Street Life in London, published in 1876-7, consists of a series of articles by the radical journalist Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson. The pieces are short but full of detail, based on interviews with a range of men and women who eked out a precarious and marginal existence working on the streets of London, including flower-sellers, chimney-sweeps, shoe-blacks, chair-caners, musicians, dustmen and locksmiths. The subject matter of Street Life was not new – the second half of the 19th century saw an increasing interest in urban poverty and social conditions – but the unique selling point of Street Life was a series of photographs ‘taken from life’ by Thomson. The authors felt at the time that the images lent authenticity to the text, and their book is now regarded as a key work in the history of documentary photography.
Awaiting the moment when the costermonger is able to procure a barrow of his own he must pay eighteen pence per week for the cost of hiring. Then he must beware of the police, who have a knack of confiscating these barrows, on the pretext that they obstruct the thoroughfare and of placing them in what is termed the Green Yard, where no less than a shilling per day is charged for the room the barrow is supposed to occupy. At the same time, its owner will probably be fined from half a crown to ten shillings so that altogether it is much safer to secure a good place in a crowded street market. In this respect, Joseph Carney, the costermonger, whose portrait is before the reader, has been most fortunate. He stands regularly in the street market that stretches between Seven Dials and what is called Five Dials, making his pitch by a well-known newsagent’s, whose shop serves as a landmark. Like the majority of his class, he does not always sell fish, but only when the wind is propitious and it can be bought cheaply. On the day when the photograph was taken, he had succeeded in buying a barrel of five hundred fresh herrings for twenty five shillings. Out of these he selected about two hundred of the largest fish, which he sold at a penny each, while he disposed of the smaller herrings at a halfpenny.
Italians, sons of peasants, agricultural labourers, and others who might lead respectable lives in their own country, prefer to come over to England where they are sometimes treated as mere beggars.They find that a beggar in England is richer than a labourer in Italy; and if he be not equally prosperous it is because he is not equally abstemious and economical. The Italian, therefore, migrates with the knowledge that he may rely on the generosity of the English, and that, if he only receives as much as many of the English poor, he may hope to save enough to buy himself a farm in his own country.
The police have not been uniformly successful in stamping out unlicensed shoe-blacks. In some cases the tradesmen came out of their shops and spoke in their favour; they 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.
The owner of the stall in the accompanying photograph had, however, a different story to tell concerning keys. He possessed some keys which he would gladly sell for twopence, and he reminded me that this branch of his business was subject to certain restrictions which made him at times “lose a job or two.” If keys were sold and made indiscriminately, burglars, and in fact all thieves would find easy access to other people’s property. Hence certain laws were enacted with the object of preventing anyone buying keys save the rightful owners of the locks they were intended to fit. A locksmith is, therefore, not allowed to make a key from an impression. Either the lock itself must be brought to him, or the locksmith must be allowed to enter the premises and fit his key into the door. Otherwise it would suffice to obtain an impression of a key on a piece of soap or wax for a thief to procure himself a similar one, and thus open the lock protecting the coveted treasure.
Further, it is illegal for a locksmith to lend a bunch of his keys; and, in a word, before exercising his art to open locks he must assure himself that his services are not required for any dishonest purpose.
Some of these crawlers are not, however, so devoid of energy as we might at first be led to infer. A few days’ good lodging and good food might operate a marvellous transformation. The abject misery into which they are plunged is not always self sought and merited; but is, as often, the result of unfortunate circumstances and accident. The crawler, for instance, whose portrait is now before the reader, is the widow of a tailor who died some ten years ago. 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. From that day she fell lower and lower, and now takes her seat among the crawlers of the district.
“Forty-three years on the road, and more,” said Cast-iron Billy; “and, but for my ‘rheumatics’ I feel almost as ‘ale and ‘earty as any gentleman could wish. But 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 Ive 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.
