What the archive material tells us about how Londoners have been represented16 minute read

Street Life in London was an attempt by British photojournalist John Thomson and author Adolphe Smith to record the lives of people living and working in the streets of 19th century London to ‘diffuse the perceived darkness and danger associated’ with the social category (Vanhaelen, 2002:196). Thomson (1837 – 1921) was a British photographer and traveler. He received particular commendation for his photography of the far East, an area that had been little explored in photographic journalism preceding his ten-year expedition. Much less is known about Smith (1846 – 1924). He was a British social journalist; however, his tendencies towards self-effacement meant little of his work was left behind (Morgan, 2012). Street Life in London was originally published as a monthly sequel starting in 1877 but was also released as a bound book, which can be found in the LSE archives, before it was discontinued in 1878 having received little commercial success (Morgan, 2012). Each chapter follows the lives of one, or various members of a certain street trade in London through interviews and commentaries from both authors and is accompanied by photographs of each.

This essay will demonstrate that the representations of Londoners are not objective but are instead political. It starts by analysing Henry Mayhew’s depictions of the London poor and finds that Smith’s political influences are pervasive in Street Life in London’s representations. Additionally, through reviewing the case-study of Barnardo’s photographic forgery, it argues that the combination of photography and text grants the authors further opportunity to create ideological representations within their work. Lastly, it introduces the geographies of inclusion and exclusion with respect to locationality and prostitution and explores the impact that this has on the dominant representation of Londoners.


The power of political influences on the representation of Londoners

Both authors had a ‘revolutionizing agenda’ which could be traced to their previous life experiences (Morgan, 2012:16). In particular, Smith’s political influences are persistent throughout Street Life in London. He was an active socialist writing for a range of publications and pushed for a variety of societal reforms. He challenged the image of English labourers as destitute and instead depicted them as citizens, a theme which is dispersed throughout Street Life in London (Morgan, 2012). Married to Alice Jerrold, daughter of Blanchard Jerrold, a popular liberal journalist and brother-in-law to the prominent writer Henry Mayhew, it can be argued that Smith’s ‘proclivity towards persuasive, active reportage’ was both ‘fostered and encouraged by his new family connections’ (Morgan, 2012:96). Moreover, Smith was an active member of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), who ‘emphasized collective self-help and pride in the independence, organization and sobriety of skilled labour’ (Vanhaelen, 2002:196).

Smith and Mayhew shared similar viewpoints regarding the determinants of poverty. Namely, ‘irregular work and fluctuating wages’ (Vanhaelen, 2002:198) were key challenges facing London’s workforce. However, there were considerable differences in how they saw society overcoming these issues. Mayhew’s support of state intervention is presented through his cut-throat classification of the London poor; “those who will work”, “those who cannot work” and “those who will not work” (Mayhew, 1968: Vol.IV). Contrasting hard-working, self-sufficient labourers against those who refused to make a respectable living necessitates the government to intervene to prevent the respectable poor from being dragged into a state of dependency (Vanhaelen, 2002:191). Contrastingly, themes of communality and sobriety are rife throughout Street life in London. The titles of sub-sections showcase such virtues; ‘The Independent Shoe Black’ (R(SR)1146:98) and ‘The Temperance Sweep’ (R(SR)1146:33). The paper argues within this section that the implied solutions presented by Street Life in London align themselves with the TUC’s commitment to fight against state control, and push for a laissez-faire agenda.

Smith’s loyalties to the TUC are most notable within his depiction of London’s cabmen, especially when contrasting them against Henry Mayhew’s. Cabmen at the time were generally deemed to be ‘notorious members of the residuum – disorganized, untrustworthy men’ who spent most of their time intoxicated (Vanhaelen, 2002:198). Mayhew’s portrayal details men of such volition – unlicensed and convicted cabmen that had spent most of their time in and out of prison (Mayhew, 1968: Vol.III). However, somewhat paradoxically, almost half of the cab force are championed as ‘small masters’ who were ‘amongst the most respectable men of the ranks’ (Mayhew, 1968: Vol.III:353). Again the need for state intervention is subtly highlighted by Mayhew through the conflicting representations. Smith, conversely, introduces the chapter of cabmen with the following counter-cultural statement:

‘There is no better abused of men in existence than the London Cabmen …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’. (R(SR)1146:4).

