Detail of a photograph by C.A. Mathews of Crispin Street looking towards Spitalfields Market and Dorset Street.
Detail of a photograph by C.A. Mathews of Crispin Street looking towards Spitalfields Market and Dorset Street

Jeremy Freedman – contemporary photographer, 10th generation Spitalfields resident and founder of the Huguenots of Spitalfields charity – uncovered a mystery at the Bishopsgate Institute.

It was a box containing 21 photographs – badly damaged – revealing Spitalfields life a century ago. The photographs were taken by C.A. Mathew, who, Freedman says, “we know little about”. Freedman has spent the last few years restoring the photographs.

They will be available for the public to see at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery from 7 March for the first time in over 100 years.

These photographs are the last surviving legacy of the enigmatic Mathew. Freedman and I followed the footsteps of Mathew from Liverpool Street, down Bishopsgate and explored the streets branching off it. It is fascinating to compare the photographs to Spitalfields today.

The details reveal a world that was alive with movement, life, death and tragedy. A photograph of Artillery Lane reveals that the Titanic had sunk four days prior; on Crispin Street are a multitude of children, faces uncertain, natural. Another photograph reveals an electric bakery and a shoeshine at work. These photographs are, as the Gentle Author writes, the “most vivid evocation we have of Spitalfields at this time”. They show an ever-changing city in movement.

“Spitalfields has always been an area of change,” says Freedman, and “a hub of immigration”. Some photographs show areas that have been completely destroyed, paving way for the Spitalfields we know today. Frying Pan Alley, once populated with children and homes, is now Nido Spitalfields, expensive accommodation for students. Others remain almost identical, such as Middlesex Street, the buildings still intact.

However, it is important not to politicise these photographs. “The photographs are a wonderful celebration of life,” says Freeman. “This area has always been unique because it’s about people who live here – families – most of them multigenerational. People know each other here. It’s always felt like home.’

As we turned down Commercial Street, we passed Gardner’s, the oldest traditional family business in the area. On the front door of the shop, an East End Trades Guild sticker says ‘Together we are Stronger’. The sense of community witnessed in Mathew’s photography, then, is still alive in the streets today.

Mathew’s photographs engage with the modern audience because we see a mirror to our own time. These photographs are a vital reminder of the everyday and a celebration of life in the city of London.

C.A. Mathew: Photographs of Spitalfields a Century Ago is at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery, 11 Princelet Street, E1 6QH from 7 March – 25 April.

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