Exhibition: ‘Victorian London in Photographs 1839 to 1901’ at the London Metropolitan Archives

Exhibition dates: 5th May – 29th October 2015


Henry Flather. 'Building the Metropolitan Railway' 1862


Henry Flather (British)
Building the Metropolitan Railway
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives


This photograph by Henry Flather shows workers at Baker Street as they construct London’s first Tube line.



This is a fascinating exhibition about the history of London portrayed through Victorian era photographs.

The best photographs in the posting are by John Thomson. The composition of these images is exemplary with their eloquent use of light and low depth of field. The seemingly nonchalant but obviously staged positioning of the figures is coupled with superb rendition of light in photographs such as Old Furniture, London Nomades and Recruiting Sergeants At Westminster (all 1877, below).

The details are intriguing, such as shooting contre-jour or into the light in Recruiting Sergeants At Westminster with one of the soldiers and the two street lads in the distance staring directly at the camera. This seems to be a technique of Thomson’s, for there is always one person in his intimate group photographs staring straight at the camera, which in this era is unusual in itself. The women on the steps of the Romany caravan stares straight at the camera, one of the two children framed in the doorway behind slightly blurred, telling us the length of the exposure.

Then we have the actual characters themselves. With his tall hat and what seems to be scars around his mouth, the man centre stage in The Cheap Fish Of St. Giles’s (1877, below) reminds me of that nasty character Bill Sikes out of Charles Dicken’s immortal Oliver Twist (1837-39). And the poverty stricken from the bottom of the barrel… the destitute women and baby in The “Crawlers” – Portrait of a destitute woman with an infant (1877, below). “The abject misery into which they are plunged is not always self sought and merited; but is, as often, the result of unfortunate circumstances and accident.” It must have been so tough in that era to survive every day in London. See Matthew Beaumont. Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, Chaucer to Dickens. London and New York: Verso, 2015.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to the London Metropolitan Archives for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Philip Henry Delamotte. 'Setting up the Colossi of Rameses the Great' 1854


Philip Henry Delamotte (British, 1821-1889)
Setting up the Colossi of Rameses the Great, The Crystal Palace
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



Philip Henry Delamotte was commissioned to record the disassembly of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1852, and its reconstruction and expansion at Sydenham, a project finished in 1854. This image, entitled Setting up the Colossi of Rameses the Great, is part of an incredible set of photographs which record a large scale project in fascinating detail.


Anonymous photographer. 'Opening ceremony of the Blackwall Tunnel' 1897


Anonymous photographer
Opening ceremony of the Blackwall Tunnel
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



This image shows the opening ceremony of the Blackwall Tunnel. The tunnel was finally opened by the then Prince of Wales (Edward VII) in 1897, having been originally proposed in the 1880’s. It was constructed using a ‘tunnel shield’ to create the tunnel and remove debris. A major engineering project of the period, the tunnel was created to improve commerce and trade in the East End by providing a Thames crossing for a mixture of foot, cycle, horse-drawn and vehicular traffic.


Anonymous photographer. 'St Paul's Cathedral' c. 1855


Anonymous photographer
St Paul’s Cathedral
c. 1855
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



This photograph was taken from Southwark Bridge by an anonymous photographer. The foreground shows London’s lost wharf buildings, including Iron Wharf and Bull Wharf.


George Washington Wilson and Charles Wilson (photographers) Marion & Co (publishers) 'Piccadilly, London' 1890


George Washington Wilson (Scottish, 1823-1893) and Charles Wilson (photographers)
Marion & Co
Piccadilly, London
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



The name derives from ‘picadil’, a fashionable stiff collar of the early seventeenth century. The Aberdeen photographers George Washington Wilson and his son Charles specialised in high quality topographical views. This image is believed to be the work of the Wilsons, many of which were published by the firm of Marion & Co. The distinctive viewpoint is several feet above the carriageway. The photographers and their large format camera were driven round London in a covered wagon hired from Pickfords removals firm. This method allowed them to take candid photographs of streets and people.