Thus in the photograph before us we have the calm undisturbed face of the skilled artisan, who has spent a life of tranquil, useful labour, and can enjoy his pipe in peace, while under him sits a woman whose painful expression seems to indicate a troubled existence, and a past which even drink cannot obliterate. By her side, a brawny, healthy “woman of the people,” is not to be disturbed from her enjoyment of a “drop of beer” by domestic cares; and early acclimatizes her infant to the fumes of tobacco and alcohol. But in the fore-ground the camera has chronicled the most touching episode. A little girl, not too young, however, to ignore the fatal consequences of drink, has penetrated boldly into the group, as if about to reclaim some relation in danger, and drag him away from evil companionship. There is no sight to be seen in the streets of London more pathetic than this oft-repeated story the little child leading home a drunken parent. Well may those little faces early bear the stamp of the anxiety that destroys their youthfulness, and saddens all who have the heart to study such scenes. Inured to a life crowded with episodes of this description, the pot-boy stands in the back-ground with immoveable countenance, while at his side a well-to-do tradesman has an expression of sleek contentment, which renders him superior to the misery around.
By the side of the photographer, stands the donkey-boy, who also derives special benefit from the close proximity of Clapham Common. He lives in a slum hard by, and belongs to that peculiar and distinct race known under the generic term of costermongers.
For all that, the crafty dustman expects, and frequently receives, his accustomed “tip.” When it is not forthcoming his visits become both dangerous and disagreeable. Rough at all times and heavy booted, he calls on a wet day, and brings a trail of mud with him from the outer world. At other time she discovers that the passage from the dust-bin to the door is too contracted to admit of his exit without leaving some trace of his visit on the wall-paper or floor; or he pleads that his cart is too full and that he must call again.
Jack stood charged with cutting and wounding the donkeys with a heavy flail-like instrument. At the request of the magistrate the instrument was put in as evidence. It was produced by the defendant from the depths of a side pocket, and proved to be a switch of about eighteen inches in length. “This is the flail, your honour,” said I, and I own I use it for tickling Tom and Billy, my donkeys. They want no more to make ’em fly.” The case was dismissed.
There is a certain knack required in pasting a bill on a rough board, so that it shall spread out smoothly, and be easily read by every pedestrian; but the difficulty is increased fourfold when it is necessary to climb a high ladder, paste-can, bills, and brush in hand. The wind will probably blow the advertisement to pieces before it can be affixed to the wall, unless the bill-sticker is cool, prompt in his action, and steady of foot. Thus the “ladder-men,” as they are called, earn much higher wages, and the advertising contractors are generally glad to give them regular employment. The salaries of these men vary from £1 to £1 15s. per week, and they work as a rule from seven in the morning to seven at night.
The street purveyors of shell-fish find their principal customers among the poor in such quarters as Whitechapel, Drury Lane, the New Cut, Lambeth ; and in the immediate neighbourhood of theatres and places of amusement. One of the chief elements of success is this, as in other branches of street industry, lies in selecting a suitable “pitch” for the stall. In answer to my inquiries on this subject, an old hand in the trade said, “If a friend should ask my advice about starting, I should say, Cruise round the likeliest neighbourhoods, and find out a prime thirsty spot, which you’ll know by the number of public-‘ouses it supports.
The accompanying photograph is that of a nondescript guy, somewhat clumsily built up by a costermonger who lives in the south-east of London. This meaningless monstrosity, together with the absurd appearance of the man in woman’s clothes, amuses some persons, and the conductor of such an exhibition can hope to realize about thirty shillings the first day, a pound on the 6th of November, and ten or fifteen shillings on the 7th. With this money the cost of getting up the guy must be refunded, and a shilling or eighteen pence per day given to the boys who help to swell the cortege. The boys’ share of the proceeds is consequently somewhat out of proportion with the time and cheers they devote to promoting the success of the enterprise; but it is argued that they enjoy the fun, while to their seniors the venture is attended with some risk, and is only considered as another form of labour for daily bread.
The sufferings of the poor in Lambeth, and in other quarters of the Metropolis, caused by the annual tidal overflow of the Thames, have been so graphically described as thoroughly to arouse public sympathy.
The men employed on the water carts work according to the state of the weather. Thus, in summer under a hot dry wind, they emerge at early morning from the vestry yards and radiate over the parishes. During wet weather some are employed in cleansing the roads, others in carting materials for the contractors who supply the building trade. These are the hands who find constant employment under one master at weekly wages ranging from eighteen to twenty-three shillings. In justice to the contractors, I must express my admiration of the carts, men, and horses used in this branch of road labour.
In Drury Lane there is a house which has been celebrated for more than a century. It was a “cook-shop” in Jack Sheppards time. This notorious criminal often dined there, and it is now still frequented by hungry convicts or ticket-of-leave men, who find kindly welcome and may, If they choose, receive wholesome advice from the owner of this strange establishment.”
