"Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets."

Charles Dickens from Little Dorrit

flower sellersCredit: Street Life in London by Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson. Despite the common depiction of Victorian era London as the “good old days” the truth is quite different.  Life, in reality, was not all well fed aristocrats enjoying weekend parties in well-appointed salons, the clip clop of horse’s feet as they pulled a gleaming hansom cab through Hyde Park, or pink cheeked shop girls selling flowers and fabric in London streets. 

While some eked out a living selling, buying and doing, there was also grinding poverty from which there was rarely escape that went hand in hand with disease, starvation and crime. In his book The Victorian underworld, Kellow Chesney gives a graphic description of the conditions in which many were living: 

‘Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the, metropolis … In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room,’

Street Life in London...

A Pictorial Best Seller from 1877

Lady and BabyCredit: Street Life in London by Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson. One book that proved to be best seller published in 1876-1877 was titled "Street Life in London."  While other books had been written about street life in London, it was the gripping photographs that made this one a winner and are still mind-boggling today.

It consists of a series of articles by radical journalist Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson. The pieces are short but full of detail, based on interviews with a range of men and women who created a precarious and marginal existence by working on the streets of London, including flower-sellers, chimney-sweeps, shoe-blacks, chair-caners, musicians, dustmen and locksmiths.

The photography indeed speaks volumes for itself.

Victorian Street Life in Pictures

Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs
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Buyers, Sellers and Menders.

The London street workers were split into three main groups: the buyers, sellers and menders.

Door to Door Sales:  Most women and their servants stayed at home during the day so door to door sales made sense.

  • The butcher in his light blue smock and dark blue apron took orders and then marked each with a customers name and address on paper and skewered it onto their meat. 
  • The watercress girls were early risers selling cress to homes before breakfast and just before dinner.
  • The milk was delivered by the milk maids or men who carried two covered pails balanced on a yoke across the shoulders. Until the 1880’s there was a cow at St. James Park for really fresh milk for children and their nursemaids when on an outing.
  • Potmen deliveredThe DustmanCredit: Street Life in London by Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson. drinks like porter and stout and made home deliveries during the week but you could lean out your window and call one over when you needed a pick me up.
  • The catsmeat man sold horse meat from a barrow or basket and the fly paper man wore a top hat that had trapped flies stuck on it as he called, “Catch ‘em alive-oh.”
  • Summer months brought out the lavender girls and the cherry ladies calling, “All a-growin and all a-blowing.” Winter months brought out the muffin man, the potato man or chestnut vendor. You could also buy cockles-and-mussels or onions that hung down from a yoke carried on the onion man’s shoulder as he sang,

Here’s your rope…

To hang the Pope,

An a penn’orth of cheese to choke him.


Nobody knows why or how cheese enters into the sales pitch as he didn’t sell any!

Rags, bones, hares on poles, tinkers and gypsies!

Permanent vendor stalls were often set up outside pubs or the theatres and sold fruit and vegetables, mussels, stewed eels and sheep’s trotters. 

The door to door buyers were also out in great evidence and included,

  • the rag and bone man,  made a living by calling out for, “rags, bottles or bones?” and these items were sold to paper mills, glue factories, toothpick, match and fertilizer manufacturers. They were part of the recycling process and are still in existence today although they travel by van and probably pick up different articles than in the Victorian era.
  • The old-clothes men were often Jewish and would buy almost anything no longer wanted: In her book, The Victorian House, author Judith Flanders writes: “as well as clothes and hats they also bought clocks, dripping (fat) – almost anything, in fact.” They
    wore the hats they had purchased on their heads and carried an old clock with a bell under their arm.
  • Other men carried long poles on which they stuck the skins of hares and rabbits bought from the cooks.Chimney SweeperCredit: Street Life in London by Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson.
  • The Gypsies, in bright hats and dresses, could be seen sitting outside front doors caning and mending chairs, while also taking the opportunity to sell the lady of the house brooms, brushes and, of course, her fortune!
  • Tinkers mended pots and pans helped by his wife and children who followed him with the grinder, furnace and his tools in a wheelbarrow.

 Street Entertainment: 

Those with a flair for creativity often made a living by entertaining the public who were out and about. There were stilt dancers, and dancing dogs, monkey grinders with small monkeys, tumblers, feats of strength, ballad singers who sold the words for a few pence, dancing bears sometimes made an appearance especially when bear hair grease was being sold berween 1850-1860.

There were puppet shows, and of course the children loved the Punch and Judy shows but the middle class children often had to watch from their windows as they were not allowed to mix with the lower class street urchins! 

For many households, the street shows were a nuisance and a constant interruption. Street bands would linger outside homes until paid to leave and if paid too much, then they came back for more. Peddlers were also a nuisance and often returned time and time again to the same house. One man mentions that he was interrupted many time in one week by the following: “Rags and bones; Crockety; Sixpence a peck, peas; Fine young rabbits;Roots all a blowing, all a growing; crochet mats, slippers and writing paper.”

You will notice that he doesn't name the guilty by name, only by their jingles!


Victorian Slum Life in Photos and a Short Video

The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum
Amazon Price: $218.70 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 7, 2013)

Housing, Sanitation and the Plight of the Children

Start of Social Reform

Slum Housing:  As the population of London grew to bursting the need for housing could not keep up with demand. Large houses were turned into apartments or rookeries and multiple families shared a few rooms or one room. There were no standards or laws for these knife sharpenerCredit: Street Life in London by Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson. overcrowded filthy hovels the landlods didn’t care about conditions or upkeep. Often when families could not afford their rent, they rented out space in their room or rooms for a few pennies a day. 

Sanitation: Henry Mayhew was an investigative journalist who wrote a series of articles for the Morning Chronicle about the way the poor of London lived and worked.

In an article published on 24th September 1849 he described a London Street with a tidal ditch running through it, into which drains and sewers emptied. The ditch contained the only water the people in the street had to drink, and it was ‘the colour of strong green tea’, in fact it was ‘more like watery mud than muddy water’. This is the report he gave:

‘As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it’

Children:  Child labour was rife in Victorian England and with no rules to govern employers, it was the children, some as young as four or five, had to endure long days fraught with dangerous working conditions. They crawled through tiny coal tunnels, sold goods in the streets, worked in and around dangerous milling machines and factory implements. In 1848, Child on StreetCredit: Street Life in London by Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson. Lord  Ashley referred to than thirty thousand 'naked, filthy, roaming lawless and deserted children, in and around the metropolis' 

Child abuse was common and often children were abandoned or they simply left home on their own accord because of parental abuse.

The attitude towards the poor ran in both directions. Some felt that something had to be done to help them while others thought that the poor spent all their money or gambling and beer. Others thought that God had created an order and it must not be altered. 

However, the plight of the poor and especially the children must have niggled at more than a few minds and many of the institutions created back then to help are still in existence today like the Children’s Society. 

Another charity that still exists today was started when Thomas Barnardo came to London in Thomas BarnardoCredit: request.org.uk1866 and saw children sleeping in the street and begging for food. He started the Ragged School in 1867 and began helping the abused, unwanted and neglected children of East London. When he died in 1905, through his charity, there were 96 homes caring for 8500 children. His work continues on today helping 200,000 children, young people and their families.