There’s no doubt about it. The East End of London is awash with “characters.”
Walk along Whitechapel Road and pass the stalls of its vibrant street market on any weekday and you’ll meet them. Stroll along Brick Lane and they’ll come at you from all angles, extolling the virtues of a particular curry house and urging you to “come on in” by making you an offer you can’t refuse!
Yes, the East End is full of “characters.”
But how many of us, when confronted with a characterful local, would take the time and trouble, or even have the front, to pause, pose one of these locals and then capture their portrait for posterity?
I’d warrant not many.
But, that’s just what John Thomson did.
And may God bless his memory for having done so!
STREET LIFE IN LONDON
John Thomson was a photographer – and a pioneering one at that – who, in 1876, published a monthly magazine entitled Street Life in London.
Each month, he would lead his subscribers on journeys into parts of London that, it’s almost a sure fire bet, they would never have otherwise ventured into.
The beauty of what he did was that his readership could ogle the poor, the destitute and the everyday folk of Victorian London from the safety and comfort of their “respectable” fireside armchairs.
In short, he was an early pioneer of the art of photo-journalism.
His photographs, accompanied by the evocative penmanship of Adolphe Smith, recorded the lives, and hardships, of common 19th century Londoners and, in so doing, granted them a posthumous immortality that enabled them to outlive, on film at least, many of their wealthier, healthier and more famous contemporaries.
His haunting images capture moments of frozen time as those long ago citizens of the Victorian Metropolis, stopped whatever they were doing, turned away from their companions, and stared resolutely, sometimes defiantly, at the camera. And there they still stand, 140 years later, looking at us from whatever London street or corner John Thomson happened to encounter them on.
They look us square in the eyes, as if they are almost straining to glimpse the luxuries and comforts that we take so much for granted and which they could not have possibly imagined, even in their wildest, weirdest dreams of what the future had in store.
Indeed, it is safe to say that the most technologically advanced thing they would have encountered would have been the strange contraption that John Thomson was pointing in their direction as he asked them to “keep perfectly still,” or words to that effect.
LET’S TAKE A WALK INTO THE EAST END
So, let’s follow John Thomson as he lugs his equipment down the Whitechapel Road, which, so Adolphe Smith tells us, is:-
“…the artery which stretches from east to west through the metropolis…”
I like to picture him, wheezing along, sweat beading down his forehead on a dusty, summer’s day.
Eventually he arrives outside an old inn that – well I’ll let our good friend Adolphe Smith set the scene:-
” …has withstood all alterations, and remained unmoved by the huge suburb which has sprung into existence around. The road, the broadest road in London, had perforce to be narrowed here; for the sacred rights of property could not be menaced, and the inn was allowed to remain blocking the very middle of the thoroughfare.
Nor has age and the conversion of the neighbouring fields into a crowded portion of the metropolis entirely deprived the inn of its former rural aspect. There are still tables and benches placed outside, as if to entice Londoners to sit and enjoy the country air, though they are no longer planted on the green sward, but stand on the hard and smooth pavement stone.
Even new paint and a new roof have failed to destroy the quaint look of this inn, while the groups generally seated outside contemplating the broad, busy road before them, add to the interest of this resort.
No public-house could have a better claim to be included within the scope of this book. It is essentially a street public-house, for it stands in the middle and not on the side of the street. Here the customers are allowed to drink in the open air, and a large proportion of the persons who profit by this opportunity are themselves dependent on the streets for their livelihood.
The groups, however, that may thus be observed seated outside the inn are not always picturesque or pleasing, though generally interesting. There is a metropolitan mixture of good and evil in the countenances that may here be studied, which will supply food for thought, if the thought be not always cheerful…”
BANTER AND JOSHING
I like to picture the bemused faces of the onlookers, as they quaff their drinks, smoke their pipes, and make lewd, jokey comments at Thomson’s expense. No doubt they have insisted that, if they are to comply with his request that they pose for him, then the drinks are on him.
As Thomson gets the camera ready Smith, who, I like to imagine, is forever at Thomson’s side, pen poised over the Victorian equivalent of a reporter’s notebook, chats amiably with the motley crew of drinkers and learns a little bit about them.