Life in Victorian London Exposed

The arrival of photography in London in 1839 would change the way people saw their city, and each other, forever. Quite suddenly it was possible to see life captured ‘in the flesh’, rather than as an artist’s sketch or painting. The new medium was embraced as a means of recording the progress of grand engineering projects and revealing the shocking poverty that haunted the capital’s poorer districts.

The collections at London Metropolitan Archives contain an extraordinary range of photographs from Queen Victoria’s reign, recording the city and its people in stunning detail. Whether in carefully posed studio portraits or images of people gathered in the street, it seems that almost everyone wanted to be recorded on camera. This exhibition delves into these collections to present some of most striking images of the era; from the first known photograph of London to the opening of Blackwall Tunnel at the end of the century, taking in the Crystal Palace, the first Tube line and the harsh realities of life on the city’s streets. This free exhibition runs from Tuesday 5th May to Thursday 8th October at London Metropolitan Archives.

Images on display will include photographs from these astonishing Victorian collections:


Street Life in London

The industrial and social developments of the nineteenth century and their effect on the city and by extension the poor in Britain were subjects of interest and detailed study in the Victorian period. Street Life in London by Adolphe Smith and John Thomson was an early use of photography as a medium to expose the lives of London’s poor and dispossessed in the late 1870’s. (More images from the book can be found on the LSE Digital Library website)


Preserving the Disappearing City

In March 1875 a letter appeared in The Times calling attention to the immanent demolitions affecting The Oxford Arms, a lovely but ramshackle seventeenth century coaching inn near to the Old Bailey. A response came a few days later, in the same column, announcing that a photographic record would be made. The group of historians and photographers responsible for this initiative called themselves Society for Photographing Relics of Old London. Between 1875 and 1886 they published 120 beautifully composed photographs of buildings. These images of a City swept away by the new Victorian world provide a surprising and beautiful record of a long forgotten London.


The Crystal Palace

Constructed for The Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, the Crystal Palace remains an enduring and enticing ‘lost’ icon of Victorian London. The building was re-erected in Sydenham in 1852 and photographer Philip Henry Delamotte was engaged to record the full process, creating 160 images which begin with the first girder going into the ground and end with Victoria and Albert’s appearance at the opening ceremony. The many fabulous highlights include Roman and Egyptian courts, a cast of the Sphinx, the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace Park and an incredible recreation of the Colossi of Aboo Simbel.


H. L. Lawrence. 'Portrait of a woman' Nd


H. L. Lawrence
Portrait of a woman
Cabinet card
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



Replacing the smaller carte de visite in the 1870’s, cabinet cards were a popular way to share and collect images of friends and acquaintances.


Anonymous photographer. 'Portrait of a boy, The Ragged School' c. 1860


Anonymous photographer
Portrait of a boy, The Ragged School
c. 1860
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



This photograph is taken from a case book of the Ragged School Union which provides biographical information and images of a group of boys who were prepared for emigration to Canada.


John Thomson (publisher). 'Portrait of a destitute woman with an infant' 1877


John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921)
The “Crawlers” – Portrait of a destitute woman with an infant
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



This image was published in 1877 by John Thomson in Street Life in London, alongside stories written by Adolphe Smith.

“Some of these crawlers are not, however, so devoid of energy as we might at first be led to infer. A few days’ good lodging and good food might operate a marvellous transformation. The abject misery into which they are plunged is not always self sought and merited; but is, as often, the result of unfortunate circumstances and accident. The crawler, for instance, whose portrait is now before the reader, is the widow of a tailor who died some ten years ago. She had been living with her son-in-law, a marble stone-polisher by trade, who is now in difficulties through ill-health. It appears, however, that, at best, “he never cared much for his work,” and innumerable quarrels ensued between him, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, a youth of fifteen. At last, after many years of wrangling, the mother, finding that her presence aggravated her daughter’s troubles, left this uncomfortable home, and with her young son descended penniless into the street. From that day she fell lower and lower, and now takes her seat among the crawlers of the district.”


