In Bishopsgate Institute, Jeremy Freedman unearthed a pile of photos, all taken by enigmatic photographer CA Mathew one sunny day in 1912. Freedman’s skilful re-prints now hang on the walls of Eleven Spitalfields, a restored Georgian house, along with a Charles Booth poverty map of London from the period (areas shaded black, including parts of Spitalfields, represented ‘Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal’).
The photographs themselves are charming. The East Enders, cloth-capped, bowler-hatted or swathed in unwieldy petticoats, gaze with frank amazement at Mathew’s clever contraption. Many are clearly not English, as it was understood then. They are the first Jewish diaspora that fled Russia in the aftermath of turn-of-the-century pogroms. Some pictures are blurred – Mathew had only taken up photography the year before – but if anything, that adds to the liveliness of this long-dead populace, as well as inserting a grim reminder that, with WWI’s arrival two years later, these lives probably became blurred indeed, or were rubbed out entirely.
What Mathew rubs out of his East End odyssey is a building: Liverpool Street station, which opened in1874. He would have arrived from Essex by train, and after his grand day out, taken another train out of London, and out of history (he died four years later; little else is known of him). If this area bustles in these images, the station must take some credit. Yet Mathew ignored this modern miracle of transport in favour of those who came hoping to stay. Their story is the continuing story of Spitalfields.