As he does so Thomson shouts the 19th century equivalent of “say cheese” – which, for all I know might have been “say cheese” – and the group freezes, remaining perfectly still for however many minutes in takes Thomson to capture their images for posterity.
Evidently the effort proves too much for a small child in the bottom right corner of the photograph. He, or she, finds standing still for the required duration too much, and moves, thus becoming, and being remembered as, nothing more than a faint blur. At least that’s my reading of what’s happened, although she may have been doing the Victorian equivalent of photo-bombing.
A PEN PORTRAIT
Adolphe Smith then goes to work on providing a pen portrait to accompany Thomson’s photographic record:-
“Thus in the photograph before us we have the calm undisturbed face of the skilled artisan, who has spent a life of tranquil, useful labour, and can enjoy his pipe in peace, while under him sits a woman whose painful expression seems to indicate a troubled existence, and a past which even drink cannot obliterate.
By her side, a brawny, healthy “woman of the people,” is not to be disturbed from her enjoyment of a “drop of beer” by domestic cares; and early acclimatizes her infant to the fumes of tobacco and alcohol.
But in the fore-ground the camera has chronicled the most touching episode. A little girl, not too young, however, to ignore the fatal consequences of drink, has penetrated boldly into the group, as if about to reclaim some relation in danger, and drag him away from evil companionship. There is no sight to be seen in the streets of London more pathetic than this oft-repeated story- the little child leading home a drunken parent. Well may those little faces early bear the stamp of the anxiety that destroys their youthfulness, and saddens all who have the heart to study such scenes.
Inured to a life crowded with episodes of this description, the pot-boy stands in the back-ground with immoveable countenance, while at his side a well-to-do tradesman has an expression of sleek contentment, which renders him superior to the misery around.”
HOOKEY ALF OF WHITECHAPEL
But, on close scrutiny, one figure has a truly distinctive feature.
Look closely at the man to the right, who is leaning back, supporting himself on the ramshackle wooden bench. Take a close look at his left hand. It’s not a hand at all, but a hook.
This man, so Adolphe Smith tells us, is “Ted Coally”, although he is better known in the district as “Hookey Alf.”
And what a remarkable character he is. Over to you Adolphe:-
“His story is a simple illustration of the accidents that may bring a man into the streets, though born of respectable parents, well trained and of steady disposition.
This man’s father worked in a brewery, earned large wages, married, kept a comfortable home, and apprenticed his son to the trunk-making and packing trade. The boy frequently helped to affix heavy cases to a crane, so that they might be lowered from the upper story of a warehouse into the street. As the boxes were lined with tin it required considerable strength to push them out of the loop-hole over into the street, and, the young apprentice having inherited his father’s stalwart form, was selected for this work.
On one occasion, however, he threw the whole of his weight against a huge case which, through some mistake, had not been lined with tin; of course the case yielded at once to so tremendous a shock, it swung out into the street, and the lad, carried away by his own unresisted impetus, fell head foremost to the pavement below.
This accident at once put an end to his career in the trunk and packing trade, and rendered all the expense of his apprenticeship useless. He recovered, it is true, from the fall, but has ever since been subject to epileptic fits.
Finding that under these circumstances he could no longer attempt complicated and difficult work, he thought he would seek to make his living in one of those occupations where mere muscular strength is the chief qualification required.
Thus he was able for some time to earn his living as a coal porter, and most fortunately made himself very popular among the “coal-whippers,” &c., with whom he associated.
But even in this more humble calling fate still seemed to conspire against him.
While high up on an iron ladder near the canal, at the Whitechapel coal wharfs, he twisted himself round to speak to some one below, lost his balance and fell heavily to the ground.
Hastily conveyed to the London Hospital, it was discovered that he had broken his right wrist and his left arm. The latter limb was so seriously injured that amputation was unavoidable, and when Ted Coally reappeared in Whitechapel society, a hook had replaced his lost arm.
Thus crippled, he was no longer fit for regular work of any description, and having by that time lost his father, the family soon found themselves reduced to want.
“Hookey Alf,” as he was now called, did not, however, lose heart; and, pocketing his pride, he wandered from street to street in search of any sort of work he could find.
