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.

British Social History: Photos By Thurston Hopkins

In the 1950s, immigration from the West Indies was becoming a political issue. At the same time, many people all over Britain were still living in slum conditions and poverty. Thurston Hopkins travelled to some cities in Britain to record what was happening.

1955. Three West Indian men photographed on the streets of Birmingham. Racist attitudes often made it very difficult for them to find accommodation and employment.

1955. Mr Siebert Mattison from St Anne in Jamaica now lives, sleeps and cooks in the same room with his Welsh wife and their three children.

1955. Kwessi Blankson from Jamaica offers a light to workmate Jack White at The Phosphor Bronze Company where he is in charge of the oil burners.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
A child sleeping in a slum dwelling in the backstreets of Liverpool, where 88,000 of the houses are deemed unfit for human habitation.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
A woman washing her face over a basin in her rundown Liverpool home.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
A woman sitting by a stove with two children at their home in the Frank Street slum clearance area of Liverpool. She is probably their grandmother.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
Three teenage boys with fashionable hairstyles on a street corner.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
An elderly woman standing among the litter in a back alley of the Liverpool slums.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
A group of children playing weddings.

Poor Children In Industrial England: 1881-1901

In the last two decades of the reign of Queen Victoria, large sections of the population of England still lived in abject poverty. This was especially true of the industrialised north of the country, where the increase in the population following people seeking work in factories caused overcrowding. This left orphaned children roaming the streets, and others left to fend for themselves by working parents.

Reformers, mostly wealthy people with social consciences, tried to do something about this and set up organised Chidren’s Homes and Care Homes For Children. They also employed photographers to document the condition of the children taken into care, and those still out on the streets. Most of the following photos were taken over a twenty-year period in and around the city of Liverpool. Some of the images are heartbreaking.

Young working girls at a cotton mill. Look at the expressions on their faces. No hope.

Three children taken into a home after being found wandering on the streets.

A girl found living alone in a loft in a deserted house. She had some kind of development issue, and had likely been abandoned.

A young girl singing and dancing on a pub table to earn money.

This child has malnutrition, and was close to death.

This boy was taken in a home after being constantly beaten by his parents.

Boys playing cricket in a main square in the city. They drew a crowd for their game.

Two brothers found living on the streets. They were taken into care.

Happier children posing on a large fountain in the city.

This girl was taken into care, and had to had her head shaved because the hair was crawling with lice.

Five children from the same family. The water in their home was unfit to drink, so they had been drinking Gin, and were all found drunk. They were taken away from their alcoholic mother and put in a home.

Children helping to sell all their family possessions in a street market.

A ‘Street Nursery’. Working women would pay the older girls to look after their children while they worked in factories. The girls had nowhere to take them, so they looked after them on the streets until their mothers collected them.

Children gather on the street to listen to a sermon from a religious missionary. They were hoping to be givem food after hearing what he had to say.

A group of children wearing the rudimentary ‘uniform’ of a Children’s Home. They had all been found alone on the streets.

Victorian London In Photos: London’s Poor

Between 1860 and 1900, many photographers tried to capture the plight of the poor living in big cities. Despite the boom of the industrial revolution and the expansion of the empire, most ordinary people lived in awful conditions, facing financial poverty every day of their lives. They did what they could to make a living, and get through each day.

A street locksmith. People would bring old locks to be repaired, as they could not afford to replace them with new ones.

The second-hand clothes shop. The sale of dirty and unhygienic clothing contributed to the spread of disease, as well as passing on lice and fleas to the new owners.

An illiterate gypsy family living on marshland at Battersea. When they could no longer earn money in one area, they moved on in their horse-drawn caravan.

Unofficial dustmen. (Garbage collectors) They would travel around with their cart trying to get paid for taking away rubbish. Then they would dump that at the nearest available spot, instead of taking it to a refuse depot.

A Hansom Cab driver (in the bowler hat) talking to a horse-drawn bus driver. These men were self-employed, and had to stay out to all hours to cover their expenses before earning anything for their families.

Bargemen on the River Thames. They would be paid a daily rate to work for the barge owner.