Smith attempts to counteract destructive claims on this workforce; instead presenting the men as a hard-working and communal fleet. He defends their honesty, by claiming that in 1875, 15,584 articles left behind in London cabs were returned to the lost property offices. Contrastingly, Mayhew offers few statistics beyond damaging claims that nine-nine percent of unlicensed cabmen had been to prison (Mayhew, 1968: Vol. III). Smith goes on to disregard assertions of their dangerous nature, disputing that the high numbers of violent deaths caused by vehicle collisions could, in the majority, be attributed to cars used by tradesmen. Allegations that cabmen charged extortionate fees are also refuted, suggesting that a culmination of high rental charges from cab owners and the public’s increasing unwillingness to pay fittingly for their services had in actual fact reduced cabmen income from £2 a week, to an average of 30 shillings (R(SR)1146). Thomson compliments Smith’s commentary with his photographic representation of cabmen. Figure 1 shows two drivers appearing to be engaged in discussion with one another, demonstrating the ‘communal nature of this group of workers’ (Vanhaelen, 2002:198). Conversely, Mayhew’s pictorial representation of the London cab driver (Figure 2) depicts a singular, overweight and well-dressed cab-driver. It evokes imagery of gluttony and feeds the narrative that cabmen swindled clients with exorbitant fees, a narrative Smith seeks to dismiss within his depiction.

Figure one, London Cab-men
Figure 1: London Cab-men (R(SR)1146:4)
Figure two,: Cabdriver.
Figure 2: Cabdriver (Mayhew 1968)



The use of photography as a medium of representing Londoners

Within the preface of the text the authors suggest that photography was a chosen medium due to its ‘unquestionable accuracy’, which would protect them from ‘the accusation of either underrating or exaggerating individual peculiarities’ (The Authors, 1969). However, given the context of photography at the time, this essay argues that such truth claims are difficult to make and that ideological motivation can influence and produce meaning for what is represented (Hall, 1977).

Figure 3, home for destitute working lads.
Figure 3: Home for destitute working lads, No.7 (Koven 2004:115).

The wet-plate technique of photography requires materials to be coated, sensitized and exposed thus it required a particular level of skill and time. This has raised questions over Thomson’s ability to capture ‘spontaneous snapshots of reality’ (Vanhaelen, 2002:196) and has opened him up to scrutiny that such delicately composed representations were in actual fact nothing more than “artistic fictions” (Gibson-Cowan, 1985). The example of Barnardo’s photography of street children, a publicized case that was occurring at the same time as the release of this serial, is useful to understand the context of such allegations. Thomas John Barnardo was a social reformer in the mid to late 19th century, who established an operation of various orphanages for the street children of London. In 1877, amongst other accusations, Barnardo was trialed for photographic forgery by creating before and after promotional pictures of his institutions. The pictures demonstrate how street dwelling children, once a threat to society, could be transformed into ‘productive, self-supporting workers of the future’ (Koven, 2004:115). Evidence later emerged that some of these pictures, such as Figure 3, had actually been taken on the same day and were staged in terms of the clothing and backdrops. Consequently, the public began to question how trustworthy the sources truly were.

Gibson-Cowan argued it was highly likely that the public would have drawn parallels between Barnardo and Thomson’s photography, given the popular nature of the court hearings (Gibson-Cowan, 1985). However, Morgan claims that these parallels could well have been overstated. During these court cases, advertisements for Barnardo’s homes were still being published within the serialized Street Life in London. Had the publishers held any concerns over negative views of Barnardo’s photography influencing peoples’ perceptions of Thomson’s photographic accuracy, these adverts certainly would have been removed and replaced (Morgan, 2012). That said, looking at what Morgan describes as ‘photo-text’ (Morgan, 2012:12), the combined use of text and photography, one can deduce similar themes of photographic manipulation within Street Life in London. Koven (2004) argues that there was a lot at stake in representing London’s poor at the time. Barnardo’s purpose was to gain public sympathy and consequently raise funds for his cause whereas Thomson’s photographic representation of Londoners resonates with the ideological standpoint that the archival work attempts to promote.

