In 1877, journalist Adolphe Smith and photographer John Thomson co-published a book about London’s street life.
The rarely seen, Victorian-era images are like something out of a Charles Dickens novel.
Thomson’s photos give a glimpse into the lives of the marginalized men and women who eked out an existence on London’s streets as flower sellers, chimney sweeps, shoe polishers, cab drivers, and locksmiths.
Titled simply “Street Life in London,” the documentary-style photographs were paired with Smith’s interviews with the subjects, exposing their social conditions, perseverance, and way of life.
The London School of Economics Digital Library gathered the entire collection together with quotes from the original book. Keep reading to see a snapshot of 19th century London.
These women sold flowers in Covent Garden. According to Smith, their children were trained to be sell flowers too so that if the mother died, the child could take over their specific spot outside of the church.
This woman fell into abject poverty after being kicked out of her home by her son-in-law. Smith refers to her as a 'crawler' because beggars literally crawled along the street begging for food and money.
Unlicensed shoe polishers were a big problem in London in the 19th century. They were often saved from arrest by local shop keepers who used them as errand boys and to help put up the shutters at night.
This effigy of Guy Fawkes was paraded down the street with a man dressed in woman's clothing and two rambunctious boys drawing attention to the spectacle. According to Smith, the crowd would give them money for the annual show.
This jovial drinking scene at a local tavern was broken up by the young girl searching for her parent. 'There is no sight to be seen in the streets of London more pathetic than this oft-repeated story (of) the little child leading home a drunken parent,' Smith said.
This is a temporary second-hand clothes shop in St. Giles, the so-called Lumber Court. 'It is here that the poorest inhabitants of a district, renowned for its poverty, both buy and sell their clothes,' according to Smith.
Called 'Nomads' by Smith, this group of transient workers attend fairs, markets, and sell cheap ornaments from door to door. They were also known to venture out to the countryside to help with harvests and throw carnivals.
Smith describes the average cabbie as traditionally having a 'hoarse voice, rough appearance, and quarrelsome tone' but that '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.'
Smith claimed this family was one of the many who were displaced after the annual flooding of the Thames destroyed their home in Lambeth.
To keep London's locksmiths from making copies of people's keys and selling them to criminals, people were required to bring their actual locks to the locksmith or let him visit their home to make a copy in person.
Smith thought that Italian immigrants came to England because being a beggar in England was more prosperous than being an Italian worker. '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.'
This man is selling lozenges and healing ointments that he claims cured him of blindness. He told Smith he makes a comfortable living and has customers all around London.
Originally born in Lambeth, this chimney sweep had a hard childhood after being turned out of his house as a young boy by his drunk father. At the time this photo was taken, he had become a well-known master chimney sweep who made a 'comfortable' living for his 10 children.
The men who hung street advertisements were called 'ladder-men' since they had to climb tall ladders with cans of paste and posters in their arms. They earned roughly £1 per week, according to Smith.
This restaurant was once the hang out of a notorious burglar named Jack Sheppard. Almost 50 years after his death, it was still frequented by hungry criminals and ne'er-do-wells in London.
Italian ice carts were a big part of London's culture in the summer time, offering 'halfpenny ices' and providing London's population with its daily supply of ice in exchange for money, milk, or pieces of flannel.
These two men were boat workers on the Thames, and lived in the cabins below deck that were considered by Smith 'unfit for human habitation.' According to Smith, almost all of these men were illiterate.
Known as a 'boardman,' this man was an example of the workers hired to be living, breathing advertisements for plays, goods, and services.
This is the corner of Church Lane, a popular hang out of 'street folk' who did all of their buying, selling, and living in the street. Even the shop owners, like the man in the background, would let their merchandise flow into the lane.
This street vendor drew quite the crowd, but said he only made 30 shillings a week -- just enough for his rent, food, clothes, and buying more 'swag,' or goods to sell.
If you're familiar with central London, here's a cool walking tour of where all the pictures were taken. It would be interesting to see what these modern street corners look like today.
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