The industrial and social developments of the 19th century and their effect on the city and by extension the poor in Britain were subjects of interest and detailed study in the Victorian period. Street Life in London by Adolphe Smith and John Thomson is a good example of this and in particular, its use of early photographic processes.

Adolphe Smith was an experienced journalist connected to social reform movements. While John Thomson was a photographer who had spent considerable time in the Far East, especially China, and central to his work was the photography of streets and individuals at work. Produced in 12 monthly issues, starting in February 1877, each issue had three stories accompanied by a photograph. Most of the text was written by Smith, although two are attributed to Thomson – London Nomades and Street Floods in Lambeth. The images were staged as tableau rather than being spontaneous street scenes and the relatively new process – Woodburytype – was used to reproduce the images consistently in large numbers for the publication.

Text from the London Metropolitan Archives Facebook page


Anonymous photographer. 'Portrait of actor William Terriss' late 19th century


Anonymous photographer
Theatre magazine (producer)
Portrait of actor William Terriss
late 19th century
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



This is a typical example of the portraits of performers produced by the Theatre magazine between 1878 and 1897. Known for heroic roles such as Robin Hood, Terriss was murdered outside the Adelphi Theatre in 1897.


William Terriss (20 February 1847 – 16 December 1897), born as William Charles James Lewin, was an English actor, known for his swashbuckling hero roles, such as Robin Hood, as well as parts in classic dramas and comedies. He was also a notable Shakespearean performer. He was the father of the Edwardian musical comedy star Ellaline Terriss and the film director Tom Terriss.

Athletic as a child, Terriss briefly joined the merchant navy and tried several professions abroad and at home. Adopting the stage name William Terriss, he made his first stage appearance in 1868 and was first in the West End in Tom Robertson’s Society in 1871. In the same year he had major successes in Robin Hood and Rebecca and quickly established himself as one of Britain’s most popular actors. In 1880, he joined Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum Theatre, appearing in Shakespeare plays.

In 1885, he met 24-year-old Jessie Millward, with whom he starred in The Harbour Lights by G. R. Sims and Henry Pettitt. They toured Britain and America together. Terriss played the hero parts in Adelphi melodramas from the late 1880s, among other roles. In 1897, he was stabbed to death by a deranged actor, Richard Archer Prince, at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre, where he was appearing. Terriss’s ghost is supposed to haunt Covent Garden tube station and the Adelphi Theatre.

Text from the Wikipedia website


Henry Dixon. 'The Oxford Arms Coaching Inn' 1875


Henry Dixon (British, 1820-1893)
The Oxford Arms Coaching Inn
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



Shot by Henry Dixon as part of the ‘Society for Photographing Relics of Old London’ project to record heritage on the verge of destruction as Victorian London re-invented itself. Amongst the subjects recorded were the galleried coaching inns which had existed in some form since the time of Chaucer and which were swept away by the coming of the railways. Most ended their days as slum dwellings before being demolished. Only one, the George, now survives.


John Thomson. 'Old Furniture' 1877


John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921)
Old Furniture
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



This image was published in 1877 by John Thomson in Street Life in London, alongside stories written by Adolphe Smith.

“At the corner of Church Lane, Holborn, there was a second-hand furniture dealer, whose business was a cross between that of a shop and a street stall. The dealer was never satisfied unless the weather allowed him to disgorge nearly the whole of his stock into the middle of the street, a method which alone secured the approval and custom of his neighbours. As a matter of fact, the inhabitants of Church Lane were nearly all what I may term “street folks” – living, buying, selling, transacting all their business in the open street. It was a celebrated resort for tramps and costers of every description, men and women who hawk during the day and evening the flowers, fruits and vegetables they buy in the morning at Covent Garden. When, however, the question of improving this district was first broached, Church Lane stood condemned as an unwholesome over-crowded, thoroughfare, and the houses on either side are now almost entirely destroyed, and the inhabitants have been compelled to migrate to other more distant and less convenient parts of the metropolis.”


