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Street Life in London 1877

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.

Published copy of volume 1 of Street Life in London (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, London, 1877) by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith.

John Thomson

John Thomson was a talented and influential photographer, who had spent ten years travelling in, and taking photographs of, the Far East. On his return to London he joined with Adolphe Smith, a socialist journalist, in a project to photograph the street life of the London poor. The volumes were published in monthly parts as Street Life in London, and were an early example of social and documentary photography.

Street Life in London

Publisher: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington

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"Tickets," The Card Dealer

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith: 


"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.

[...]

"He hopes that the number of his customers will gradually increase, and that he will be able to save on his earnings. Then, like a true Frenchman, he will return to France, and purchase the goodwill of some small shop. In the meanwhile he observes the strictest economy. He never drinks. His bed costs him two shillings a week. His breakfast consists of cocoa and bread , and butter, the former being more nutritious than tea. For dinner he generally consumes a pennyworth of potatoes, with a herring or a haddock and a cup of tea, while his supper consists of bread and cheese to the value of twopence. I t is only on days of exceptional good fortune that he indulges in a little meat."

Public Disinfectors

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith: 

"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."

Street Advertising

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith: 

"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."

Old Furniture

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith: 


"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."

London Cabmen

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith: 


"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."

Halpenny Ices

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith: 

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith:

"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.

[...]

In little villainous-looking and dirty shops an enormous business is transacted in the sale of milk for the manufacture of halfpenny ices. This trade commences at about four in the morning. The men in varied and extraordinary desltabzlle pour into the streets, throng the milk-shops, drag their barrows out, and begin to mix and freeze the ices. Carlo Gatti has an ice depot close at hand, which opens at four in the morning, and here a motley crowd congregates with baskets, pieces of cloth, flannel, and various other contrivances for carrying away their daily supply of ice. Gradually the freezing process is terminated, and then the men, after dressing themselves in a comparatively-speaking decent manner, start off, one by one, to their respective destinations; It is a veritable exodus. The quarter, at first so noisy and full of bustle, is soon deserted, a few women only remaining to attend to the domestic affairs and to quarrel with their loquacious neighbours."

"Hookey Alf," Of Whitechapel

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith: 

"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."

"Mush Fakers" And Ginger Beer Makers

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith: 


"At Clapham Common - where the accompanying photograph was taken - Hampstead, Greenwich, Battersea Park, etc etc, on a broiling summer's day, there is a great demand for light, refreshing drinks, and more than £1 may be taken during one day by those who have a sufficient supply of ginger-beer with them, or some friend who can bring a fresh stock in the course of the afternoon. In ordinary times, however, twenty shillings a week net profit is considered a very fair reward for selling ginger-beer in the streets. Apart from the very hot days, and the pleasure-g rounds around the metropolis, the best time and place for the sale is near the closed public-houses on a Sunday morning. The enormous number of persons who have spent their Saturday evening and wages in getting lamentably drunk, come out in the morning with their throats parched and are glad of anything that will relieve the retributive thirst from which they suffer. Ginger-beer, under these circumstances, is particularly effective in restoring tone and mitigating the consequences of intemperance; and these are facts which readily account for the large sales effected on Sunday mornings.

[...]

"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."