London’s Working Class: 1870-1901

The Social Reformer Charles Booth was a wealthy man who campaigned for better conditions for the poorest workers in London. He commissioned photographers to take photographs of some of them to illustrate their plight. Here are a few of the photos he used to try to raise money to help them.

Making stone pipes during the Victorian era. Many women were employed to do this job, because they were paid less than men.

This photograph shows a young Mother, exhausted from spending hours making matchboxes, a pile of which can be seen on the table. At her feet is a young, sleeping baby covered by a blanket. For such homeworkers engaged in the sweated industries there was no division between work and home life. Match-box making was amongst the lowest paid work. The industry primarily employed women and children who could expect to work an average of 16 hours per day. For every 144 boxes made they received 2 pennies. This photograph appears in an album with a number of other prints depicting sweated labourers and London’s poor. Such albums were often compiled by charities to raise funds and inform the public about the plight of those living and working in London’s poorest areas, such as the East End.

An Italian Woman in a court in Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell, c.1901. This area was known as ‘Little Italy’, and was home to very poor Italian immigrants, many of whom worked at very low paid jobs such as taking in washing.

Another Italian family in the same area. The man has a business selling ice cream on the streets from his hand-cart.

A child ‘Boot Black’. Many young boys worked 12-16 hours a day on the streets, polishing shoes for a few pennies.

John Galt, a missionary and amateur photographer took this photograph of Mrs Robinson making mattresses outside her East End home. He photographed her at work, stuffing the mattresses with straw. For each completed mattress she would receive one shilling. John Galt was a missionary with the London City Mission. This photograph was one of many he produced to show conditions in the East End and the work of the mission. His photographic intention was often to show that, contrary to popular middle-class belief, the people of the East End were worthy of salvation.

A pub in South London, 1900. Most working men were paid on a daily basis, and it was common for them to go drinking in pubs on the way home, spending money that should have been for the upkeep of their families. Many Victorian reformers campaigned against the excessive use of alcohol by poor people, and urged them to join Temperance Leagues.

48 thoughts on “London’s Working Class: 1870-1901

  1. Frankly, I think the pubs were (are) a great thing, as people need to have normal social contact at the end of the day. Women didn’t have that at the end of their long and hard day. They had to do it all. I wonder if the photographers gave money to the people they photographed, not as payment but as giving. They cared enough about the poor, I hope some of them returned the favor. Best to you, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Photographers often paid the people they photographed, or in some cases sought their agreement because they were working for charities that helped them.
      Pubs are a real social hub, though it was only after WW2 that women started to frequent them equally with men. Even then, single women on their own were not welcomed in them, and presumed to be prostitutes.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This makes perfect sense. Even when I was young, a girl never went into a bar alone. Some places only allowed women if they were escorted, like the Rainbow Room in NYC. I found out the hard way, and it was most embarrassing being turned away. Best to you, Pete.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. It was really awful. I was in college in Washington DC and headed to NYC for a college interview. My plan was to take the train, and walk from Grand Central Station to Greenwich Village. That was a very brave and a big deal for me to do. My English teacher, a wonderful, older man, told me I should definitely have lunch at the Rainbow Room, with their skyline view of the city. I must say that the host at the restaurant was gracious. Still, there were ‘millions’ of eyes looking at me, assuming I was a hooker. When I got back to college, my English teacher was horrified and very apologetic.

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    1. The Victorian British Empire prospered by using poverty to keep down the working classes. Now our current government is trying very hard to repeat the process.
      Best wishes, Pete. x

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I would so love to rub wealthy noses in it. The attitude that people are poor because they don’t work hard, or they are unworthy is just an excuse for not extending help or sharing their good fortune.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. (1) Overheard:
    Woman: “This is hard work!”
    Man: “Pipe down, will ya?”
    (2) Did you hear about the woman who was sick and tired of making matchboxes day in and day out? She ended up making an ash of herself. (“If I have to make one more matchbox, I’m going to burn this place down!”)
    (3) “If my ancestors had lived in Pompeii, I wouldn’t have to put up with this crappy life!”
    (4) “I only sell Neapolitan ice cream. So if you don’t like vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, I’m sorry, but you’re fresh out of luck!”
    (5) Coin Collector, speaking to his young assistant: “If you don’t get these pennies polished by noon, I’m going to give you the boot!”
    (6) Mrs. Robinson put a pea in every mattress she made for the wealthy.
    (7) Overheard at the pub:
    “When I drink, I think about my trouble and strife.”
    “Cheers, mate!”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. My maternal grandmother sewed buttons as an extra job to make ends meet. My paternal grandfather was always in the pub, and would get his dinner thrown up the wall when he returned home. He drank because she nagged, and she nagged because he drank.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The endless stories about the “Poor” among us are interesting and heartbreaking but the “Poor” always manage to survive, don’t they? How do they do that? How do they weather all the storms they face and still come out of it smiling and alive? I ask the question because my paternal Grand father was among that group for years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We mustn’t forget that infant mortality and life expectancy rates were incredibly high among the poor back then, compared to middle and upper class families. But I agree that most managed to endure that life of poverty and were often even cheerful. I suspect that comes from a lack of expectations, and no sense of entitlement, John.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank heavens there were a few people who didn’t allow their wealth to blind them to the suffering of ‘ordinary’ people. Campaigns to help the poor are still needed, even after all that good work, sadly. Cheers, Jon.

    Liked by 1 person

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