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February 20, 2019

‘Street Life in London’ – the original ‘Humans of New York’

Deakin University Library’s Special Collection has many books noteworthy for their photographs. These books provide fascinating insights into how things once were – what buildings and landscapes looked like and how people once lived.

An example of one of these books is Street Life in London by J. Thomson and Adolphe Smith, published in London in 1878. The photographs in Street Life in London are Woodburytypes, a form of photomechanical reproduction of photographs. The technique caused the image to be formed in pigmented gelatine – rather than ink ­– resulting in a very high-quality, luminous image that was very true to the original.

John Thomson (1837-1921) was a pioneering Scottish photographer. He collaborated with Adolphe Smith, a radical journalist, in a project to document the lives of London’s street people through photographs and text. Their work was published monthly, then in book form in 1878 and became known as a classic of social documentary photography.

Similar to the viral Humans of New York series, Street Life in London consists of short interviews undertaken by Smith and illustrated by photos ‘taken from life’ by Thomson. This was the point of difference at the time and why this work was so successful. Smith’s interviews are short but fascinating, and include people such as flower sellers, cabmen, shoeblacks and dustmen. Many of these people eked out a precarious existence on the fringes of society.

Titled ‘The Crawlers’, this photograph depicts one of the many elderly women – in a time before aged pensions – who were reduced by destitution to living on the steps of the workhouse in Short’s Gardens, London. They were known as the ‘Crawlers’ of St Giles because their age, lack of food and lack of housing caused a state of lethargy that forced them to crawl. The woman pictured was able to earn a crust of bread and a cup of tea by looking after the baby of a friend, also a former ‘Crawler’, who managed to find a job.

Another photograph depicts ‘Hookey Alf’, a valuable reminder of what working life was like before workplace safety rules and industrial compensation. Hookey Alf’s real name was Ted Coally, and he had been born into a respectable working-class family. He had been working in the trunk and packing trade until a fall caused head trauma which led to bouts of epilepsy. He then found work as a coal porter until another fall damaged his lower arm so severely it required amputation, and he was provided with a hook as a prosthesis. Consequently, he spent his days wandering the streets, looking for whatever odd jobs he could find. If he couldn’t find paid work, he didn’t eat.

Street Life in London is full of remarkable images like these, of times and people long past. The immediacy of photography means that the images have a directness and power that is very striking, even today. There are a few more scans of these stunning photographs below. If you want to see Street Life in London or any of our other incredible Special Collections items, please get in touch with the Special Collections team at [email protected].


Flower sellers at Covent Garden

Group of recruiting sergeants


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