The Lady On The Step

One of the most poignant images we have of the poor of Victorian London is the haunting photograph of the lady sitting on the step.

The misery, hopelessness and helplessness that emanates from the portrait is truly heart-rending.

She leans awkwardly against the cold brick wall, her eyes downcast, her lips curled downwards in misery.

She seems exhausted by her everyday struggle for survival and existence. On the step beside her is a cup, perhaps the remnant of a warming cup of tea she had enjoyed, prior to the photographer arriving to capture her misery for posterity. Maybe the photographer himself bought it for her, perhaps as payment for modelling for him?

On the step to her right, is an old tea pot, that has evidently seen better days. This, as it will transpire, is, or was, an important tool to her survival on the streets of London.

On her lap is a rolled up bundle of rages. It could be a child, or a baby, it’s difficult to tell. In fact, it is a child, albeit it is not her child, but rather a baby she is looking after whilst his or her mother works in a nearby coffee shop.

WHO CANNOT BE MOVED?

What is certain is that, despite the fact that we are separated from her by more than 138 years, there can be few people who can look at her and not feel moved, almost to tears, by her plight.

She is one of the outcast, and downcast, poor of the Victorian era, and she sits  there as a reminder of what befalls those members of a society when the endless pursuit of power and riches lead to profit being put far ahead of people.

I think that every World leader, every politician, every decision maker, every CEO of every global conglomerate, should be sent a copy of this photograph and should be made to spend a morning, or an afternoon, sitting alone in their office, just looking at it.

A lady sits on a step, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, a bundle on her lap.
The Lady On The Step

THE OUTCAST VICTORIAN POOR

She is, quite simply, a lesson from the past.

But who was she, and how did her image come to be preserved for posterity?

Well, this lady is, or was, one of the subjects captured by the Victorian photo-journalist John Thomson (1837 – 1921) who, in 1876, began publishing a monthly magazine entitled Street Life in London.

Month after month, his readers would, from the comfort of their armchairs and by the warmth of their firesides, be able to venture into the poorest quarters of London, and view the poor of the 19th century Metropolis in their natural habitat.

And, no, I’m not being facetious here, for the poverty stricken enclaves of the large Victorian towns and cities, were coming to be seen in, and referred to in, terms that are very much in keeping with our modern wildlife shows and magazines.

In short they were seen as places for the intrepid explorers to venture into, explore, and bring back photographic evidence of their encounters.

John Thomson was, very much, a pioneer of this new photo-journalism.

I’ve already covered two of his haunting images – Hookey Alf of Whitechapel and Caney The Clown in previous blogs.

A photograph of John Thomson
John Thomson (1837 – 1921)

THE “CRAWLERS”

John Thomson was accompanied on his excursions into the Victorian Abyss by Adolphe Smith (1846 – 1924), who provided the words to accompany Thomson’s photographs in order to convey the context of each photograph to their readers, and to, wherever possible, expand a little on the stories of the people in the images.

The above photograph appeared in an episode entitled “The Crawlers”, and was taken in Short’s Gardens, nowadays a plush shopping street located in Seven Dials, which, at the time, was one of the most poverty-stricken districts of London.

Once John Thomson had taken the photograph of the lady, Adolphe Smith went to work on interviewing her and so learnt something of her circumstances and those of the “crawlers” in general.

This is what he wrote:-

“Huddled together on the workhouse steps in Short’s Gardens, those wrecks of humanity, the Crawlers of St. Giles’s, may be seen both day and night seeking mutual warmth and mutual consolation in their extreme misery.

As a rule, they are old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg.

They have not the strength to struggle for bread, and prefer starvation to the activity which an ordinary mendicant must display.

As a natural consequence, they cannot obtain money for a lodging or for food.

THEY BEG FROM BEGGARS

What little charity they receive is more frequently derived from the lowest orders.

They beg from beggars, and the energetic, prosperous mendicant is in his turn called upon to give to those who are his inferiors in the “profession.”

Stale bread, half-used tea-leaves, and on gala days, the fly-blown bone of a joint, are their principal items of diet.

A broken jug, or a tea-pot without spout or handle, constitutes the domestic crockery.

A DIET OF TEA AND BREAD

In this the stale tea-leaves, or, perhaps, if one of the company has succeeded in begging a penny, a halfpenny-worth of new tea is carefully placed; then one of the women rises and crawls slowly towards Drury Lane, where there is a coffee-shop keeper and also a publican who take compassion on these women, and supply them gratuitously with boiling water. Warm tea is thus procured at a minimum cost, and the poor women’s lives prolonged.

But old age, and want of proper food and rest, reduces them to a lethargic condition which can scarcely be preferable to death itself.

It will be noticed that they are constantly dozing, and yet are never really asleep.

Some of them are unable to lie down for days.

A LIFE ON THE STEPS

They sit on the hard stone step of the workhouse, their heads reclining on the door, and here by old custom they are left undisturbed.

Indeed, the policeman on this beat displays, I am told, much commiseration for these poor refugees, and in no way molests them.

When it rains, the door offers a little shelter if the wind is in a favourable direction, but as a rule the women are soon drenched, and consequently experience all the tortures of ague and rheumatism in addition to their other ailments.

