London Derelict Past Exposed in Photographs and Essays

John Thomson, The Old Clothes Of St. Gile. From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

The Old Clothes Of St. Gile, a photograph by John Thomson  from ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

BOOK NEWS: Street Life in London  by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith exposes and era of abject poverty


John Thomson, The Crawlers. From Street Life in London, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

LONDON, ENGLAND—Anyone who has been to London knows that it is a beautiful city. The capital of England, there is so much to see in London city. From Trafalgar Square to Westminster Abby, the Zoo and museums, there are so many  attractions to see. But London was not always this beautiful. In the 19th century, it was derelict and full of extremely poor people, who suffered every day to earn a living.

The urban poverty, odious social conditions and derelict state of London in 1800s is detailed in a book published in 1876-7. Titled Street Life in London, the book consists of articles by the radical socialist journalist Adolphe Smith and photographs by John Thomson. Before joining Smith on this revealing  project, Thomas, a talented and influential photographer had traveled across the Far East for ten years taking photographs.

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For their book project, Smith and Thomson investigated the lives of London’s urban poor. Thomas’s unposed documentary images bring to focus the lives of men and women who struggle to eke out a living on the streets of London in dingy environments. These people existed in the periphery and earned a marginal existence working on the streets of London. They were flowers-sellers, chimney- sweeps, shoe-blacks, chair-corners, musicians, dustmen and locksmiths.

Thomas’s black and while images are very direct and thought provoking.  Many of the people captured looked disheveled and dejected. Poverty is glaringly etched on their being. One image titled Crawlers captures a mother and a child sitting in front of  brick house. Beside her are two cups. Pain, grief, and extreme poverty is deeply etched in the woman’s face. With her head resting on the wall, she communicates the pain within.

Smith explains the tragedy that had befalling this woman. After years of family tragedy,  misfortune, and family conflicts, the women left home to live on the street of London. She never regained her path in life again. Smith writes:

She had been living with her son-in-law, a marble stone-polisher by trade, who is now in difficulties through ill-health. It appears, however, that, at best, “he never cared much for his work,” and innumerable quarrels ensued between him, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, a youth of fifteen. At last, after many years of wrangling, the mother, finding that her presence aggravated her daughter’s troubles, left this uncomfortable home, and with her young son descended penniless into the street.

Another image captures a boy shining the shoe of a gentleman. The man seemed impressed by the boy’s diligence and devotion to his job. Known as Shoe-Black, those engaged in this profession were under constant harassment from police. Tradesmen who came out of their shops and spoke in favor of the shoe-black were their saviors.  Smith writes of the tradesmen:

[T]hey objected that the shoe-black had been standing outside their doors for many years, was well known to the neighbourhood, had proved himself useful in running errands, or lent his aid to put up the shutters in the evening, and that, consequently, the policeman would oblige them by leaving him alone.”

Thomson’s insightful photographs are complemented by Adolphe Smith thought provoking interviews, essays and reportage. They examine poverty as a sociological problems that must be examined and eradicated.

Street Life in London is one of the first projects to provide the necessary insights into the social implications of poverty in the 19th century. The project also paved the path for other documentary photographers to follow as they address social issues through documentary photography.  Photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine are some of the photographers influenced by Thomas’s socially-concerned documentary photography style.

Smith and Thomson were not the first people to address the issue of street life and poverty of their era. In the second half of the 19th century, there was great interest in urban poverty and social consequences of adversities. The authenticity of the photographs “taken from life” by Thomson and the very poignant essay by Smith, however, gave the project credence over others. Street Life in London project volumes were first published in monthly parts as Street Life in London. The book was not just a study on the social implication of  poverty, but also  a great example of social and documentary photography.

John Thomson, The Independent Shoe Black. From Street Life in London, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe

John Thomson, The Temperance Sweep. From Street Life in London, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

John Thomson, London Nomades. From ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe

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