An Italian "Ice Man" selling Halfpenny ices in downtown London in 1877

John Thomson was a pioneering Scottish photographer with a flair for adventure and travel.  In 1862, he decided to visit Singapore, and this would start a 10-year period of photographing the cities and people of the Far East. He returned to England in 1872 to find that his experience quickly made him an expert not just on Asia, but also photography.  In the following years, he would give hundreds of public lectures and his work would be published far and wide.  

Not content with his body of work, John reached out to Adolphe Smith, a rabble-rousing journalist he'd met years before.  Together they embarked on producing a monthly magazine called Street Life in London.  The project focused almost entirely on the "others" of London, and thus became one of the first examples of social documentary photography.  

Here are some of our favorites from the collection, which you can find in full at the LSE Digital Library.  Note:  John had a flair for not just photography, but also writing, so we're including some of his captions with the photos.

Flower saleswomen in Covent Garden in 1877. 

Some additional commentary from Mr. Thomson:  "How different is the Covent Garden of to-day, with its bustle and din, its wealth and pauperism, its artifices, its hot-house flowers and forced fruit, its camellias with wire stems, its exotics from far-off climes, to "the fair-spreading pastures," measuring, according to the old chronicle, some seven acres in extent, where the Abbots of Westminster buried those who died in their convent. In those days vegetables were not only sold here but grew on the spot; and the land, now so valuable, was considered to be worth an annual income of £6 6s. 8d., when given by the Crown to John Russell, Earl of Bedford, in 1552."


Ginger Beer sales.  This is by and far one of our favorites from the collection, namely when paired with Thomson's words of why sales were so brisk on Sunday morning:

"At Clapham Common - where the accompanying photograph was taken - Hampstead, Greenwich, Battersea Park, etc etc, on a broiling summer's day, there is a great demand for light, refreshing drinks, and more than £1 may be taken during one day by those who have a sufficient supply of ginger-beer with them, or some friend who can bring a fresh stock in the course of the afternoon. In ordinary times, however, twenty shillings a week net profit is considered a very fair reward for selling ginger-beer in the streets. Apart from the very hot days, and the pleasure-g rounds around the metropolis, the best time and place for the sale is near the closed public-houses on a Sunday morning. The enormous number of persons who have spent their Saturday evening and wages in getting lamentably drunk, come out in the morning with their throats parched and are glad of anything that will relieve the retributive thirst from which they suffer. Ginger-beer, under these circumstances, is particularly effective in restoring tone and mitigating the consequences of intemperance; and these are facts which readily account for the large sales effected on Sunday mornings."


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Charles Dickens' England: 10 Photos that Capture Street Life in London in 1877