Under such circumstances sound sleep is an unknown luxury, hence that drowsiness from which they are never thoroughly exempt.

This peculiarity has earned them the nick-name of “dosses,” derived from the verb to doze, by which they are sometimes recognised.

The crawlers may truly be described as persons who sleep with one eye open. Those who seem in the soundest sleep will look up languidly on the approach of a stranger, as if they were always anticipating interference of some sort.

THE RESULT OF CIRCUMSTANCES AND ACCIDENT

Some of these crawlers are not, however, so devoid of energy as we might at first be led to infer.

A few days’ good lodging and good food might operate a marvellous transformation.

The abject misery into which they are plunged is not always self-sought and merited; but is, as often, the result of unfortunate circumstances and accident.”

THE “CRAWLER” IN THE PHOTOGRAPH

Having introduced us to the class of people to which the woman in the photograph belonged, Smith then went on to provide his readers with a biography of the woman herself, and of the circumstances that had brought her to the step on which Thomson and Smith encountered her:-

“The crawler, for instance, whose portrait is now before the reader, is the widow of a tailor who died some ten years ago.

She had been living with her son-in-law, a marble stone-polisher by trade, who is now in difficulties through ill-health.

It appears, however, that, at best, “he never cared much for his work,” and innumerable quarrels ensued between him, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, a youth of fifteen.

At last, after many years of wrangling, the mother, finding that her presence aggravated her daughter’s troubles, left this uncomfortable home, and with her young son descended penniless into the street.

From that day she fell lower and lower, and now takes her seat among the crawlers of the district.

Her young son is not only helpless, but troubled with unjustifiable pride. He has pawned his clothes, is covered with rags, but still scorns to sell matches in the street, and is accused of giving himself airs above his station!

TO GO OUT SCRUBBING

The woman, though once able to earn money as a tailoress, was obliged to abandon that style of work in consequence of her weak eyesight, and now her great ambition is to “go out scrubbing.”

But who will employ even for this menial purpose, a woman who has no home, no address to give, and sleeps on the workhouse steps when she cannot gain admittance into the casual ward?

Her son, equally homeless and ragged, cannot, for the same reasons, hope to obtain work; but, on the other hand, I convinced myself after a long conversation, that this woman thoroughly realised her position, and had a very clear idea as to what she should do to redeem herself.

She would move heaven and earth to obtain a few shillings, and with these would proceed to the hop-fields, where she would earn enough to save about a pound, and one pound, she urged, would be sufficient to start in life once more.

Her son might get his clothes out of pawn, and then obtain work.

She would, on her side, rent a little room so as to have an address, and then it would be possible for her to apply for work.

A group of women picking hops.
19th Century Hop Pickers

THE BABY ON HER LAP

Nor was this castle in the air beyond realisation.

A fellow crawler, who used to doze on the same step leading to St. Giles’s workhouse, had actually obtained employment in a coffee-shop, and, while awaiting an opportunity to follow this example, my informant was taking care of her friend’s child.

This infant appears in the photograph, and is entrusted by its mother to the tender mercies of the crawler at about ten o’clock every morning.

The mother returns from her work at four in the afternoon, but resumes her occupation at the coffee-shop from eight to ten in the evening, when the infant is once more handed over to the crawler, and kept out in the streets through all weathers with no extra protection against the rain and sleet than the dirty and worn shawl which covers the poor woman’s shoulders; but, as she explained, “it pushes its little head under my chin when it is very cold, and cuddles up to me, so that it keeps me warm as well as itself.”

The child, however, cried, and wheezed, and coughed in a manner that did not testify to the success of this expedient; but it was a wonder that, under the conditions, the woman took care of the child at all. The only reward she receives for the eight hours’ nursing per day devoted to this little urchin, is a cup of tea and a little bread.

Even this modest remuneration is not always forthcoming, and the crawler has often been compelled to content herself with bread without tea, or tea without bread, so that even this, her principal and often her only meal per day, is not always to be had.”

A close up of the lady on the step.
The Unknown Woman With The Baby On Her Lap

BUT WHO WAS SHE?

And thus, Adolphe Smith ends his description of the life and times of the woman whose photograph was destined to adorn the pages and covers of numerous books on poverty in 19th century London. She has found herself transported to many different parts of London when an author, or photo editor, is seeking an image that will convey the plight of the downcast poor of the Victorian era.

She is a regular feature television documentaries on the Jack the Ripper case, and her image is, to say the least, one of the most iconic, if not the most iconic depictions of London street life in the second half of the 19th century.

The one thing Adolphe Smith doesn’t give us, however, is her name.

We are all familiar with her image, we know as much about her as any of her Confederates on the streets knew about her; and yet we haven’t the faintest idea of who she was and what became of her.

For myself, I hope that the coverage given to her plight in Street Life In London led some well-meaning Victorian lady or gentleman to track her down and provide her with a more comfortable existence in her final years.

I hope that she got to finally rent that little room she dreamt of as she fought her daily battle for survival on the steps around Short’s Gardens.

Somehow, I doubt it.

But, whatever became of her, may she rest in peace.