Today I thought I’d just take a moment and peruse one of the old photos in my collection of East End scenes around the time of Jack the Ripper.
So, without further ado, here is the photo I want to look at.
MEET THE PEOPLE
Who were these people? What sort of lives did they live. What were their aspirations, their hopes, their fears? These are all questions I like to ask myself when I comb the archives and uncover old photographs that show he Victorian Eastenders going about their lives.
And then I like to give them a back story.
THE SLEEPING WOMAN
Take, for example, the woman on the far right of the photo. Her clothing has the appearance of being somewhat worn. She’s also exhausted, since she is resting her head on the should of the woman next to her and grabbing the opportunity to take a nap.
Was she homeless? Had she spent the night wandering the streets trying to keep warm?
Are they taking it in turns to sleep, for fear that if at least one of them doesn’t remain alert and watchful they might be robbed?
The look at that woman on whose shoulder her head rests. She looks so fierce.
She has an air of total defiance about her – arms folded, her face set in a stern stare that warns all who encounter her “don’t mess with me or my friends.”
The lady next to her, whilst perhaps not as fearsome as her companion, also has the look that says she has been through the school of hard knocks. She is, without doubt, a survivor.
And then comes the first of the only two men in the photo. His build is stocky. His shoulders are broad. He wears a worried expression, but he seems proud. He has endeavoured to dress as smartly as his modest means allow.
The man next to him, on the other hand. Evidently, sitting still for the time required to take the photo proved too much. He’s turned to say something to the lady next to him.
It seems that he may have made some witty comment as her face bears the glimmer of a smile.
But, in turning to crack his witticism, he has become nothing more than a blur.
Now, look at the lady kneeling at the left side of the photo.
She seems slightly more stately than the others. There is a dignity about her.
She rests a comforting hand on the leg of one of the women she appears to be speaking to. Is she a local philanthropist offering words of encouragement? Perhaps she’s telling her where she can get a meal and a warm bed for the night?
A BYGONE EAST END MOMENT
Of course, the point is that we’ll never know for certain what was going on in the photo.
We can view these photos to our heart’s content but never be any the wiser about the circumstances immediately preceding or the moments immediately proceeding them.
Perhaps the photographer was a stranger to these people who headed out one day to take pictures of the East End poor?
Perhaps the kneeling lady is his assistant – or even, perhaps his wife – and she is simply asking the women to keep perfectly still whilst the photograph is taken?
The truth is that we’ll never come close to knowing any of these people. We don’t know who they were, what their everyday lives were like.
Yes, we can attempt to build our own mental picture of them, but that, of course, will be ours not theirs, if that makes sense.
WINDOWS ON THE PAST
But that is the beauty of these old Victorian photographs. They are our windows by which we can gaze back on the Victorian East End in the closing years of the 19th century.
And, for that, we can truly thank the photographers – some known, many unknown – who, over a hundred years ago, had the foresight to go out onto the streets of London and record the scenes and the people that they encountered.
Because, in so doing, they really did give us the opportunity with every photo they took to look back on a moment of East End history.