Jack London, 1903 and 2003

Whitechapel, 1902. Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

When we try to imagine the conditions of the British poor during the industrial revolution it is the words of Dickens, Owen or Engels that provide us with the imagery to convey the cramped squalor and terrible poverty they endured.

But as early as the mid-19th century, the new medium of photography was being used by journalists and social reformers to reveal the plight of the working classes.

In 1890 the Dutch journalist Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, his photographs of New York’s Lower East Side slums where 340,000 people lived crammed into a single square mile. In 1902 the American author Jack London came to London and, spurred on by the socialist instincts his difficult upbringing had inspired in him, pursued a similar project.

Jack London and Bert, a cobbler, in 1902. Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

Posing in a common man’s clothes as a runaway American sailor, London spent six weeks in the slums of the East End, living with and suffering the same privations as her inhabitants. His experiences became The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, a searing journalistic portrayal of the conditions of the urban poor.

A Salvation Army breakfast: “A motley crowd of woebegone wretches who had spent
the night in the rain… the skin of their bodies showing red through the holes in their rags.”
Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

Less well known are the photographs London took of the workless, homeless poor – the workhouse, the doss-house, the Salvation Army barracks, or “carrying the banner”; tramping through the night half-starved looking for food or shelter, prevented by the police from stopping on the street, only to resume the futile search for work the following morning, whether or not sleep had been snatched in a doorway or park bench.

Green Park, 1902: “In Green Park, at one in the afternoon, I counted scores of the
ragged wretches asleep in the grass.” Credit:Huntington Library, San Marino California

The remarkable images show frankly and without sentiment the drawn faces of men queuing for a free meal, women huddled in all their clothes on park benches, or the pitiful sight of figures sprawled across Green Park, soaked to the skin and exhausted. They could be dismissed as images from a different age with different values, until one stops to consider that such sights are not uncommon today.

“On the benches was arrayed a mass of miserable and distorted humanity…
A chill, raw wind was blowing, and these creatures huddled there in their rags.”
Credit: Huntington Library, San Marino California

These and many photographs from London’s other travels have been hardly seen in a century, but are collected in Jack London: Photographer, published by the University of Georgia Press last month. One of the book’s authors, photographic archivist Philip Adam – a native of San Francisco like Jack London – experienced his own brush with homelessness after being laid off in 2003.

“They had hired me ‘without benefits’ – not as full-time staff, without the protections that provides,” Adam said. “There were homeless people sleeping in our doorway – you’d literally walk over bodies to get to work in the morning – so I started photographing the homeless people in San Francisco. I was a working professional without security, and I thought, there but for the grace of god go I, because there’s not much difference between someone working like that and someone homeless and down on their luck.”

Having lost his studio with the job, after 30 years in San Francisco Adam left town. “I’ve been homeless ever since, though friends and people who know me have been very generous, so I’ve not been out on the street,” he added.

In an effort to make San Francisco’s chronic homeless problem less visible, the city council are to criminalise loitering on park benches or doorsteps. With the echoes of the punitive measures taken against the poorest and most desperate members of society in 1903 still ringing in 2003, a century after London’s photographs were taken the precarious nature of work and the capricious attitude of governments toward the unfortunate remain powerful dividing forces between the haves and have-nots.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, November 2010]


On Ralph Millward, one year later

Ralph Millward. Photo: Bournemouth Daily Echo
Ralph Millward. Photo: Bournemouth Daily Echo

Does what the eye not see not hurt us? If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear, does it make a sound? Among equals, are some more equal than others?

Compared to many others, Britain is not a violent country. Residents of Somalia, Congo, Brazil, Russia, or South Africa for example might disagree with a stereotypical something-must-be-done rant about the declining state of our Albion. But violence does exist on our streets and in our homes, and newspapers report it when it happens.

Or do they? In May last year, 41-year-old Ralph Millward was kicked to death outside a branch of Marks and Spencer’s in leafy Westbourne, Dorset. A few days later three teenage boys were arrested and charged with his murder. Their trial begins tomorrow in Poole.