Hovering in the vicinity of the coal-yards he often met his old fellow-workers, and whenever a little extra help was required they gladly offered him a few pence for what feeble assistance he could render. Gradually he became accustomed to the use of his hook, and proved himself of more service than might have been anticipated; but, nevertheless, he has never been able to secure anything like regular employment.
He may often be found waiting about the brewery in the Whitechapel Road, where ten or twelve tons of coal are frequently taken in during the course of the day. “Hookey” stands here on guard, in the hope that when the coal arrives there will be some need of his services to unload. On these occasions he will earn a meal and a few pence, and with this he returns home rejoicing.
But, if after a long day’s patient endeavour he fails to make anything, the worry and disappointment will probably cause an attack of epilepsy, and thus add ill-health to poverty. The tender concern of his mother cannot soothe the wounded feelings of the strong man. The energy and will are still there, it is the power of action alone that is wanting; and this good-natured, honest man, feels that he ought to be supporting his mother and sister, while in reality he is often living on their meagre earnings.
The position is certainly trying, and it is difficult to make poor “Hookey” understand that an epileptic cripple cannot be expected to fulfil the same duties as a man in sound health. It is some consolation to this worthy family to know that reliance may be placed on the daughter, whose earnings as a machinist keep the wolf from the door; but the spectacle of this once fine boy, the pride of his native street, now helpless in his spoilt manhood, must be a source of constant grief and disappointment.
Perhaps the lowest depths of misery were reached when “Hookey,” in despair, slung a little string round his neck to hold in front of him a box or tray containing vesuvians, and presented himself at the entrance of a neighbouring railway station, and sought to sell a few matches. For a man still young in years, if not in suffering, this must have been a galling trial, and from my knowledge of the family I feel convinced that they keenly realized all its bitterness.
“Hookey’s” misfortunes will, however, serve for one good purpose. They demonstrate that even those who resort to the humblest methods of making money in the streets are not always unworthy of respect and sympathy.”
A REMARKABLE STORY INDEED
What a truly remarkable story. Look at Ted, or “Alf”, again. At first glance you might have seen a loafer, a malingerer who is simply drinking away his money in a Whitechapel hostelry. But now, thanks to Smith’s compassionate pen portrait of him, you see him as a human being – dare I say a fellow human being? – who has had adversities and set backs to overcome, but who has demonstrated a resolute determination to carry on, regardless of the hardships that life has thrown at him.
Yes, this photograph may be 140 yeas old, but its’ subjects are as vibrant and as alive ad they were when Thompson and Smith encountered them over a century ago.
As Smith concludes:-
“Many cases of this description might be found “Whitechapel way,” by those who have the time, energy, and desire to seek them out; and personal investigation is at once the truest and most useful form of charity. It will always be found that those who have the best claim to help and succour are the last to seek out for themselves the assistance they should receive. It is only by accident that such cases are discovered, and hence my belief that time spent among the poor themselves is far more productive of good and permanent results, than liberal subscriptions given to institutions of which the donor knows no more than can be gleaned from the hurried perusal of an abbreviated prospectus. In this manner Dickens acquired his marvellous stores of material and knowledge of the people. Exaggerated as some of his characters may seem, their prototypes are constantly coming on the scene, and as I talked to “Hookey” it seemed as if the shade of Captain Cuttle had penetrated the wilds of Whitechapel.”
THE MOMENT PASSES
As the moment passes and the group relaxes, perhaps exhaling having held their collective breaths as the photo was taken, Thomson dismantles his cumbersome equipment, Smith pops his pen and notebook back into his portmanteau. They order another round for their new friends. Hands are shaken, backs are slapped, quips and insults are exchanged and goodbyes are said.
As Thomson and Smith waddle west along Whitechapel Road, they turn and look back, waving to the motley crew of Eastenders upon whom they are about to bestow immortality.
Their images from those few minutes are preserved on the film that Thomson takes away with him.
Their lives will continue, unchanged by their encounter with Thomson and Smith. They’ll continue to fight their daily battles for survival. They’ll, no doubt, be back at the inn the next day and the day after that.
I wonder what became of them?