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Photographs of Spitalfields a Century Ago by C. A. Mathew


The purpose of the photographs remains unknown, but on the morning of Saturday 20th April, 1912, he walked the short distance from Liverpool Street Station into the heart of Spitalfields, taking his camera with him.

In contrast to the more formal, posed photographs of the time, these photographs engage vividly with a modern audience, who see the people, the streets and the everyday details, just as C. A. Mathew himself would have seen them.

Mathew lived in Brightlingsea in Essex, and had only begun taking photographs a year before these images were made. He passed away 4 years later in 1916 leaving this series of images that in the words of the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life are ‘the most vivid evocation we have of Spitalfields at this time.’

On Saturday April 20th 1912, C.A. Mathew walked out of Liverpool St Station with a camera in hand. No-one knows for certain why he chose to wander through the streets of Spitalfields taking photographs that day. It may be that the pictures were a commission, though this seems unlikely as they were never published. I prefer the other theory, that he was waiting for the train home to Brightlingsea in Essex where he had a studio in Tower St, and simply walked out of the station, taking these pictures to pass the time. It is not impossible that these exceptional photographs owe their existence to something as mundane as a delayed train.


What is immediately remarkable about the pictures is how populated they are. The streets of Spitalfields were fuller in those days – doubly surprising when you remember that this was a Jewish neighbourhood then and these photographs were taken upon the Sabbath. It is a joy to see so many children playing in the street, a sight no longer to be seen in Spitalfields. The other aspect of these photographs which is surprising to a modern eye is that the people, and especially the children, are well-dressed on the whole. They do not look like poor people and, contrary to the widespread perception that this was an area dominated by poverty at that time, I only spotted one bare-footed urchin among the hundreds of figures in these photographs.


The other source of fascination here is to see how some streets have changed beyond recognition while others remain almost identical. Most of all it is the human details that touch me, scrutinizing each of the individual figures presenting themselves with dignity in their worn clothes, and the children who treat the streets as their own. Spot the boy in the photograph above standing on the truck with his hoop and the girl sitting in the pram that she is too big for. In the view through Spitalfields to Christ Church from Bishopsgate, observe the boy in the cap leaning against the lamppost in the middle of Bishopsgate with such proprietorial ease, unthinkable in today’s traffic.


These pictures are all that exists of the life of C.A. Mathew, they are a fine legacy for us to remember him because they contain a whole world in these few streets, that we could never know in such vibrant detail if it were not for him. Such is the haphazard nature of human life that these images may be the consequence of a delayed train, yet irrespective of the obscure circumstances of their origin, this is photography of the highest order. C.A. Mathew was recording life.

About this collection

Bishopsgate Institute is making items from its Special Collections and Archives on the First World War period in London available to We Were There Too. Many of the items will be on display digitally for the first time. We can only show a small amount of what is available. Why don't you visit the institute and do your own research of the East End and the social history of London? The staff would be delighted to help you.

Their online catalogue can be viewed at: www.bishopsgate.org.uk/librarycatalogue.aspx and opening hours are Monday to Friday, 10.00am to 5.30pm. No appointment or ID is necessary.

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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