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John Thomson - Street Life in London, 1877

John Thomson (1837-1921)

'Street Life in London
England, 1877-8
Carbon print (woodburytype)
Victoria and Albert Museum

The Photographs

In the late 1870s Thomson embarked on his most well known project, photographing the lives the people living on the streets of London.

'Street Life in London' was published in twelve instalments throughout 1877 and the beginning of 1878. Three of Thomson's photographs appeared in each edition with three stories mainly written by the journalist Adolphe Smith, who held reformist views and worked as the official interpreter for the TUC from 1886 to 1905.

With social problems gaining increased attention in the 1870s through the work of such men as Charles Dickens and the founder of homes for destitute children, Dr Barnado, these vignettes of survival among the poor proved popular with the public. The hopes and aspirations, values and needs of those portrayed were recognisable to the readers of other classes. The photographs added a graphic realism to the stories. Stephen White, 'John Thomson', Thames & Hudson, 1985. The 12 instalments were published in a single volume in 1878.

The Photographer

Born in Edinburgh in 1837, John Thomson travelled widely in Asia during the 1860s, taking images of places such as Singapore, Siam, Cambodia and China.

In 1873 he returned to England and began compiling and publishing books based on his travels. In the late 1870s he photographed London street scenes. He travelled to Cyprus in 1879 and returned to London to set up a portrait studio in 1881. He died in 1921.

source: Victoria and Albert Museum

John Thomson travelled and photographed widely in the Far East and notably in China throughout the 1860s and 1870s before returning to London to begin his most famous work, a collection of photographs which were published under the title Street Life in London. Thomson's photographs are now regarded as some of the earliest examples of social documentary photography and forerunners of the work of American photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

Street Life in London was originally published in eleven instalments between 1876 and 1877, and was produced in collaboration with the writer Adolphe Smith. Later published in book form, the work aimed to document working class and poor inhabitants of London. Thomson and Smith wished, in part, to draw public attention to the desperate poverty suffered by many, despite the increasing wealth being created by developments in industry and mechanisation. They also aimed to create a portrait of Londoners which reflected the different levels of working class employment, including as in this example, public disinfectors. The industrious poor were pictured - flower sellers and chimney sweeps, for example, as were the dispossessed – the beggars and the homeless of the capital.

The increase in city dwelling brought about by the migration of the rural poor from the countryside, had led to desperate overcrowding in housing stock, and the widespread exploitation of tenants by unscrupulous slum landlords. Disease-ridden and dangerous, the areas inhabited by the poor had become infamous, and as a result, were rarely visited by middle class Victorians.

Thomson and Smith ventured into these 'no-go' areas and in turn created the voyeuristic interest required to guarantee an audience. Sometimes sensationalist, their work sat between an urge to document and a desire to campaign for social reform. Either way, it served to communicate the daily reality of the urban poor to an otherwise ignorant audience.

From : History of Photography in 40 Photographs


Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877


    IN presenting to the public the result of careful observations among the poor of London, we should perhaps proffer a few words of apology for reopening a subject which has already been amply and ably treated. We are fully aware that we are not the first on the field. "London Labour and London Poor" is still remembered by all who are interested in the condition of the humbler classes; but its facts and figures are necessarily ante-dated. In later times Mr. James Greenwood has created considerable sensation by his sketches of low life, but the subject is so vast and undergoes such rapid variations that it can never be exhausted; nor, as our national wealth increases, can we be too frequently reminded of the poverty that nevertheless still exists in our midst.

    And now we also have sought to portray these harder phases of life, bringing to bear the precision of photography in illustration of our subject. The unquestionable accuracy of this testimony will enable us to present true types of the London Poor and shield us from the accusation of either underrating or exaggerating individual peculiarities of appearance.

