Crispin Street (1912) by C.A. Mathew (Bishopsgate Institute, London)
By Stefan Dickers
April 2010 saw the launch of an exciting photography competition called 'My East End' in collaboration with film and photography organisation Four Corners, the Geffrye Museum and Birkbeck College, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Photobox.
The project provided an opportunity for members of the public and local school and community groups to document and celebrate the rich heritage of London's East End through photographs capturing people, cultures, domestic and built environments, and open spaces.
All entries and further information on the competition can now be viewed at the
My East End website,
along with a list of related events taking place over the forthcoming weeks.
A long tradition
The competition follows a long tradition of capturing the social conditions and people of the East End through photography.
This stretches back to the 1850s when fledgling photographers attempted to catch the flourishing docks and shipyards of the Isle of Dogs.
The first photographs of the East End poor were taken by Thomas Barnes, who, commissioned by Dr Barnardo, took before and after pictures of homeless and destitute children in Barnardos homes.
As photographic techniques advanced, John Galt, a London City Missionary, was able to capture home industries in Bethnal Green around 1900: stuffing mattresses, chopping firewood and assembling matchboxes.
Professional photographic studios also blossomed in the second half of the nineteenth century, producing family and individual portraits, and some of the earliest were established in Stepney in the 1850s.
A dramatic increase in the variety of different East End scenes photographed took place in the early years of the 20th century with the emergence of the cheaply printed picture postcards.
Local scenes of hospitals, markets, churches, schools and streets became far more widely published, and cheaper reproduction charges led to illustrations in books, for example, early photographs of immigrant communities in George Sims' Living London (1902-1903).
News photographs became far more widespread after 1910 and with the availability of the miniature camera in the 1930s, photo-journalists were able to capture informal scenes with relative ease.
Fine examples of the time are found in the work of L. Moholy-Nagy, William T.Whiffen, and those working for Picture Post and Mass Observation.
The post-war years also saw the continuation of photography as a medium to capture life in the East End and the work of photographers, such as Phil Maxwell and Paul Trevor, provide fascinating insights into the culture and communities of the area.
A favourite image
THE BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTE
Bishopsgate Institute is a cultural institute based in an impressive Grade II listed building in central London.
The Institute has been providing a space for people with a thirst for knowledge to learn and flourish since 1895 and we continue to do this through our courses, library and cultural events.
Our Library has also become an essential reference point for anyone interested in the social and cultural history of the East End with an extensive London Collection of books, pamphlets, archives and photographs.
My favourite collection of photographs were taken by C.A. Mathew and are held in the archives at Bishopsgate Institute.
Mathew, a professional photographer from Brightlingsea, Essex, wandered around the streets of Spitalfields taking photographs on a Saturday morning in 1912 whilst waiting for his train home at nearby Liverpool Street Station.
As it was the Jewish Sabbath, he captured families and children wearing shoes and their best clothes; a different depiction from the reports and images highlighting the poverty and crime of the East End at the time.
Stefan Dickers is Library and Archives Manager at the Bishopsgate Institute and looks after its numerous collections on London, labour, co-operation, freethought and humanism.
He is also secretary of the Archives and Resources Committee of the Society for the Study of Labour History, Co-Director of the Raphael Samuel History Centre and sits on the committees of the Socialist History Society and the oral history consortium Britain at Work, 1945-1995.