Victorian London was a place of dramatic contrasts—of wonder and horror, of great opportunities and grinding poverty. It was a time of great technological advancement, including the development of the new medium of photography. In Street Incidents (1881), John Thomson captured striking documentary photographs of the city’s streets, vivid, real-life counterparts to Dickens’s fictional accounts of hardscrabble London.
Dickens’ advocacy of a number of social issues in both fiction and nonfiction was influential in establishing the need for meticulous observation of the city’s poor. He, in turn, was influenced by the work of a number of journalists and documentarians. In London Labour and the London Poor (1851, this edition ca. 1864), Henry Mayhew described work and life among London’s poor, from street-sweepers and rag-and-bone scavengers to thieves and prostitutes. Dickens cared deeply about these matters, incorporating such workers into Bleak House and other novels, and participating in many charitable efforts to improve their state.
Rare Book Room Hallway Gallery
Duke University, Durham, NC
On display February 1-April 1, 2012