Working Class London In Photos: 1890

Part of a collection of photos, all dated 1890. They were taken in East London during that year, but the photographer was unknown and not credited.
(Some of the photos can be further enlarged by clicking on them.)

Factory girls outside a cafe during their meal break. They wore thick white aprons to protect what were likely to be the only clothes they owned.

Barefoot boys photographed in midwinter.

Old women selling used clothing and material in Chrisp Street Market.

The girl on the right has lost one of her only pair of boots, so is walking around wearing just one. The soiled aprons under their coats suggest that they were both employed in a factory. Child labour was still common then.

A makeshift baby carriage with no wheels. It was just dragged around.

This boy was described as an ‘Incorrigible Beggar’.

Rag and bone collectors announcing their intention to buy those items by blowing a bugle. The children in the background were excited to be included in the photo.

Members of an East London Boy’s Brigade band. Being able to wear a smart uniform and be a part of such an organisation was a temporary relief from their hard lives.

Local people posing on Dorset Street, in Spitalfields. This was known as one of the most lawless streets in London, and was frequented by pimps and prostitutes. It was also one of the favourite haunts of Jack The Ripper. He murdered Mary Kelly in Millers Court, just off Dorset Street. And one of his other victims, Annie Chapman, lived in a cheap lodging house on Dorset Street before he killed her in nearby Hanbury Street.

Curious children crowding around the photographer. Despite their poverty and living conditions, they were mostly well-dressed.

A street sharpener. He would walk around hoping to be paid to sharpen knives and scissors. Even when I was a child in the 1950s, men like him were still seen everywhere. Working people could not afford to replace blunt knives or scissors, so it was economical to have them sharpened regularly.

This man is what passed for ‘Pest Control’, in 1890. He carried a placard announcing his services, and at a time when bedbugs, rats, cockroaches, and other pests were abundant, he would be in high demand.

55 thoughts on “Working Class London In Photos: 1890

      1. Pete you and I did not grow up in a perfect world-no one does, bit what a golden time it was cmpared to the hardships of yesteryears-and the crazy of these modern times. Like you, I am so thankful for what we had. I worry for my very young grandchildren. I am tryng to get caught up on blogging. I have purchased another very old house and trying to do as much work as I can-nothing involving a tool, but I am as busy as any bee ever dared to be. Thank you for tolerating my neglect-You know I read every post, but can hardly say how much I enjoy your blog. x Michele

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  1. (1) Those factory girls are smoking hot joints.
    (2) But do those boys run barefoot in the park?
    (3) “Those old women are Chrispy critters.” (Hannibal Lecter)
    (4) The factory gave that girl the boot. It should have given her another one!
    (5) “I’ll get some wheels for this old crate one of these days, sugar, I promise!”
    (6) If you didn’t give the ‘Incorrigible Beggar’ some money, he’d go after you with a broom. Whack!
    (7) The Andrews Sisters came running when they heard the bugle boy.
    (8) The East London Boy’s Brigade got in a big fight with the West London Boy’s Brigade, but it was broken up by the South London Boy’s Brigade with the help of the North London Boy’s Brigade.
    (9) I’ve never forgiven Jack The Ripper for murdering Mary Kelly in Millers Court. She was my favorite lollipop girl.
    (10) Children of the Corn are usually curious. “Shall we murder the photographer? He looks like a carnivore to me.”
    (11) Overheard:
    Street Sharpener: “Back again, sir?”
    Jack the Ripper: “Yes! I really appreciate your service!”
    (12) “I hate to bug you, old man, but you misspelled cockroaches.”

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  2. Interesting photos. Such desperate poverty; I feel sorry for all the people in these photos. Their lives must’ve been miserable. If they could see how we live today they’d be astounded at the cleanliness and technology.

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    1. They are indeed, Liz. After the Factories Act of 1833, children under the age of 9 were legally prohibited from working. However, most companies took a blind eye to that law, and it was rarely enforced. Even in 1890, children were working in factories, mills, and coal mines from the age of 6, and girls like the ones in the photo were considered to be adults who had to earn their keep in the poor families they came from.
      As late as 1938, my mum had to leave school at the age of 14, and work full-time, having taken no exams or qualifications. She trained as a book-keeper for a company on London’s Docks, so she was considered to be ‘lucky’.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  3. I remember the man who sharpened knives and the rag and bone man. I enjoy seeing these old photos though it’s always stunning to see how tough life was. I look at their faces and wonder what sort of things they chatted about, what made them happy. I suppose just having a meal and a warm place to sleep, but I wonder if they hoped things would improve.

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    1. From reading contemporary accounts, it seems to me that most poor people accepted their fate. If they could scrape the money together, some emigrated to Canada and Australia in the hope of a better life. But for the majority of hard-working Londoners, it was just a case of work until you die.
      Best wishes, Pete.


    1. Thanks, Carol. There were still rag and bone men using a horse and cart around Camden before I moved away in 2012. But they were looking for scrap metal and old furniture by then.
      Best wishes, Pete. x

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love these old photos. I have many happy memories of Chrisp Street market on a Saturday morning. Mum would send me for fruit and veg and I’d spend my time browsing through the second hand records on a stall in the market and come back with records and no fruit and veg, so I’d have to go back again…

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