniture shop. 1877.
(Photo credit: John Thomson / Hulton Archive / Getty Images / Victorian London street life in historic photographs by John Thomson, Adolphe Smith 1994).
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