London’s East End life through the lens of Jack London, 1902

Not many people know that famous American author Jack London was also an accomplished documentary photographer and photojournalist. He took thousands of photographs over the years, from the slums of London's East End to the islands of the South Pacific.

In 1902 Jack London visited his eponymous city of London where he took photographs of his people and their daily lives. In the book "The People of the Abyss", London describes this first-hand account of living in the East End (including the Whitechapel District) for several months, sometimes in workhouses or sleeping in the streets. The conditions he experienced and wrote about were similar to those endured by an estimated 500,000 of contemporary London's poor.

Even before this, Jack London spoke with one of his publishers, George Brett, about a book on London slums. Thus, the author knew what to expect 'down there': "He meant to expose the collapse of the workers, beneath imperialism...". The "evolutionary socialist" wanted to find the "black hole of capitalism".

With this preconceived vision in his mind, he disguised himself as an American sailor who had lost his ship and headed to the East End to take photographs and experience his life. To be more precise, he wandered about Whitechapel, Hoxton, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green and Wapping to the East India Docks.

Jack London disguised as one of the working class poor and pretended to be one of them, making it easier for him to know the conditions of his daily life. One of the worst experiences they have is in a workhouse, that is, a home in which people who are unable to support themselves can sleep, eat and work.

The conditions at these institutions were disgustingly abusive and the diet was terrible. Apart from the homeless, he particularly portrays older people and people suffering from illness or any disability.

These people have no job opportunity. Thus, more often than not, the only thing left for them is life in the streets and starvation.

In his 1903 "The People of the Abyss", the American gives this description of the poor Londoner: "The air he breathes, and from which he never escapes, is enough to weaken him mentally and physically , so that he becomes unable to compete. From the country fast to London Town with fresh masculine life ... It is undeniable that children grow up into rotten adults, without virility or stamina, a weak-knee , the narrow-chested, listless breed, that crumble and go down the country in a brutal struggle for life with the invading hordes."

Round About a Pound a Week, a report by the Fabian Society between 1909 and 1913, describes the lives of the "respectable poor"; One in five children died in their first year, and hunger, illness, and colds were common.

A 1909 report by the Poor Law Commission found that one-third of the East End's 900,000-strong population lived in conditions of extreme poverty. The report also details the state of affairs in these areas, with an average of 25 households sharing toilets and fresh water taps among all.

One response to the acute lack of cleanliness in London's poorest areas was the provision of communal washhouses for bathing and laundry; An average of 60,000 people each week used 50 such bathrooms across the city in 1910.

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