There are, undoubtedly, many most honest, hard-working, and in every sense worthy men, who hold licences from the Watermen’s Company, or from the Thames Conservancy. That these men are rough and but poorly educated is a natural consequence of their calling. Never stationary in anyone place, it is difficult for them to secure education for their children, and regular attendance at school would be impossible unless the child left its parents altogether. Thus there is an enormous percentage of men who cannot read at all. Their domestic arrangements are, however, better than the canal bargemen. Cramped up in little cabins, the scenes of over-crowding enacted on board canal barges, equal and even exceed in their horrors what occurs in the worse rookeries of London. Fortunately, the very nature of their occupation compels the men to enjoy plenty of fresh air and invigorating exercise, and this naturally counteracts the evil effects resulting from their occasional confinement in cabins unfit for human habitation.
About this time “Tickets” made the acquaintance of a Frenchman who possessed considerable skill as a sign-painter; and the two forthwith entered into partnership. The one paints, the other undertook to travel. “Tickets” is the traveller. From morning t ill night he wanders about, looking into the windows of small shops, till he discovers a ticket of dingy appearance, stained in colour, dog’s eared, bent, and altogether disreputable. With eagle eye all these defects are discerned, and “Tickets” enters boldly into the shop, to press on the tradesman the advisability of purchasing a new ticket. He undertakes to supply a precise copy of the old and worn announcement on a better piece of cardboard, freshly painted, or, perhaps, more elaborately ornamented.
The “wall working” or fence working, described by Parker as a “fine property,” is a system of cheap advertising. Where a portion of a wall or fence, near some public thoroughfare, can be rented or obtained gratuitously, it is covered with an array of boards, which are hung up in the morning and taken in at night. In this instance, the boards covered with thin bills are supplied to Cannon [seated on the right], who hangs them up in the morning and receives about a shilling weekly for each board. But the number of boards afford no clue to the income derived from this mode of advertising, as an indefinite number of dummies are displayed to fill up vacant spaces. The dummies are carefully selected; the advertisements they carry must be as imposing as the names of their owners are respectable. Cannon assured me that it required tact and experience to manage this sort of property. Unfortunately the dummies have been dominant of late, owing to depression in all departments of trade. The result is that the “wall worker’s” property produces a return so poor as hardly to repay the pains bestowed on its management.
While reducing the general death-rate, our recent sanitary legislation has called into existence a class of men who must of necessity be daily exposed to the gravest dangers. To the list of men who, by reason of their avocations, constantly face death to save us from peril, we must add the public disinfectors.
At the corner of Church Lane, Holborn, there was a second-hand furniture dealer, whose business was a cross between that of a shop and a street stall. The dealer was never satisfied unless the weather allowed him to disgorge nearly the whole of his stock into the middle of the street, a method which alone secured the approval and custom of his neighbours. As a matter of fact, the inhabitants of Church Lane were nearly all what I may term “street folks” – living, buying, selling, transacting all their business in the open street. It was a celebrated resort for tramps and costers of every description, men and women who hawk during the day and evening the flowers, fruits and vegetables they buy in the morning at Covent Garden. When, however, the question of improving this district was first broached, Church Lane stood condemned as an unwholesome over-crowded, throughfare, and the houses on either side are now almost entirely destroyed, and the inhabitants have been compelled to migrate to other more distant and less convenient parts of the metropolis.
The accompanying photograph represents a group of labourers who are in the service of Mr. Dickson, the well-known florist. Their business is strictly limited to flowers, and they never touch either vegetables or fruits. Nevertheless I am informed that there are five hundred flower stalls at the wholesale flower market, and, at a rough computation, two thousand men are engaged to bring and grow stock for these stalls; while another two thousand men find employment in distributing the flowers to their various purchasers. Only a small proportion of these latter are seen at Covent Garden during the daytime; it is in the early morning that they congregate on this spot, and they are soon scattered again to all parts of the metropolis, laden with plants of every description.
