Sunday, July 08, 2012

An Italian Harpist in Deptford (1870s)

'Street Life in London' was written by Adolphe Smith with photographs by John Thomson. Originally issued as a magazine in 1877-78, it was then published in book form, and features some of the earliest documentary photography of  Victorian street life.  You can now view the whole book courtesy of LSE Digital Archives, and it is remarkable seeing what people actually looked like as opposed to what we are used to imagining as Victorian dress from countless films and TV dramas. 

There are several photographs from Clapham Common (Thomson was living in Brixton at the time), and from Lambeth. The one below features a young Italian harpist from Deptford, though it is not clear where the picture was actually taken.

Smith writes: 'Other children come over to England to join their families, or the more enterprising members of their families, who have found out how to make money in our midst. The Italian harper, whose photograph accompanies this chapter, belongs to the latter class. His parents have long been established in England, and have a regular home at Deptford. From this centre various members of the family radiate in different directions, frequenting the sea-side in summer, and the cities and large towns in winter. One of the daughters plays the fiddle admirably, and the young son is equally skilful with the harp. He has only been in England about two years, and can already speak English fluently. He is described throughout the neighbourhood, where he is known to every one, as a charming boy, whose amiable disposition, modest bearing, and musical talents ensure him success wherever he may present himself. It would be absurd to treat this youth in the light of a mendicant. His clothes are ample, neat, and clean, his purse well-filled, for his earnings almost equal those of a skilled artisan, though he is but a boy, and he has far more right to public support and sympathy, in exchange for the good and simple melodies he brings to the doors of the poor, than, for instance, the great majority of singers who lower the taste and degrade the morals of the audiences at our Music Halls'.

Adolphe Smith, sometimes known as Adolphe Smith Headingley, was a socialist journalist who took part in the 1871 Paris Commune. As discussed here before he later earned the displeasure of Jim Connell, who wrote The Red Flag in New Cross Road, for changing the tune his song was sung to.

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