The 1912 streets of Spitalfields

On Saturday 20 April 1912, a man by the name of C.A. Mathew – a resident of Brightlingsea, Essex – came out of Liverpool Street Station carrying his camera. There’s no telling why he decided to walk the streets of Spitalfields and take photographs on that day – it may well have been a commission but, over a hundred years later, nobody really knows.

NOTE: Many writers about C.A. Mathew’s tour of Spitalfields, including the gentle author, have assumed Liverpool Street station’s involvement in the story. This is a safe assumption – the London terminus of the route from Brightlingsea but is not a definite! But we’ll run with it too…

Matthew only took up photography in 1911, the previous year. Eleven years later, he died. He produced no other known work and little else is known about him.

Certainly, these beautiful photographs are one of the most evocative views of the London world of 1912. Mathew had a different approach to photography – other contemporary photographers preferred staged photos which meant that subjects never took a true interest in the camera. Mathew’s pictures have spontaneity and allow us to look at those depicted as if we were there in the street.

April 1912 had been a very dry, rather cold but extremely sunny month in London. The Titanic had sunk days before, shocking the world.

On that April 20th, across busy Bishopsgate lay Spitalfields, then a strongly Jewish neighbourhood.

C.A. Mathew crossed the road. It was the Sabbath yet the Spitalfields streets were full of people, especially children. Mathew meandered along a seemingly random route, stopping mainly at junctions to take photographs. As he did, he attracted the attention of the locals who appear en masse throughout the photos – people were simply not used to cameras in those far off days and gathered around.

It is wonderful to see so many children playing in the street – unimaginable now in Spitalfields. The people are well-dressed on the whole. They do not look as poor as we might imagine from this remove in time – nearly all the kids are wearing shoes. And they are comfortable in their lives lived on the streets.

The old streets are fascinating – some are unrecognisable, while others are familiar.

If you wish to take a look at the original photographs, they ended up in the possession of the Bishopsgate Institute where they can still be seen.

Note: All photographs below attributed “C.A. Mathew/Bishopsgate Institute”. All benefit from clicking on each to view them in detail.

Devonshire Square looking south over the Inner Circle Railway

Assuming a start and a finish at Liverpool Street station for Mathew’s walk, there are only two photographs taken in the south of the area and the first is the most boring of the whole set. This maybe is because Mr Mathew was testing his camera.

Attempting to recreate the walk in the order that he made it, we have made simply an educated guess. Alas he did not number his photos (apart from no.92 – Middlesex Street)  so we cannot find out for sure.

However, to get to Devonshire Square is simply a crossing of Bishopsgate from Liverpool Street and straight down the first street – Devonshire Row (then called Devonshire Street).

Rather confusingly there are, in the 21st century, two Devonshire Squares. The original still has the railway running underneath it. The second – not so far away – is pretty windswept and part of a modern development.

Cutler Street is a turning off of Houndsditch but for Methew, a simple walk along an alleyway from Devonshire Square. The alleyway has its own name – Boner’s Passage. A bit rude for modern tastes.

View south along Cutler Street (White Street) towards Aldgate station down Back Gravel Lane. The brick structure encloses the Circle Line tracks

This point in Cutler Street is the farthest south that Mr Mathew ventured. We assume Devonshire Square (camera test) and then Cutler Street. This is truly a photo which rewards clicking on it to see more detail – look at the posters!

This photo has the longest caption in the set, labelled “Viewing south towards Aldgate Station, showing space occupied by the Inner Circle Railway, taken from Cutler St. at the corner of Harrow Alley, looking down Back Gravel Lane”.

The residents are mildly interested in the camera but we haven’t yet reached the section where children come to the fore.

This section of Cutler Street has only recently spring into existence. It was called White Street for a good couple of century until the name was suppressed and Culter Street took over.

Mathew is taking photos in these two here of the marvel that was the Metropolitan Railway/Inner Circle. From now on, he loses interest.

Middlesex Street with Sandy’s Row to the right

Just up Harrow Alley (Harrow Place) from the previous photo is the next location – where Middlesex Street becomes Sandy’s Row. The northern section of Middlesex Street had only been renamed as such in the previous decade – Sandy’s Row once began at the junction of Harrow Place but by 1912, further north.

The corner of Sandys Row and Frying Pan Alley

Mathew had been left alone thus far but from here on, the local children are becoming curious at this stranger and his weird contraption. In 2022, there’s a culture shift whereby the Instagrammer can be self-obsessed but strangers leave a photographer alone, not getting involved. In 1912, people want to be in the shot.

Frying Pan Alley

Widegate Street looking towards Artillery Passage

We think that Mathew briefly turned left into Widegate Street for this image before returning to Sandy’s Row, crossing it and proceeding down Artillery Passage to the next location.

Looking down Artillery Lane towards Artillery Passage. If you enlarge the photo, the poster in the newsagent window notes the sinking of the Titanic.

Once of the more amazing photos of the set.

There is a lot of detail but very interestingly we can see a newsagent dead ahead here. A poster in the window talks of the Titanic tragedy, news of which had only come through that very week.

Click on the photo to enlarge it.

The details on the shopfronts are also quite fascinating, And why simply one adult in the scene?

Bell Lane looking towards Crispin Street

Just some tens of yards further and we reach the top of Bell Lane. There’s a bit of activity in tis scene including a horse behind the kids in the street. Mathew will next walk up Crispin Street…

Crispin Street at the corner of Duval Street

The original is labelled Duval Street but the corner with the pub (the Horn of Plenty) is that of Dorset Street which just then was changing its name. The photo was taken from outside the Convent of Mercy looking north-east. The Horn of Plenty was demolished in 1928 to make way for additions to Spitalfields Market.

Duval Street  will also disappear from the map in due course.

At the junction of Seward Street and Artillery Lane. The buildings in front had been demolished in 1907.


Sandy’s Row looking south from Artillery Lane

Wheler Street


Spital Square showing posts at the eastern end and Spitalfields Market in the distance

This north-facing view of Norton Folgate shows the recent road widening at this point

Let photo forensics run wild at this point. Mathew may have walked up to White Lion Street (now called Folgate Street) from Spital Square. Then along White Lion Street/Folgate Street up to the main road – Norton Folgate. He briefly turns left. Why assume this? Because he’s on the eastern – Spitalfields – side of the main road. We takes the shot and turns north, crossing the main road at some point since in the remaining shots he’s on the western – station – side of the main road and probably walking south back towards the station.

White Lion Street (now Folgate Street), photographed from Norton Folgate

We are now on the other side of the road and starting a journey south.

North end of Bishopsgate and Norton Folgate, showing the Primrose pub and the entrance to Spital Square on the right

This shot and the next photo – are roughly taken from the same location. This one is looking north.

Spital Square as viewed from Bishopsgate

This photo and the remaining photos east along each street from Bishopgate in turn.

Brushfield Street as viewed from Bishopsgate

Artillery Lane as viewed from Bishopsgate

Middlesex Street seen from Bishopsgate (1912)

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