I had, for instance, an occasion of discussing with two boardmen who seemed worthy of a better position. The first had been trained as a smith, and engaged in the making of iron bedsteads. Now, however, smiths are no longer employed for this sort of work. It has been found more expedient and economical to make bedsteads with cast iron, and this change in the mode of manufacture threw many men out of employment, and notably my informant, who gradually sank to that state of misery when street life becomes the only means of existence. The other board man with whom I conversed was an old soldier, and had served nine years in the East Indies. He had shared in many glorious engagements, and was proud to relate that he had fought in Major-General Havelock’s division at the relief of Lucknow. Probably his position in life would have been secured had he only received a good education; but he was not well enough read to occupy the post or undertake the business his friends were willing to offer him. He consequently dwindled down till he reached that point in life when anything that brings a few pence is heartily welcome. But the old soldier has still retained considerable energy. He is not content with carrying the boards during the day, but also seeks to make use of his evenings. He has, fortunately, often obtained a shilling a night at the Globe Theatre where he appeared as a supernumerary.
The class of Nomades with which I propose to deal makes some show of industry. These people attend fairs, markets, and hawk cheap ornaments or useful wares from door to door. At certain seasons this class ‘works’ regular wards, or sections of the city and suburbs. At other seasons its members migrate to the provinces, to engage in harvesting, hop-picking, or to attend fairs, where they figure as owners of ‘Puff and Darts’, ‘Spin ’em rounds’, and other games.
Jacobus Parker, Dramatic Reader, Shoe-Black, and Peddler, is represented in the accompanying photograph standing at his accustomed pitch. Although the career of Parker has been clouded, and his life-story is one of struggle and disappointment, yet he has fought the battle bravely, and, as a veteran, is not without his scars. “There is one thing I am proud of,” said Parker, one day; “I am near three-score years and ten, have fought life’s battle and won, and will carry with me to the end its chief prizes-a hale heart and a contented mind.” “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.” Again, in his own words, “I have always advocated temperance and detested drunkenness. In my youth I never did apply hot and rebellious liquor to my blood, nor did, with unbashful forehead, woo the means of weakness and debility.’ Ah, sir, I have seen wine make woeful wrecks of men and women too, recalling the powerful lines, Oh! thou invisible spirit of drink, if thou hast no other name to go by, let us call thee Devil.’
I find the most of my customers in the street, but I am now making a private connexion at home of people from all parts of London. The prices for the Arabian Family Ointment, which can be used for chapped hands, lips, inflamed eyes, cuts, scalds, and sores, are from a penny to half-a-crown a box. Medicated cough lozenges a halfpenny and a penny a packet.
How different is the Covent Garden of to-day, with its bustle and din, its wealth and pauperism, its artifices, its hot-house flowers and forced fruit, its camellias with wire stems, its exotics from far-off climes, to “the fair-spreading pastures,” measuring, according to the old chronicle, some seven acres in extent, where the Abbots of Westminster buried those who died in their convent. In those days vegetables were not only sold here but grew on the spot; and the land, now so valuable, was considered to be worth an annual income of £6 6s. 8d., when given by the Crown to John Russell, Earl of Bedford, in 1552.
After playing in many provincial theatres, Caney finally made his debut in London on the boards of the old Garrick, the Britannia, and the Standard. He rendered good services at these houses in the cause of the people’s amusement. No consideration of bone or nerve interfered with his assaults on the pantaloon. He was irrepressible in the matter of bonneting the police; and he tumbled and danced, and fought, and shouted to the delight of his rough and ready audiences, and, poor fellow, to his own disadvantage. His exertions to please the people who greeted his first sally with vehement applause, caused the bursting of a varicose vein in his leg, and Caney’s successful career was over. There was not enough bodily strength left in him even for a pantaloon. After enduring an operation which was performed at old St Thomas’s Hospital, Caney was finally pronounced to be cured, but forbidden to attempt any violent exercise.
The real “mush-fakers” are men who not only sell, but can mend and make umbrellas. Wandering from street to street, with a bundle of old umbrellas and a few necessary tools under their arm, they inquire for umbrellas to mend from house to house. When their services are accepted, they have two objects in view. First, having obtained an umbrella to mend, they prefer sitting out doing the work in the street, in front of the house. This attracts the attention of the neighbours, and the fact that they have been entrusted with work by the inhabitants of one house generally brings more custom from those who live next door. When the job is terminated, the mush-faker ” looks about him, as he enters the house, in quest of an umbrella which has passed the mending stage ; and, in exchange for the same, offers to make a slight reduction in his charge. Thus he gradually obtains a stock of very old umbrellas, and by taking the good bits from one old “mushroom” and adding it to another, he is able to make, out of two broken and torn umbrellas, a tolerably stout and serviceable gingham.