Millward was homeless. He sold The Big Issue magazine from his pitch outside Marks, said his hellos and how-are-yous to his regulars, and slept each night in the bushes behind the shop.

His death and the manner of his death – a quiet, unassuming man who read books, kept to himself and was well liked, apparently attacked by three boys barely old enough to get a job, aged 14, 16 and 16 – sent a shockwave of revulsion through Westbourne. A few weeks later, hundreds of people walked the half mile from the spot to a nearby church to pay their last respects. The local paper, the Bournemouth Echo, of course covered the events in detail. But for the national newspapers, that a member of the street community had been brutally killed apparently by schoolboys was worth barely a word.

The day after Millward was killed, another senseless death shocked another community – 39-year-old Craig Wass, a father of four from a small village outside Sheffield, was beaten to death by a group of young men. Wass had stepped out of his house to tell the group to be quiet after their arguing had woken his children. Again, those arrested and charged with his murder were all young, late teens and early 20s.

This appalling attack was widely reported – the Sun said Wass had been “slaughtered with bricks”, the Daily Mail reported how his bride-to-be Andrea had cradled him as he breathed his last, and The Times remarked on how the “gentle giant” had been struck down.

For Millward, only a brief 100 word piece appeared in the Daily Mail noting his death, and another of similar size in The Times later remarked on the crowds at his memorial.

In a country in which only around 1,000 murders occur each year, most are reported. A murder is serious – it sends ripples through society, it can stoke fears and create change; in the law, in problem estates, in the practices and procedures of institutions like the police, social workers, or local authorities.

But a glance at newspapers over the last few years reveals a bleak trend that seems not yet to have stirred any response.

In January, a homeless man was attacked by four men while travelling by train from Croydon to London, breaking bones in his face.

In Norwich, a homeless man was kicked and beaten in the city centre in November last year, and a video of the attack posted on internet site YouTube.

Will Cameron, 27, was stabbed in the neck with a bottle last May while living homeless in Reading, where police said it was a “miracle” he was not killed.

Keiff Hunt, 45, was left for dead with multiple fractures, stitches and head wounds after being attacked by 10 men while living homeless in Bournemouth in April last year, just two weeks before Millward was killed.

Big Issue vendor Matt Browning, 33, had a glass bottle smashed over his head in Aberdeen in January 2009.

Valerie Manning, 55, living homeless in Reading, was battered and robbed on her way to church in 2008. Rough sleeper Michael Kennedy was “kicked like a football” during an assault in Norwich in April the same year, while in 2002, homeless Big Issue seller Keith Swan was attacked and killed by three men in the same city.

One rough sleeper, quoted in the Norwich Evening News earlier this year following the conviction of Manning’s attacker, said: “I have just come back from the hospital today where I had 10 stitches removed. I was attacked by a group of boys and girls who were laughing while they did it.”

Random, unprovoked violence is rare. Most murders, rapes and assaults are perpetrated by people known to the victim. The homeless face a greater level of threats, intimidation, violence and abuse by virtue of the fact that their ‘home’ is often a public thoroughfare in which the full spectrum of human life pass by.

But there seems also to be a disproportionate rise in the frequency and severity of attacks on the homeless and others in the street community, as if they have become acceptable punchbags on which society can take out its frustrations. It remains to be seen whether this week’s trial, or others like it in the future, receives the column inches it deserves within a national press obsessed with the fleeting and the banal. Because by treating those at the bottom of the pile differently from anyone else, the media risk being party to a tacit acceptance that, in Orwell’s words, some are more equal than others. That the violent and pointless death of one is worth less than another, as determined by arbitrary factors like one’s luck in life or propensity toward addictions, mental health problems, or any of the other main drivers of homelessness.

Granted, every news day sees stories competing for priority and space. Some will not make the cut. But the mark of a civilised society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable, and to ignore the violence they endure without comment is to condone it. And in the end, if our society begins to accept that degree of savagery upon one group, then it will grow to infect and affect the whole of society. Just because we don’t know about it now doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt us in the future.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]