Spitalfields was not only the haunt of Jack The Ripper, it was also one of the poorest districts in London. Known for crime and prostitution, the residents there lived in the worst possible conditions.

A young barefoot girl in Spitalfields, 1900. It is highly likely she was already working as a prostitute.

Homeless children living on the street in Spitalfields in 1900.

This small boy is already working full-time, pushing his cart around to carry goods for his employer in 1900.

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.

Slum Living In Glasgow: 1969-1971

More photos commissioned by the homeless charity, Shelter. This time they show life in the slums of the Scottish city of Glasgow, in relatively modern times. Once again, it is the total lack of hope in the faces of the people that affected me so much. They break my heart, and make me ashamed to be British.

This small boy is tough, and that can be seen in his face and his attitude. He is playing in the streets, unsupervised. 1969.

The view from a tenement window, 1970. Although this is a colour photograph, the surroundings are so drab, it appears to have been photoshopped.

A family living in one room, 1971.

A young mother and her baby living in awful conditions, 1971.

This young couple seem to have given up. 1970.

Another family in one room, 1971.

Tenement living in the Gorbals district, 1970.

This young schoolgirl appears to be in total despair. 1971.

Children playing in abandoned tenements, 1971.

This child was waiting for his parents to come home from work, 1971.

Two sisters share the only chair in their tenement flat. 1971.

This glum-looking family living in one room, 1971.

Unsupervised small children playing while their parents were at work, 1971.

What worries me most about these photos is that if our current right-wing government has its way, we will be seeing many similar images during 2023.

“Let them eat cake”.

Poverty In ‘Modern’ Britain: 1968-1972

The housing charity Shelter commissioned photographer Nick Hedges to take a series of photographs around Britain, between 1968-1972. They were used to highlight the abject poverty and appalling living conditions that many people were still enduring in supposedly ‘Modern’ Britain. You could be forgiven for thinking these photos were taken during the 1930s.

Birmingham, 1968.

Birmingham, 1971.

Glasgow, 1970.

Bradford, 1972.

London, 1972.

Bradford, 1972.

Glasgow, 1971.

Liverpool, 1969.

Bradford, 1969.

Liverpoool, 1969.

Salford, 1971.

London, 1972.

Poverty In Britain 1968-1972: Photos By Nick Hedges

At the peak of the ‘Swinging Sixties’, Britain was just not all about Mary Quant, mini-skirts, pop music, fashion models, and fast cars. Much of the working class still lived in conditions of abject poverty, all over the UK. Photographer Nick Hedges went on a tour of the country, and he captured these images in London, Scotland, and the industrial cities in Yorkshire and Lancashire. You could be forgiven for thinking thay were taken during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A depressed-looking woman holding her baby. There seems to be no joy in her life.

A young child in poor living conditions. It makes me wonder what happened to her later in life.

A mixed-race little girl clings to a woman who could be her mother or grandmother.

A woman using what passes for a kitchen in her house. It is situated on the landing between flights of stairs. Hard to believe this was taken in 1972.

All the children of one family sharing a bed with a single blanket.

A young woman with her baby, entering her slum dwelling in a run down area. Looks more like 1930, than 1970, and hard to believe anyone lives there.

This child holds a baby that she has been left to look after in awful conditions.

A young family living in one small room.

A run down area in a northern city in 1972.

At least this little girl looks happy. But the photo feels more like it was taken in 1940, instead of 1971.

Class Poverty In America: A Documentary Film

My friend Antony sent me this 45-minute You Tube video. It was filmed by a European documentary maker, at a time when Donald Trump was still the President.

Middle-Class homeless living in their cars. People working full-time, but unable to afford to rent anywhere to live. From Hollywood, to Texas, to Virginia, a whole generation with no hope.

(I know this doesn’t apply to everyone in the USA, but at the time of filming, it affected around 40 million people)

It is worth your time to watch it, as any of us could be next. (You can easily turn off the subtitles in the bottom menu)

Short Thoughts (60)

Her feet were always swollen now.

The shoes unsuitable for the weather.

But the only pair she owned that she could get on.

No money for new ones, after paying for her shopping.

The smooth soles couldn’t cope with the ice.

Over she went, the ankle breaking with a crunching sound.