The accompanying photograph represents a street group gathered round a dealer whose barrow is one of the most attractive I have seen during my wanderings about town.
Italian ice men constitute a distinct feature of London life, which, however, IS generally ignored by the public at large, so far as it’s intimate details are concerned. we note in various quarters the ice-barrow surrounded by groups of eager and greedy children, but fail to realize what a vast and elaborate organization is necessary to provide this delicacy in all parts of London. Most parsons are aware that there is an Italian colony at Saffron Hill, but it is strange how few visitors ever penetrate this curious quarter.
The accompanying photograph represents a second-hand clothes shop in a narrow thoroughfare of St. Giles, appropriately called Lumber Court, where several similar tradesmen are grouped together, all dealing in old clothes and furniture of a most varied and dilapidated description. It is here that the poorest inhabitants of a district, renowned for its poverty, both buy and sell their clothes.
The season for strawberries, the most delicious of English fruits, has ended. This delicacy was brought in numberless barrow- loads to the doors of the poorest inhabitants of London. The familiar cry, “Fine strawberries. All ripe! all ripe!” is silenced for a season by sounds less welcome. The fragrance of the ripe fruit wafted by the summer breeze from the coster’s cart as it passed through the alleys, is replaced by less grateful odours – by the normal atmosphere of over crowded neighbourhoods, by the autumn taint of animal and vegetable decay, which invests the low-lying districts of London.
Born in Lambeth, the son of a road-mender, John Day was sent out to work when scarcely more than ten years old. His father was decidedly addicted to drink, and was in the habit of taking his son on Sunday to public-houses, where drink was sold in defiance of the Licensing Act. So long as the child had a few halfpence for beer, he was in the parental eyes a good boy; but when his meagre earnings had been thus uselessly spent, his father came to the conclusion that he could not afford to keep him, and that it was high time the boy should fight his own way in the world. He was therefore turned out of his home, and had to resort to the friendly, if cheerless shelter of railway arches; or at times he would sleep on a barge, and profited by the opportunity to wash his solitary shirt in the canal, and hang it up on the rigging of his temporary home, while he disported himself amidst the tarpaulin till it dried. At time when there was nothing to be done at the flour-mill, he obtained a little work as assistant to a neighbouring chimney-sweep; but in either employ he rarely made more than 3s per week.
Despite the traditional hoarse voice, rough appearance, and quarrelsome tone, cab-drivers are as a rule reliable and honest men, who can boast of having fought the battle of life in an earnest, persevering, and creditable manner. Let me take, for instance, the career, as related by himself, of the cab-driver who furnishes the subject of the accompanying illustration. He began life in the humble capacity of pot-boy in his uncle’s public-house, but abandoned this opening in consequence of a dispute, and ultimately obtained an engagement as conductor from the Metropolitan Tramway Company. In this employment the primary education he had enjoyed while young served him to good purpose, and he was soon promoted to the post of time-keeper. After some two years’ careful saving he collected sufficient money to buy a horse, hire a cab, and obtain his licence.
Recruiting in London is almost exclusively circumscribed to the district stretching between the St. George’s Barracks, Trafalgar Square, and Westminster Abbey. Throughout London it is known that all information concerning service in the army can be obtained in this quarter, and intending recruits troop down to this neighbourhood in shoals, converging, as the culminating point of their peregrinations, towards the celebrated public-house at the corner of King Street and Bridge Street. It is under the inappropriate and pacific sign-board of the ‘Mitre and Dove’ that veteran men of war meet and cajole young aspirants to military honours. Here may be seen every day representatives of our picked regiments.
I know of one photographer, who obtained on Clapham Common no less than thirty-six shillings in the course of one hour. This, however, was altogether an exceptional circumstance, and a receipt of ten shillings a day is considered very fair for the common. Out of this sum about a quarter should be deducted for general expenses; and the work is not always pleasant. The photographer dare not leave his apparatus, for it is impossible to guess when a subject may present himself. He must stand for hours on the damp earth, idling away his time, when perhaps just as his patience is giving way, a tradesman’s cart will pull up, and his services are requisitioned to immortalize by his art the waggon which conveys groceries to the prosperous bourgeoisie of Clapham.