Figure four THE “CRAWLERS”
Figure 4: The “Crawlers”

The text and the images arguably contradict each other at moments; the tension between the two is used as a mechanism by the authors to ‘convey an ideological point’ (Vanhaelen, 2002:201). This dual agenda between mediums can be observed when assessing both depictions of The Crawlers. The reader is first introduced to the subjects through the photograph captured by Thomson (Figure 4). Making use of Sekula’s pseudo-scientific theory of physiognomy, one is able to deconstruct this photograph by taking various fragments of the head and face and assigning ‘characterological significance’ to each element (Sekula, 1986:11). The concept of the exterior having the power to bare representation of the inner character can be a powerful tool for photographers. This snapshot moment composed by Thomson presents us with a female street crawler sat in a doorway, her pained expression and dark hooded under-eyes could be suggestive of someone tormented by inner demons. Her weathered and leathery skin perhaps indicative of long-term exposure to the elements. This portrait may well have more in common with Mayhew’s street dwellers, whose dependence on begging rather than securing a respectable employ incites very little sympathy. As such, Sekula argues that the use of physiognomy legitimizes the dominion of the intellectual over manual labour and relied on the division of labour to promote capitalist ideology through ‘distinguishing the stigma of vice from the shining marks of virtue’ (Sekula, 1986: 11).

However, when one engages with the accompanying text written by Smith the woman is ‘redefined as a respectable woman fallen on hard times’ (Vanhaelen, 2002:201). The reader is informed that she is the widow of tailor and had experienced eyesight issues that have forced her to leave her vocation as a tailoress and since had experienced difficulties beyond the reach of her control. For eight hours a day, everyday, and often free of compensation she willingly took care of her friend’s child (with whom she is pictured). This act of kindness enabled the fellow street dweller to work in a coffee house and thus supported her in a fight to ameliorate her circumstances; this account holds testament once again to the communal nature of London’s street life. When combining the two accounts, the Mayhew-esque representation of the lazy and undeserving street filth is overridden. Instead, the reader is faced with a character who would ‘move heaven and earth to obtain a few shillings’ to amend her situation (R(SR)1146:82). Affronted with themes of collective self-help, the dual agendas of both authors force the reader to re-interpret their initial judgments and instead align them with a Smith’s view of London’s poor.

The geographies of inclusion and exclusion and its role in representation

Assessing what has been included, and by consequence what has been excluded, within this publication implies an intrinsic definition of what is normal, thus labelling the unrepresented as the “other” (Hall, 1997).  Within this section, the essay speculates the causes behind the omission of geographic specificity and prostitution and the impact that this has on the dominant representation of Londoners within this archival work.

The text and photography contain very little geographic specificity and thus offer little support in allowing the reader to situate themselves. Certain areas key to the street life of London are mentioned briefly, such as Covent Garden and the East End, but even in these fleeting instances they lack specificity. At certain moments it even seems that Thomson purposefully attempts to confuse the readers’ locality by picturing two different elements of street life, fruits traders and the water cart (Figure 5 & 6), in the exact same location.  To understand the significance of this, one must understand the context of spatiality at this time. Nead reveals that ‘Mid-Victorian London was shaped by the forces of the two urban principles; mapping and movement’ (Nead, p.13). Charles Booth’s social surveys within his Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London is an example of such information accumulation. Motivated through his sense of moral obligation towards improving the social conditions of London’s poor (LSE Booth Webpage: see bibliography), he underwent tripartite investigations in 1866 to map the conditions of peoples work, their home environments and the city’s religious characteristics. Lots of social documentation emerging during this era also localized its subjects. The sensationalist exposé titled “A Night in a Workhouse” written by James Greenwood who posed as a homeless person in a plight to discover the truths behind the Victorian slums is an example of this. Published within the Pall Mall Gazette, a leading British publication dedicated to ‘exposing social evils’ (Koven, 2004:26), the article directs us to the precise location along Princes Road in Lambeth (HV/1035). The Victorians had such a fascination with creating both ideological and geographic boundaries between the rich and the poor, that by the late 1980s guidebooks had emerged that mapped excursions to philanthropic institutions located within renowned slums (Koven, 2004). The creation of touristic slum sites enabled the activity of “slumming”, what Koven describes as ‘an evening’s entertainment for many well-to-do Londoners’ (Koven, 2004:1) who would be transported via omnibus to gawk and gasp at the horrors of the Street Life.

