The “Crawlers” Thomson, John  (British, 1837-1921)

Considered a pioneering work for its use of photography as social documentation, and one of the most significant and far-reaching photobooks in the medium’s history, Street Life in London was a breakthrough in photographic reporting and observation.

For a fortunate few, late 1870’s Britain was a time of prosperity and wealth. However, a large section of the British population was struggling in squalor and destitution. Between 1876 and 1877 Scottish photographer John Thomson documented the living conditions of the poor. The photographs were intended to help middle class Victorians to gain some understanding of the depth of misery faced by the lower class. As Thomson himself writes: The unquestionable accuracy of this testimony [photographic] will enable us to present true types of the London poor and shield us from the accusation of either underrating or exaggerating individual peculiarities of appearance.

"In mid-Victorian times photographers did not point their cameras at overt social problems. Perhaps this fact in itself reflected something of the period — social conditions of the working classes were not something to be looked at either with the naked eye or the camera." [1]

Perhaps the most striking feature of Street Life is that the images are reproduced photomechanically by the Woodburytype process from the Thompson’s original dry-plate negatives. The resultant prints give a strikingly sharp, permanent, almost three-dimensional toned representation allowing us to experience them today exactly as they were intended when published.

The "Crawlers" is Street Life’s most renowned image.

The lowest of the British poor was a group, predominantly women, known as ‘The Crawlers’. ‘As a rule, they are old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg. They have not the strength to struggle for bread, and prefer starvation to the activity which an ordinary mendicant must display. As a natural consequence, they can’t obtain money for a lodging or for food. What little charity they receive is more frequently derived from the lowest orders. They beg from beggars, and the energetic, prosperous mendicant is in his turn called upon to give to those who are his inferiors in the “profession.”’ [2]

The Crawler featured was the widow of a tailor. She is sitting on a stone step wearing a headscarf, a long skirt and a striped shawl. The front of a battered shoe is visible from underneath her skirt, her teapot and teacup are to her side in the background. She rests her head on the wall of the entry she sits in. Her weather-beaten face lined and darkened by the rigors of her existence. She is holding a young child in her arms. The woman looks too old to have such a young child, upon further research we learn that the woman is only caring for the child whilst its mother is at work. She had recently been employed in a coffee shop and the widow on the step would look after her child for eight hours a day in exchange for (at best) a cup of tea and a piece of bread. Finding herself widowed some 10 years before this photograph being taken, the elderly woman lived for a time with her daughter, son and son-in-law until her son-in-law, a marble stone polisher by trade became too ill to work. This caused friction between the family members and so the widow and her fifteen-year-old son walked out of their shared home and onto the streets, without a penny to their name. In her youth, she was able to earn a wage as a tailoress before her failing eyesight forced her to stop. She was willing to work, however, having no home address to give a prospective employer her prospects of paid employment were weak. The physical demeanor of the widow, head on wall and looking down visibly demonstrates her despair at her lot in life.

In absence of a social welfare system wealthy philanthropists took it upon themselves to improve the lot of the destitute city dwellers. It was around this time that Dr Thomas John Barnardo established over fifty orphanages in London. Thomson went on to establish a successful photographic studio and in 1881 received the Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria. In the space of a few years he had gone from documenting the lives of the lowliest of London’s residents to photographing his Queen. [3]

Street Life in London’ was issued monthly for a year beginning in February 1877. Each issue contained three Woodburytypes with explanatory biographical text to accompany them. The text was written by Thompson and Adolphe Smith. The 12 monthly parts of were reissued in book form in 1878, and also in a shorter version under the title, Street Incidents was issued in 1881 with 21 of the original 36 Woodburytypes.

Reproduced / Exhibited

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Foster, Sheila J, Manfred Heiting, and Rachel Stuhlman. Imagining Paradise: The Richard and Ronay Menschel Library at George Eastman House, Rochester. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007 p. 174

Simpson, Roddy. The Photography of Victorian Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013 p. 99

Haworth-Booth, Mark. The Golden Age of British Photography, 1839-1900: Photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London [and Others]. New York: Aperture, 1984 pl.146

Stevenson, Sara. Thomas Annan, 1829-1887. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1990. Fig. 9.

Marien, Mary W. Photography: A Cultural History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: SunSoft Press, 2002. fig. 3.89.

Falconer, John, and Louise Hide. Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs. London: British Library, 2009. p. 157.

Oliver, Barret, and Walter B. Woodbury. A History of the Woodburytype: The First Successful Photomechanical Printing Process and Walter Bentley Woodbury. Nevada City, Calif: Carl Mautz Pub, 2007. plate 26.

Bajac, Quentin, and Ruth Taylor. The Invention of Photography: The First Fifty Years. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.p. 117

Mr. Jan Adriaan van Eijk en de vroege Nederlandse fotografie en fotolithografie. Zijn publicaties in het tijdschrift De Volksvlijt (1855 -1878).p. 102


[1] Buckland G. Reality Recorded : Early Documentary Photography. Greenwich Conn: New York Graphic Society; 1974. p. 77

[2] Thomson, J. (1994) Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. p.108

[3] Todd, Nicola John Thomson’s “The Crawlers” and the Birth of Documentary Photography

Thomson, J. (1994) Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc

White, S. (1985) John Thomson Life and Photographs. Thames and Hudson

Foster, Sheila J, Manfred Heiting, and Rachel Stuhlman. Imagining Paradise: The Richard and Ronay Menschel Library at George Eastman House, Rochester. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007 p. 161 p 174

Josef Maria Eder: History of Photography: Translated by Edward Epstean: Columbia University Press: New York: 1945

Manon Hübscher: The Vienna Camera Club-Catalyst and Crucible: in: Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography in Europe, 1888-1918 : Merrell Publishers : 2006 : p.125

The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz: Fifty Pioneers of Modern Photography: Weston J. Naef: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1978

Frizot, Michel. A New History of Photography. , ‘The Photograph in Print, Multiplication and Stability of the Image’ by Sylvie Aubenas, 1999.