John Thomas Smith and “The Mendicant Wanderers”

William FrasierIn 1817, John Thomas Smith (1766-1883) published a collection of portraits called “Vagabondiana or Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London; with Portraits of the Most Remarkable”.

The book was reprinted by Bartholomew in January, 1882. Just 200 copies were printed and it was given the snappier title “The Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London”. The Printing Record contains the seven sheets of portraits which record for posterity the life of twenty eight of London’s poorest citizens.

May-Day gaiety

John Thomas Smith began his working life as a printmaker and draughtsman. His work was much praised for its detail and close observation. At the end of his career he had managed to climb the dizzy heights to become Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. Not bad for a man who was famously born in a taxi!

Match sellers

The portraits are often stark and uncompromising. No creed, colour, gender or age group is left unrepresented. However, this is no philanthropic tome. If I may quote from the preface to the book:

“Beggary of late…had become so dreadful in London, that the more active interference of the legislature was deemed absolutely necessary…Concluding, therefore, from the reduction of the metropolitan beggars, that several curious characters would disappear…it occurred to the author of the present publication, that likenesses of the most remarkable of them, with a few particulars of their habits, would not be unamusing to those to whom they have been a pest for several years”

Joseph Johnson

It is true that names and details of these people’s lives are, for the most part provided. It is unlikely such information about these people would have survived if it wasn’t for this book. However, some of their stories are a far cry from the “not unamusing” intention behind their publication. For example, there’s William Frasier (first image at the top) who we are told lost his hands in the field of battle and maintains his family by selling boot laces. Many of them are blind or suffering from severe injury and are listed as doing such unappealing sounding work as crossing sweeper, snail picker or leech bather. It is of course unfair to judge John Thomas Smith by our standards but I personally find this collection of portraits anything but amusing.

Fortunately though these portraits are very much a product of their time. They record a level of existence which reform of the Poor Laws and growing social uneasiness was about to sweep away. The lucid and disturbing descriptions of the London slums, such as can be read in Dickens, would, to a greater or lesser extent, become a thing of the past.

Leaving town