(Not) Picturing the Poor

It was no accident that Frederich Engels (1820-1895), a twenty-four year old German social scientist, visited England to study the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon its population. In 1844 no other nation was as industrialized as Great Britain, from Glasgow to Liverpool to Manchester to Birmingham to London, cities were evolving into economic power bases with large populations, all serving the purposes of the technological advances of industry. One either harnessed this new form of capitalism, tied to imperialism and trade, or one was sacrificed to its ceaseless and merciless demands. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” competition created winners and losers by means that exceeded and defied the age old hierarchies of the aristocracy and its servants. Engels observed this new world of unbridled and uncontrolled capitalism, a way of life that would roll across the Channel to France and then to Germany, with a critical eye and an eloquent pen. Of London, he observed,

Hundreds of thousands of men and women drawn from all classes and ranks of society pack the streets of London. Are they not all human beings with the same innate characteristics and potentialities? Are they not all equal, interested in the pursuit of happiness? And do they not all aim at happiness by following similar methods? Yet they rush past each other as if they had nothing in common. They are tacitly agreed on one thing only–that everyone should keep to the right of the pavement so as not to collide with the stream of people moving in the opposite direction. No one even thinks of sparing a glance for his neighbor in the streets. The more that Londoners are packed into a tiny space, the more repulsive and disgraceful becomes the brutal indifference with which they ignore their neighbors and selfishly concentrate upon their private affairs. We know well enough that this isolation of the individual–this narrow-minded egotism–is everywhere the fundamental principle of modern society. But nowhere is this selfish egotism so blatantly evident as in the frantic bustle of the great city. The disintegration of society into individuals, each guided by his private principles and each pursuing his own aims has been pushed to its furthest limits in London. Here indeed human society has been split into its component atoms.

This seminal work by Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 was published in 1845 and was one of the most cogent observations of the modern world created by modern industry which in turn created the new society. Three years later in 1848, the year of Revolution throughout Europe, Engels joined with Karl Marx (1818-1833) and issued the Communist Manifesto, calling for more social uprisings. It is possible to juxtapose the works of Marx and Engels and Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) in London Labor and London Poor (a series of articles published between 1851 and 1861), written at the same time and in response to the same place, England, and note while that the socialist writers concentrated on the working classes, particularly the proletariate, those who labored in factories and were wage earners, working for the behalf of the bourgeoisie, the British author wrote of the under-classes, the floating world of small time criminals and small trades people. The “occupations” studied by Mayhew were timeless, mostly unimpacted by the Industrial Revolution in that the “workers,” whether prostitutes of chimney sweeps, were self-employed, so to speak, and tended to or took care of the effects of modern life, its dirt, dust, grime.


John Thomson. A Convict’s Home (1877)

While Marx and Engels were philosophers and social reformers, strongly critical of the increasingly dehumanized society engendered by capitalism, Mayhew was an observer of people who had no chance, unlike the proletariate, to speak up or to fight back. But next generation of social scientists, such as Charles Booth (1840-1916), were less interested in revolution or in descriptive story telling than in social classification, especially the “dangerous classes.” In his 1892 book, Life and Labour of the People in London: Streets and Population Classified, Booth provided a bristling array of tables and charts laying out the descriptions of various neighborhoods in London which he has thoughtfully divided into an array of colors which had economic correlates:

“The lowest class–occasional laborers, loafers and semi-criminals; the very poor–casual labor, hand-to mount existence, chronic want; the poor–including alike those whose earnings are small, because of irregularity of employment, and those who work, though regular, ill-paid; the regularly employed and fairly paid working class of all grades; lower and upper middle classes and all above this level..”

He then provides seven shades of color (in a black and white book) to “indicate the general condition of the inhabitants of each street..black–the lowest grade; dark blue–very poor, light blue–standard poverty, purple–mixed poverty, pink–working class comfort; red–well-to-do–Yellow–wealthy. As dry as the statistical text is, Booth’s study provided some interesting  contrasts to his precursors. First, it can be noted that Marx and Engels were interested in the “the regularly employed and fairly paid working class of all grades” whose color would be purple, and second that Mayhew was interested in “black”or the “lowest class.” These varying studies of the Other in the second half of the nineteenth century provides the intellectual context for the work of John Thomson (1837-1921) and his photographic corollary and predecessor to Booth. In Street Life in London, published in 1877 or between Engels and Mayhew and Booth, Thomson photographed a particular group (or color) of Londoners, whom we now understand, thanks to Booth, can be characterized as “the poor.”

