Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Street life: Introduction

Life was lived on the Victorian Street. People ate, sold food, bought clothes and furniture, drank, caught omnibuses and advertised on the streets, particularly if they were poor. This resource uses photographs by photographer John Thomson and descriptions and interviews by radical journalist Adolphe Smith’s 1877 Street Life in London.

It also uses maps produced by Charles Booth in 1898-99 and notebooks of interviews made by his volunteers in the collections of the Library of the London School of Economics (LSE) – see Supporting Links.  It chronicles the changing conditions on the streets of London as reformers and philanthropists highlighted the poverty on the doorsteps of wealthy Londoners.


Colour photograph showing the front of a printed publication with two figures on the cover. The words 'Street life of London' are printed.
Front Cover of a Street Life Volume

John Thomson was a talented and influential photographer, who had spent ten years travelling in, and taking photographs of, the Far East. On his return to London he joined with Adolphe Smith, a socialist journalist, in a project to photograph the street life of the London poor. The volumes were published in monthly parts as Street Life in London and were an early example of social and documentary photography


Covent Garden 

Covent Garden is now one of the busiest tourist areas in London with a market of exclusive designer and tech shops. Yet the slums of St Giles in the area around Seven Dials and behind the market were notorious for crime and poverty throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These poorer areas were between the two main theatres in London, the Convent Garden Theatre, the 1858 building of which is now the Royal Opera House, and the theatre on Drury Lane.

Black and white photograph of working men with large baskets, one with a basket on his head, in the market
Covent Garden Labourers

Covent Garden was also a working fruit, vegetable and flower market until 1974 through which agricultural products and labourers flowed, keeping the inhabitants of London fed (if they could afford the produce).


Colour image of a map of Covent Garden area, with different colours indicating different levels of wealth and poverty
Map of Covent Garden 1898 -9

The map dating from 1898-9 shows the area around Convent Garden in Central London. It covers the area from the River Thames going north to the British Museum with Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the East and Trafalgar Square in the West.


Life on the Streets

Covent Garden was usually thronged in the early morning with market porters, labourers and traders. The afternoon would see more shoppers, and then theatre goers from early evening to night.

The historian Lisa Picard has written that the working class ‘lived life on the streets’ in Victorian London.


Black and white photograph showing three women with baskets of flowers and a man  in a cap looking on.
Covent Garden Flower Women

Women and men worked on the streets selling wares. These flower girls are standing in front of St Paul’s Church – known as the actor’s church – in their ‘beat’ or place they sold. Adolphe Smith wrote that families usually covered these ‘beats’, making sure they did not lose their place for sales.

Black and white image of men wearing bowler type hats around a barrow selling fish. There's a boy in the foreground.
Victorian Street Market Fish Stall

This fish stall was in the street market near Seven Dials. Buying and selling food was done in the streets. Fast food, such as pies and jellied eels, were commonly bought and eaten there too. In the background of this photograph, you can also see shops and advertisements.



Poverty – living without means of support to acquire basic housing, food, warmth and clothing.