Documentary Photography

John Thomson’s “The Crawlers” and the Birth of Documentary Photography

by Nicola Todd

John Thomson, The Crawlers (1876/77)

Britain in the late 1870’s. Prime Minister Disraeli bestows the title Empress of India upon Queen Victoria, the Industrial Revolution forges ahead and soldiers and colonists continue to expand the borders of the Empire.

The Public Health Act of 1875 is the first step towards improving urban living conditions. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation covering not only public health and sanitation, but also urban renovations such as street lighting and pavements.

For a fortunate few, this was a time of prosperity and wealth. However, this was not the case for a large section of the population. Britain’s poor were struggling in squalor and destitution. A quarter of the entire population of Victorian Britain was living in poverty.

Even within the lower classes there existed an informal hierarchy. The lowest of which was undoubtedly 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.”’ (Thomson, 1994, p.108)

The photograph ‘The Crawlers’ was taken between 1876 and 1877 by Scottish photographer John Thomson. It gives us an insight into what Victorian London was like for these unfortunates, but was intended to help middle class Victorians to gain some understanding of the depth of  misery that was the Crawlers existence. This image comes from a series of publications called ‘Street Life in London’, which was issued monthly for a year, starting in February 1877.  Each issue contained three photographs with explanatory text to accompany them. A lot of  the biographical text with these images was written by Thomson’s fellow worker, Adolphe Smith (full name Adolphe Smith Headingly). The piece written with The Crawlers is signed A.S., however Thomson would certainly have collaborated with Smith before this was sent to print.

The woman featured in this picture 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 rigours 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 previous to 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 persons chosen for analysis in Thomson’s publication were overall “’hard working, honest individuals, prevented by their station in life from further advancement.” (White, 1985, p.31) He wanted to bring to the attention of the richer classes the plight of these less fortunate individuals. It is without doubt that he chose to feature such industrious folk as his subjects, as to chose ne’er-do-wells and less honest people would have fallen into the stereotype of what the more affluent members of society would refer to as ‘street people’. His attempts to prick their consciences would have been less effective.

In bringing these images to the public’s attention, Thomson had intended to show the plight of the poor in an unbiased way however it is apparent that he was not as dispassionate about his subjects as his documentary style suggests. Indeed, Thomson is widely regarded as one of the first documentary photographers.

It has been suggested that ‘The Crawlers’ was staged. On closer inspection of the  photograph it appears that the widow is spot-lit and the background is out of focus, the emphasis is on her rather than the  scene as a whole. The woman is seated on the bottom step, indicating her low social status. The only visible possessions of the woman are a teacup and a teapot, this appears to be broken and without a lid. This helps us to realise the degree of her poverty. The physical demeanour of the widow, head on wall and looking down visibly demonstrates her despair at her lot in life. Her shadow and the shadow of the teacup point to a light source directly above and  close to her. However, even considering these small artificial discrepancies appearing within a naturalistically presented photograph, nothing detracts from the sombre power of this image.

In the tradition of Dickens highlighting the deprivation on the streets of London, Thomson used his art to draw attention to this social problem.

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.


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

Victorian Life [online]. [Accessed 21st November 2009]. Available at: <>.


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