John Thomson. 'Recruiting Sergeants At Westminster' 1877


John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921)
Recruiting Sergeants At Westminster
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



This image was published in 1877 by John Thomson in Street Life in London, alongside stories written by Adolphe Smith.

“Recruiting in London is almost exclusively circumscribed to the district stretching between the St. George’s Barracks, Trafalgar Square, and Westminster Abbey. Throughout London it is known that all information concerning service in the army can be obtained in this quarter, and intending recruits troop down to this neighbourhood in shoals, converging, as the culminating point of their peregrinations, towards the celebrated public-house at the corner of King Street and Bridge Street. It is under the inappropriate and pacific sign-board of the ‘Mitre and Dove’ that veteran men of war meet and cajole young aspirants to military honours. Here may be seen every day representatives of our picked regiments. […]

“The most prominent figure in the accompanying photograph, standing with his back to the Abbey, and nearest to the kerb stone, is that of Sergeant Ison, who is always looked upon with more than ordinary curiosity as the representative of the 6th Dragoon Guards, or Carbineers – a regiment which of late has been chiefly distinguished for having included in its ranks no less a person than Sir Roger Tichborne himself! To the Carbineer’s right we have the representatives of two heavy regiments, Sergeant Titswell, of the 5th Dragoon Guards, and Sergeant Badcock, of the 2nd Dragoons, or Scots Greys; the latter is leaning against the corner of the public-house. Close to him may be recognized the features of Sergeant Bilton, of the Royal Engineers, while Sergeant Minett, of the 14th Hussars, turns his head towards Sergeant McGilney, of the 6th Dragoons, or Enniskillen, whose stalwart frame occupies the foreground. This group would not, however, have been complete without giving a glimpse at Mr. Cox, the policeman, to whose discretion and pacific interference may be attributed the order which is generally preserved even under the most trying circumstances at the ‘Mitre and Dove.'”


John Thomson. 'The Cheap Fish Of St. Giles's' 1877


John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921)
The Cheap Fish Of St. Giles’s
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



A street market in the notorious St Giles in the Fields area, noted as one of the worst slums in Britain during the Victorian period, 1877. This image was published in 1877 by John Thomson in ‘Street Life in London’, alongside stories written by Adolphe Smith.

This image was published in 1877 by John Thomson in Street Life in London, alongside stories written by Adolphe Smith.

“Awaiting the moment when the costermonger is able to procure a barrow of his own he must pay eighteen pence per week for the cost of hiring. Then he must beware of the police, who have a knack of confiscating these barrows, on the pretext that they obstruct the thoroughfare and of placing them in what is termed the Green Yard, where no less than a shilling per day is charged for the room the barrow is supposed to occupy. At the same time, its owner will probably be fined from half a crown to ten shillings so that altogether it is much safer to secure a good place in a crowded street market. In this respect, Joseph Carney, the costermonger, whose portrait is before the reader, has been most fortunate. He stands regularly in the street market that stretches between Seven Dials and what is called Five Dials, making his pitch by a well-known newsagent’s, whose shop serves as a landmark. Like the majority of his class, he does not always sell fish, but only when the wind is propitious and it can be bought cheaply. On the day when the photograph was taken, he had succeeded in buying a barrel of five hundred fresh herrings for twenty five shillings. Out of these he selected about two hundred of the largest fish, which he sold at a penny each, while he disposed of the smaller herrings at a halfpenny.

“Trade was brisk at that moment, though the fish is sometimes much cheaper. Indeed, I have seen fresh herrings sold at five a penny; and this is all the more fortunate, as notwithstanding the small cost, they are, with the exception of good salmon, about the most nutritious fish in the market.”