As with his work in China, Thomson takes an anthropological stance, studying is subject, arranging him or her just so, positioned as performing defining tasks. The  photographic work of Thomson and the accompanying text of Smith mirrors the extensive studies Henry Mayhew did on the poor, which appears to have been a model for Thomson and his writing partner Adolphe Smith (1846-1924). In volume four of his writings on London, London Labour and the London Poor, for example, Mayhew wrote about “Those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work.” To be fair, the author pointed out that there was an independently wealthy class that “will not work,” because they didn’t need to, but the vast bulk of the book, which features statistics and maps, was devoted to female prostitutes. Thomson left the prostitutes and thieves and wealthy coupon-clippers to the sharp pen of Mayhew and focused in on the small jobs undertaken by the army of the barely employed underclass. More often than not, some of the individuals pictured, such as the flower girls, would float in and out of the criminal classes, drifting, when necessary, to more lucrative tasks.

John Thomson. Covent Garden Flower Women (1877)

As the titles of his images indicate, Thomson photographed on streets that were in the heart of the slums but what interested him was the commercial activities on the main thoroughfares, not the cul-de-sacs of the “closes” or the mysteries of the alleys, nor did he venture into the cellars where “the mole people” lived. Because of the primitive state of wet plate photography in the 1870s, it was technically necessary for Thomson to work in the open and in full sunlight. Anthony S. Wohl pointed out in his excellent 2009 book, The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London, the word “slum” “first appeared in Vaux’s Flash Dictionary in 1812..derived from slumber, and came to mean a sleepy, unknown back alley. But for most of the nineteenth century not just the slums, but housing conditions throughout working-class London remained a mystery to the middle and upper classes as a whole..the word slum was first popularized by Cardinal Wiseman in a denunciation of the ‘congealed labyrinths of lanes lanes and courts and alleys and slums’ close by Westminster Abbey..” The author goes to assert of the slums that “most Victoians were unaware of its existence. Only the criminal rookeries were general knowledge.” In the nineteenth century, such studies of the people of the slums, photographed by Thomson, were novel and revealing, part of a long struggle to force the government to recognize these invisible people, who were everywhere. In many ways, Thomson’s book on the London lower class was a testament to the will of people to survive in contriving countless small tasks and finding jobs to do. The sheer human ingenuity and the desire to rise to the level of the “working class,” those who, as Mayhew put it, “will work.” And yet these people, who work so hard, are, in the eyes of Thomson and to professional sociologists, “poor.”

But his vision of the street people is curiously blind and oddly clean. Not only did Thomson isolate moments in the business exchanges among low income individuals intended to define a métier but he also was able to elide the actual conditions of the slum streets he traverses. Only occasionally did the photographer introduce evidence of the sheer uncleanliness of London, as in the photograph of “disinfectors”at work. The men, wearing the nineteenth century version of haz-mat suits, were the product of Prime Minister Disraeli’s Public Health Act of 1875, and were required to go into a home or room in which an infected person had died of a contagious disease and de-contaminate it. This service was a clear advance over the time of Mayhew who wrote of how, in the worst neighborhoods, the dead lay around unattended by the indifferent inhabitants.

John Thomson. Public Disinfectors (1877)

The image of the second-hand clothing shop in St. Giles, seems on the surface charming enough, until one learns that St. Giles was the Axis Mundi for the slums of London, the alpha and omega of disease and that its inhabitants, desperate for money, would sell the clothes of those who died of a virulent disease. The shop depicted undoubtedly contained clothing that had escaped the confiscation of the disinfecting squad.


John Thomson. An Old Clothes Shop, Seven Dials (1877)

From a contemporary perspective, the documentary photography of the nineteenth century presents many problems. The signs of the “imperial eyes” or the elements of class privilege or the traces of the “magisterial gaze” or the complicity with the society of surveillance are all obvious to the viewer educated in postmodern critical thinking. Even more disturbing than what is photographed is the material that is absent. Thomson did not show where these “types” lived, when it is very clear that if these individuals had a roof over their heads–and many would not–it was covering a tiny space shared with a dozen other people, usually strangers, sleeping in shifts. In order to appreciate the vast distance between the true reality of the people Thomson posed in small groups and the images he published, it is necessary to read contemporary accounts of how these itinerate “nomads,” as he called them survived. As Thomas Beames, a genuine reformer, wrote in The Rookeries of London: Past, Present, and Prospective (1852), “..you cannot judge by the daylight aspect of the Rookery, what face it wears at night..You cannot gain idea of what The Rookery was without visiting these streets. Rows of crumbling houses, flanked by courts and alleys, culs de sacs in the very descent part of which the wretchedness of London takes shelter.” Beames made the same point that Wohl made over a century later, that the day was very different from the night, the occupation did not translate into decent housing, and that one could turn a corner in London, leave luxury behind, and stumble into the most tragic of humanity, described by Beames: “Squalid children haggard men, with long uncombed hair, in rags, most of them smoking, may speaking Irish..young boys..looking exhausted as though they had not been to bed. Never was there so little connection between masses of living beings and their means of livelihood.” This is the human tragedy that in Thomson’s book was reduced to human interest antedotes and photographs of various classifications of poor people. And the real tragedy is that Thomson’s work was a revelation to his audience who got a cleaned-up glimpse of how the other half lived in London.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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