Growlers, Cats’ Meat and the Hokey Pokey Man
I’ve been shying away from this rather wonderful series of photographs, important not only to the history of Greenwich but to the history of Victorian London as a whole, largely because so many of them are so famous they seem almost ubiquitous.
A couple of them, like this rabbit seller (complete with a piece of sacking round his waist to catch the blood…) crop up all over the place – in museums, libraries, books, TV, you name it, which made me think that people already knew what they needed to about the Reverend Charles Spurgeon and the bright idea he had in 1884 to create a magic lantern show of street scenes of everyday Greenwich.
But the other day Alison asked me about it, and it occurred to me that perhaps they’re not as well-known as I’d thought. This is probably down to the usual problem of the only dedicated book about the subject that I’m aware of, a re-working of a 1950s volume by the fine local historian Alan Glencross, being out of print. It is relatively easily found – look to paying about £12 on Abe Books and between a fiver and £15 on Amazon or finding it for a quick snoop free in the reference section of local libraries, but you have to know about books to be able to look.
Our Reverend Spurgeon is quite hard to find on the net because he is the (twin) son of the much more famous “Prince of Preachers,” Rev. Charles Spurgeon, who founded the Metropolitan Tabenacle. He wasn’t supposed to become a preacher – he’d been intended for a career in commerce, but I guess having a hell, fire and brimstone dad, and a brother destined to follow his father into the family business, coupled with training at his Spurgeon College it was only a matter of time before Charles wanted a pastoral look-in.
He became preacher at the South Street Baptist Church in 1879 (I’m embarrassed that I don’t have a photo of that place to hand; I’ve passed it so many times, but don’t you think that it sounds like it should be in the Deep South of America with a name like that?) and remained there for 24 years.
Like so many middle class Greenwichians then, Spurgeon was fascinated by technology and in particular photography. I don’t have any proof that he was mates with the inventor of The Incredible Noakesoscope but since they were virtual contemporaries and lived a stone’s throw from each other I like to think that D.W. Noakes and Chas Spurgeon used to enjoy a (non alcoholic for Mr. S, of course) drink together over lengthy discussions on dry-plate technique.
Chas started his Grand Project in 1884, with a couple of pals, Mr OJ Morris and (possibly) Mr Sims, a professional photographer from King Street (now King William Walk). The three of them went around Greenwich photographing the all the street scenes that were fit to print.
As Alan Glencross is at pains to point out, the exercise was extremely subjective. He reminds us that these were photos taken for a nice, clean churchgoers’ evening’s entertainment, so don’t expect to see any street walkers, dope sellers, layabouts or other undesirables though I’ll eat my tricorn if they weren’t hanging around Greenwich just as much as ‘nice’ ice cream sellers, jolly crock-sellers or the police showing off their latest ambulance technology:
To me, that just makes the pictures even more shocking. Nice, well-fed, middle class Greenwich folk were quite used to seeing small, shoeless children selling matches or illegally shining shoes in Straightsmouth, and even if it moved them to open their wallets, as Spurgeon intended it certainly didn’t shock them.
Similarly, Alan Glencross reminds us that these photos are in no way ‘candid.’ The exposure time needed in the late-nineteenth century meant that every photo was carefully posed. Some worked rather better than others – this ‘action shot’ of a copper apprehending a small herbert nabbing bricks isn’t going to win any prizes for authenticity:
and ‘extras’ make return visits in photgraphs, over and over again. However fascinating the people are, I love the backgrounds as well – look at this old street car outside the King Billy in Trafalgar Road:
This image of a ‘growler’ (a taxicab, presumably named for the racket it made as it went along?), although it looks as though it was taken at Westcombe Park, is, apparently, more likely to have been at Maze Hill.
I find myself imagining what it must have been like to attend the Good Reverend’s Magic Lantern Show. I’m getting myself all togged up in my tricorn with the cherries on top and my best tweed cape to see the amazing magic lantern show. What am I going to see? The Crystal Palace? Queen Victoria? A nice picture of a kitten? No – just a bunch of local toughs doing what I see them doing every day.
I mean it’s fascinating for us, seeing a world of more than a hundred years ago that exists only in tiny spits and spots these days, but for the burghers of Greenwich might it have been a bit of a let down? Of course not. In a time before cinema, the process itself was the draw. What was in the pictures was still relatively unimportant.
Nevertheless Spurgeon was, Alan Glencross suggests, a pioneer. Although not the first to use Magic Lantern as propaganda, no one had commissioned a set of images of ordinary street life before. And as such he is important, not just to Greenwich, but to British social history.
(Nearly) all human life is here – but what of Spurgeon himself? Well, who is that dapper chap in the boater having his shoes shone in Straighstmouth? What about the guy leaning on the hokey-pokey cart above? In true Hitchcockian style Spurgeon liked to appear in his own shots. Is it just me or does he not look quite like you’d imagine a Victorian Baptist preacher to be?
The series of photographs were presented to Greenwich Libraries in 1955, so my best guess is that they are now housed in the Heritage Centre – one of these days I must go and check them out. In the meanwhile it’s well worth tracking down a copy of Grandfather’s Greenwich. I can’t see a reprint happening any time soon…
Just out of interest – I wonder – does anyone know whether this particular Spurgeon and the very fine Darrell Spurgeon, whose histories of Greenwich, Charlton and Woolwich I refer to again and again, are any relation?
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