John Thomson. 'London Nomades' 1877


John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921)
London Nomades
© City of London: London Metropolitan Archives



This image was published in 1877 by John Thomson in Street Life in London, alongside stories written by Adolphe Smith.

“The class of Nomades with which I propose to deal makes some show of industry. These people attend fairs, markets, and hawk cheap ornaments or useful wares from door to door. At certain seasons this class ‘works’ regular wards, or sections of the city and suburbs. At other seasons its members migrate to the provinces, to engage in harvesting, hop-picking, or to attend fairs, where they figure as owners of ‘Puff and Darts’, ‘Spin ’em rounds’, and other games. […]

“The accompanying photograph, taken on a piece of vacant land at Battersea, represents a friendly group gathered around the caravan of William Hampton, a man who enjoys the reputation among his fellows, of being ‘a fair-spoken, honest gentleman’. Nor has subsequent intercourse with the gentleman in question led me to suppose that his character has been unduly overrated. […]

“He honestly owned his restless love of a roving life, and his inability to settle in any fixed spot. He also held that the progress of education was one of the most dangerous symptoms of the times, and spoke in a tone of deep regret of the manner in which decent children were forced now-a-days to go to school. ‘Edication, sir! Why what do I want with edication? Edication to them what has it makes them wusser. They knows tricks what don’t b’long to the nat’ral gent. That’s my ‘pinion. They knows a sight too much, they do! No offence, sir. There’s good gents and kind ‘arted scholards, no doubt. But when a man is bad, and God knows most of us aint wery good, it makes him wuss. Any chaps of my acquaintance what knows how to write and count proper aint much to be trusted at a bargain.’ […]

“The dealer in hawkers’ wares in Kent Street, tells me that when in the country the wanderers ‘live wonderful hard, almost starve, unless food comes cheap. Their women carrying about baskets of cheap and tempting things, get along of the servants at gentry’s houses, and come in for wonderful scraps. But most of them, when they get flush of money, have a regular go, and drink for weeks; then after that they are all for saving… They have suffered severely lately from colds, small pox, and other diseases, but in spite of bad times, they still continue buying cheap, selling dear, and gambling fiercely.’ […]

“Declining an invitation to ‘come and see them at dominoes in a public over the way’, I hastened to note down as fast as possible the information received word for word in the original language in which it was delivered, believing that this unvarnished story would at least be more characteristic and true to life.”


Unknown photographer. 'Trafalgar Square' c. 1867


Unknown photographer
Trafalgar Square
c. 1867
© City of London : London Metropolitan Archives



The first proposal for a square on the site of the former King’s Mews was drawn up by John Nash. It was part of King George IV’s extravagant vision for the west end curtailed by his death in 1830. Trafalgar Square was completed between 1840 and 1845 by Sir Charles Barry. There had been proposals to erect a monument to Horatio Nelson since his death at Trafalgar in 1805 but it was 1838 before a committee was formed to raise funds and consider proposals. William Railton’s design was chosen from dozens of entrants and his impressive Devonshire granite column with its statue of Nelson by E. H. Baily was erected in 1839-1843. It was already attracting photographers before the scaffolding was dismantled. The four lions at the base of the column were originally to be in stone rather than bronze but it was 1857 before a commission was given to the artist Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873). This photograph shows two of the lions when newly positioned some ten years later.


Unknown photographer. 'Construction of Tower Bridge' 1892


Unknown photographer
Construction of Tower Bridge
© City of London : London Metropolitan Archives



London Bridge was the only crossing over the river Thames in London until the eighteenth century, after which a number of bridges and tunnels were constructed. Perhaps the most famous of these is Tower Bridge. There were a number of designs for different types of bridges but the City of London Corporation decided on a bascule (French for see-saw) design. This remarkable anonymous photograph was taken two years before the bridge opened.



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London EC1R 0HB
Phone: 0207 332 3820

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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