This past Wednesday, I posted about John Thompson’s important photography about poverty and namelessness in Victorian England and I found myself very much haunted by the picture shown there, and reposted here as Figure 1, entitled, “The Crawlers.” What exactly were “The Crawlers,” what was the miserable story of the old woman shown in the picture?
To find out, I found a copy of John Thompson’s, “Victorian London Street Life.” My first thought was that a crawler must be a beggar, the people at your feet begging pennies. But the despair is worse than that, In Thompson’s own words:
“Huddled together on the workhouse steps in Short’s garden, those wrecks of humanity, the crawlers of St. Giles may be seen both day and night seeking mutual warmth and mutual consolation in their extreme misery. As a rule they are old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness that destroys even the energy to beg. They have not the strength to struggle for bread and prefer starvation to the activity that an ordinary mendicant must display.”
In other words they are beggars, who no longer have the will to beg. We learn that the mother of the child shown was such a crawler, but that she managed to find employment and, of course, her worked demanded that she be absent most of the day. So she has trusted her baby to the old woman, who does it in exchange for a bit of tea and bread. Sustenance that doesn’t always come. And we learn also that the baby has a cough and we are left to wonder whether it will survive. We already know the answer.
Like Dickens, Thompson’s goal was to raise the awareness of the English Middle Class. Even a hundred and fifty years later, he succeeds brilliantly. Next, I would like to discuss the person and work of the person who raised the same banner in America, Jacob Riis.