A Photographer In The East

Looking through the hundreds, if not thousands, of  photographs of the people of the Victorian East End, that have managed to survive the march of time, you are often struck by the seeming willingness of the residents to pose for any passing photographer that might chance upon them in their natural habitat!

Men, women, and children look out at us from those long ago photographs, and you wonder what sort of inducements the photographers offered them in order for their likenesses to be preserved for posterity?

On September 21st, 1895, The Graphic published the following article that was written by F. W. Robinson, and which was preceded by a large illustration, by M. Renouard, that sheds a little light on how people responded to being asked to pose for the camera in the poverty stricken streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

People posing for a photographer in the Victorian East End.
The Illustration That Accompanied The Article. From The Graphic, 21st September, 1895. Copyright, The British Library Board.


“We have chosen the back streets for our morning ramble Whitechapel way, and are in the neighbourhood of Brick Lane, of Hanhury Street and Pelham Street, of Bacon Street and Great Pearl Street, once the haunt of “Jack the Ripper.”

There is no thought of the “Ripper,” however, in Brick Lane this morning – the place is almost festive.


A very old lady with a basket heaped with green-grocery is asked if she would object to have her portrait taken, and she is proud of the compliment and assents forthwith; her friends and customers enter into the spirit of the thing, and make many funny remarks whilst the lady is being taken, and the crowd springs up once more, as if by magic, and encircles us, and, as before, the policeman stalks solemnly into the midst of things, and keeps as much order as he can, and is – as one can see with half an eye – quite as interested as the ordinary spectator.

It is a task soon accomplished, and we are sauntering down Brick Lane again.


We discover that it is one of the days on which the Feast of the Passover is celebrated this year, and that all the Jewish shopkeepers have put up their shutters, and, with their wives and children, are keeping high holiday, or going to prayers, or perambulating generally in their best clothes, without the slightest thought of earning an honest penny anywhere.

And their best clothes are startling, and keep Whitechapel in a state of feverish admiration.

In the midst of much poverty, hunger, and dirt, walking placidly along the grimiest of streets, we come suddenly upon a blaze of colour, upon groups of children in silks and satins of the most dazzling hues, and, without doubt, all “spic and span,” and new for the occasion. They are proceeding to synagogue, or coming from it, and they march along decorously, and are a little overweighted – most of them – with the consciousness that they have “got them all on.”


A few steps further, and a family group enters the street – father and mother, and sons and daughters, one son of tender years in a brand-new and very large silk top-hat, carrying in front of him an enormous velvet cushion or pillow, embroidered lavishly with gold.

No one seems surprised at this extraordinary proceeding; but what that little boy was going to do with that cushion, or why he should be walking down Brick Lane with it clutched to his clean shirt-front, has been a matter of speculation to the writer ever since.

The inhabitants of this part of eastern London make no comment, indulge in no chaff or irreverent expressions.

But M. Renouard and myself do not wholly escape them, although our appearance, we are disposed to consider, is far less remarkable.


Presently we are the centre of a crowd once more.

At the corner of Corbet’s Court, in Great Pearl Street, we have discovered a photographer in the smallest way of business imaginable.

Why he should have made his “pitch” in that locality, where the inhabitants are of the poorest class, it is impossible to say, unless the police have been moving him on continuously from regions more eligible for taking likenesses in “the open” and securing a remunerative class of customers.

He is not en evidence when we first emerge upon a squat kind of apparatus covered by a cloth, and looking like a peep-show in disguise; he has left it standing in the street all alone in its glory with no one in charge, and no one interested in it or thinking it worth while to run away with it.


But he is quickly found, and is eager and panting to take one of us for fourpence, frame and glass included.

His offer is tempting and the price is low, although a suspicion crosses the mind at once that the price is still lower to the natives of the district.

Certainly, there is not one person in the crowd – which once more springs up immediately about us – who is capable of expending the sum of fourpence in sheer and wanton luxury of this description. Why, even “a pot of four ‘alf ” would have been a matter of the gravest consideration in the middle of the week like this, and with trade a little slack, at all events, Great Pearl Street way.


But there were plenty willing to be photographed at our expense, and one good-looking woman who has left her sewing machine, or her boot-closing, and come into the street to see “what’s up,” volunteers readily to be taken.

The photographer does not quickly understand that we have a desire to take him and his subject, and the audience about us together, but tumbles presently to the idea, and sets to work with a will.


The girl puts herself in attitude, and takes her stand against the wall, a little child in a sun-bonnet emerges from somewhere, and contrives to toddle into the range of focus, an opening is formed with difficulty for the operations of the camera, a lane of people is made on either side, heaps of children from the Board School, from the slums, from the houses across the way, scramble into the front rank, and the “grown-ups” mass together at the back, and take stock of the proceedings – especially of our proceedings.

The doors of the houses in Great Pearl Street open, and there are sightseers at them and at all the windows, and this double-breasted kind of portrait-taking proves a great success, if numbers be any test of triumph.”