    We have selected our material in the highways and the byways, deeming that the familiar aspects of street life would be as welcome as those glimpses caught here and there, at the angle of some dark alley, or in some squalid corner beyond the beat of the ordinary wayfarer. It also often happens that little is known concerning the street characters who are the most frequently seen in our crowded thoroughfares. At the same time, we have visited, armed with note-book and camera, those back streets and courts where the struggle for life is none the less bitter and intense, because less observed. Here what may be termed more original studies have presented themselves, and will help to complete what we trust will prove a vivid account of the various means by which our unfortunate fellow-creatures endeavour to earn, beg, or steal their daily bread.


Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877  

    This shop is chiefly celebrated as the abode of ticket-of-leave men. Placing himself in connexion with the Royal Society for the Aid of Discharged Prisoners, these latter have been sent to lodge in Mr. Baylis's house. On their arrival from prison he gives them a week's lodging and board on credit, and also exerts himself to the utmost to find them employment. Possessing great experience in the treatment of criminals, he is soon able to detect those whom he may trust from those who are hopelessly lost to all sense of honour and honesty. The latter he is perforce obliged to dismiss, while the former generally obtain employment, and live to thank him for having redeemed them from the abyss into which they had fallen. Indeed there have been even marriages celebrated from this convicts' lodging-house-an ex-convict figuring as the bridegroom, and, in one instance at least, a very respectable tradesman's daughter as the bride. I should add, that one of the released prisoners ultimately married a widow who possessed fifteen houses! In fact experience seems to have confirmed the great faith Mr. Baylis places in convicts who, after a certain time of probation, show themselves really disposed to earn their living honestly. In many cases the good influences brought to bear in this house have certainly produced the very best effect; and I have had the pleasure of sitting down to Mr. Baylis's table with half-a-dozen of the best behaved and most inoffensive men (who were, I was informed, convicts) that I have met in the course of Street Life study. In their conversation, these men displayed an earnest determination to work, they alluded but charily to the time when they "got into trouble," and did not resort to any hypocritical cant. Indeed, those who assume a pious tone, quote the Bible, and talk about "being saved," and "God's help," and so forth, are generally the least to be trusted.


Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877   

WITH rumours of war still disturbing the political atmosphere of Europe, and menacing to involve even England in the general conflagration, the question of recruiting troops for our army must of necessity again claim its share of public attention. That the system actually in force is radically wrong, few will attempt to deny; not that there is so much difficulty in obtaining recruits, but how are we to keep them in the ranks when once they have joined ? Our soldiers, it appears, run away at the rate of more than twenty-one a day; and there were no less than 7759 deserters last year. Nor is this all ; we should add the number discharged as bad characters, which seems to be increasing, for there 1616 men thus expelled from the army in 1870, and as many as 2025 in 1873; while the average number of men in prison in 1870 amounted to 1288 ; and this figure rose to 1914 in 1872, and fell to 1554 in 1873.. Finally, we should not omit cases of sickness, for we find that in 1872, out of an average strength of 92,218 men, the average number constantly in the hospital was 3628. Altogether, therefore, it will be seen that the recruiting sergeants, notwithstanding the remarkable success that attends their efforts, cannot unaided supply us with a good army. Indeed it must be wounding to whatever sense of honour they may possess, to find that so great a proportion of the recruits they bring to the ranks ultimately regret that they ever yielded to the sergeant's advice. These dissatisfied soldiers might of course have known that the recruiting sergeants were in business bound to present a roseate view of military life, and that the fault to be found with the army would not be disclosed by those who are so eminently interested in enlisting all who are capable of serving in its ranks. At the same time, it is only just to add that the degrading, immoral, and disreputable stratagems which rendered recruiting sergeants obnoxious to our forefathers are now entirely abandoned. Morally speaking, the modern recruiting sergeant would stand on the same level as the ordinary tradesman or business man, who seeks to sell a second-rate or questionable article, by carefully hiding its flaws, and exposing in the very best light whatever small merit it may possess. But the recruit enjoys at least the advantage of ninety-six hours to reflect, and, if he chooses, he can then withdraw from his bargain, on paying a comparatively small sum as "smart money."


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