Despite the traditional hoarse voice, rough appearance, and quarrelsome tone, cab-drivers are as a rule reliable and honest men, who can boast of having fought the battle of life in an earnest, persevering, and creditable manner. Let me take, for instance, the career, as related by himself, of the cab-driver who furnishes the subject of the accompanying illustration.
He began life in the humble capacity of pot-boy in his uncle’s public-house, but abandoned this opening in consequence of a dispute, and ultimately obtained an engagement as conductor from the Metropolitan Tramway Company. In this employment the primary education he had enjoyed while young served him to good purpose, and he was soon promoted to the post of time-keeper. After some two years’ careful saving he collected sufficient money to buy a horse, hire a cab, and obtain his licence.
Street Life in London, published in 1876-77, consists of a series of articles by the radical journalist Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson. The pieces are short but full of detail, based on interviews with a range of men and women who eked out a precarious and marginal existence working on the streets of London, including flower-sellers, chimney-sweeps, shoe-blacks, chair-caners, musicians, dustmen and locksmiths.
The subject matter of Street Life was not new—the second half of the 19th century saw an increasing interest in urban poverty and social conditions—but the unique selling point of Street Life was a series of photographs ‘taken from life’ by Thomson.
The authors felt at the time that the images lent authenticity to the text, and their book is now regarded as a key work in the history of documentary photography.