Figure 5, a water cart, figure 6 strawberry seller.
Figure 5: the water cart (R(SR1146:71)          Figure 6: Strawberries, all ripe! All ripe!                                                                                                                      (R(SR)1146:67)

This paper explores why, at a time when the geographies of the poor were in high demand, the authors chose to omit such information. Quoting American feminist Jane Addams, Koven argues that the process of physically exploring the slums left “unfair”, “fragmented” and “lurid views of poverty” (Koven, 2004:8). Vanhaelen added to this suggesting that creating a spectator position of the poor distances the reader and creates an ideal of them being the ‘racial and moral others’ (Vanhaelen, 2002:192).

Ultimately, many believed that simply visiting the slums was an empty philanthropic gesture and was in actual fact a symptom of the problems of Capitalism at the time (Hyndman, 1911). It is not surprising therefore that as an avid socialist, Smith did not fixate on geography within his representation of Londoners. One could speculate that localities were instead protected in an attempt to break down the class boundaries, seeking to incite a communal sense of shared space amongst Londoners.

Nearly half of London Labour and the London Poor IV is dedicated to understanding the intricacies of prostitution both in London and across the world. Hemyng and Mayhew postulated that there were about 80,000 prostitutes living and working on the streets of London during this era (Mayhew, 1968: Vol.IV), a very significant number. It may therefore appear strange that, out of 36 different street trades included within Street life in London, not one is dedicated to such a line of work, nor is the topic even explicitly mentioned once throughout the text.

If one delves deeper into the causation of prostitution at the time, further light may be shed on external factors that could explain this omission. Hemyng portrays a large majority of London’s prostitutes as being victims of early childhood seduction, estimating that within the streets of London there were approximately 400 villains at work coercing young girls between the age of eleven to fifteen into prostitution (Mayhew, 1968: Vol. IV). Once in this situation, the women are portrayed as hopeless; ‘thus situated she becomes reckless, and careless of her future course’ (Mayhew, 1968: Vol. IV:212). Such representations were equally corroborated by the marketing activities of Barnardos who found that he had to present ragged street girls as ‘sexually vulnerable and available’ in order to make his audiences understand that they were ‘sexual commodities within the predatory economy of prostitution’ (Koven, 2004:130). By categorizing 80,000 women as helpless victims of male sexual desire, implicitly one is left to question the state’s role in allowing this to continue. Léon Faucher, a French politician, remarked on the misery that plagued prostitutes in London at the time and condemned the political systems of their ‘blind and willful toleration’ (Mayhew, 1968: Vol.IV:212). One might therefore stipulate that the absence of prostitution throughout is emblematic of Smith and Thomson’s struggle to represent prostitutes without necessarily endangering the TUC’s anti-interventionist stance.


This essay has sought to show that the representation of Londoners is not objective, but instead is highly politicized. The combination of photography, text and particular geographies of exclusion showcase the TUC’s values upheld by the London labour force, thus endorsing Smith’s laissez-faire agenda. As such Street Life in London fails in its ‘attempt to present a clear, unbiased classification of the London poor’ (Vanhaelen, 2002:202). Given that the preface of the text claims objectivity (The Authors, 1969), one can argue the results of this essay are problematic; the audience take the bias account of Londoners as truth and this can have major implications in terms of social policy. Such issues still resonate within society today; the working-class have been represented as one, monolithic, uneducated group by the media and political leaders in a bid to assign blame for the Brexit vote (Miliband and Llyod, 2017). That said, so long as the misrepresentations are acknowledged as a product of their time, Street Life in London offers a fascinating incite into the power dynamics and influences behind the representation of Londoners at this time.


Lucy Beauvallet



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