All We Have Is A Photograph

The images that random photographers have left us that provide glimpses into the slums of the 19th century Metropolis are, in many, ways vivid and haunting in equal measure.

They capture brief moments in time of long ago London scenes that we can barely comprehend. Indeed, we can only guess at the circumstances in which those long ago residents lived.

Take, for example, the image below.

Take a long look at it.

Try, for a moment, to put yourself there on that long ago day when a photographer pitched his rudimentary tripod and his state of the art camera, both of which had probably cost more money than many of those who lived in the alley would see in a decade, and pointed it in the general direction of two East End missionaries who were trying to bring hope to a group of residents in slum land London.

A look into an slum alley of Victorian London.
Children In An Alley


Look at the children in the photo. Notice how their clothes hang from them, evidently being either hand-me-downs from an older sibling, or picked up at rock bottom prices from one of the Victorian Capital’s numerous second hand clothes shops.

The cost of clothing their young may well have resulted in their parents having to go hungry for a day or two.

Evidently, in the cases of the boys at least, the household income didn’t run to footwear, as none of them appear to have shoes on their feet.


Focus now on the boy in the foreground.

He seems to be the one who is taking the most notice of the man with the camera. The suit he is wearing looks ragged, and is slightly too big for him. Indeed, it almost hangs from him.

How old would you say he is. 9, 10, possibly 12.

Yet, he gives the impression of being old beyond his years. He has the sullen expression of a moody teenager, and he genuinely seems to be facing the photographer down, almost daring him to continue.

His arms are folded, his eyes looking directly into the lens, or perhaps directly at the cameraman, and he is almost defying him to continue with the liberty of attempting to photograph his territory.

Already the boy has a feral look about him, as though he knows that, in order to survive, he has got to be willing to use his fists and his wits.

Or, perhaps the photographer has offered him a penny, if he could stand perfectly still for the time it takes to snap his image for posterity, and it is the determination to acquire this handsome sum of money that has resulted in his pose?


Beside him, another boy, dressed in three-quarter-length trousers, has lost interest in the proceedings, and has turned his back on the photographer, in order to go and investigate what else might be happening in the alleyway in which he lives.


Now focus on the little girl in the foreground.

Evidently her parents have splashed out on her attire, as she is wearing shoes and a, relatively smart, dress.

Something, however, has distracted her, and she is looking down at the ground, apparently searching it.

Perhaps she noticed a morsel of food, or a dropped sweet, just as the photographer pressed the button on his camera, and her glance down at the mouthwatering delicacy has been captured for eternity, or at least for as long as the photograph shall last!


Look a little further into the photograph.

Do you see that boy in the cap?

He’s standing to the right of the man in the dark suit.

Indeed, the man in the suit seems to be leaning forward to talk to him, perhaps intending to proffer a word of hope or advice.

The boy, however, isn’t interested.

He appears to be a cheeky chap, perhaps the local joker?

He’s more interested in the photographer and his camera.

His face is frozen in an expression of curiosity.

Perhaps he’s wondering what the camera will do?

Maybe he is even wondering if he could, one day, possess such a device and be able to roam the slums of London capturing the images of the people who live in them for posterity?

Is he making some jolly comment that has caught the attention of the boy in the three-quarter-length trousers, and is it that which has caused the latter to turn around so that his back is to the camera at the crucial moment when the shutter opens and the picture is taken?


Of course, the view we get into the everyday lives of the 19th century slum-dwellers is a sanitised one.

We have no idea, for example, of the smells that would have, doubtless, hung heavy in the air around the scene.

The voices of the people in the photograph, might well sound like a foreign language to us, if we could here them speak.

And, of course, we have no idea of what it was like for them when night fell, and those front doors were closed, as the residents gathered inside their dwellings for another night.

I wonder what sorts of lives the children went on to have?

Did they survive childhood, and escape from the slums?

Did they grow up to have families themselves, and did a later photographer capture their image in another photograph, taken in another place and at another time?

We simply don’t know, and never will know.

These old photograph might provide us with a wonderful opportunity to take a peek into a few moments in the lives of the Victorian residents of London, but they give little or no insights into the lives of the people captured in the images.

They gaze at us across the hundred and more years that have elapsed since they crossed paths with the photographer.

But, as for their everyday lives, hardships, hopes, dreams, ambitions and sorrows – well, we can only guess.

Indeed, when it comes to these long ago residents of 19th century London, all we have is a photograph.