In 1902 the American author Jack London visited his namesake city – at the time when it was still the largest in the world. In a book that became to be known as The People of the Abyss he described the time when he lived in the Whitechapel district sleeping in workhouses, so-called doss-houses and even on the streets. It was said that about half a million people were living in these awful and terrible conditions in Britain’s capital city. London took the photographs that illustrated his extraordinary book (between 1900 and 1916 the American writer took more than 12 thousand photographs). London was most disturbed by the number of “old men, young men, all manner of men, and boys to boot, and all manner of boys” who had no other choice other than to sleep on the streets. “Some were drowsing standing up; half a score of them were stretched out on the stone steps in most painful postures…the skin of their bodies showing red through the holes, and rents in their rags.”
London had trouble finding anyone to show him the East End:
“But you can’t do it, you know,” friends said, to whom I applied for assistance in the matter of sinking myself down into the East End of London. “You had better see the police for a guide,” they added, on second thought, painfully endeavouring to adjust themselves to the psychological processes of a madman who had come to them with better credentials than brains.
“But I don’t want to see the police,” I protested. “What I wish to do is to go down into the East End and see things for myself. I wish to know how those people are living there, and why they are living there, and what they are living for. In short, I am going to live there myself.”
“You don’t want to live down there!” everybody said, with disapprobation writ large upon their faces. “Why, it is said there are places where a man’s life isn’t worth tu’pence.”
“The very places I wish to see,” I broke in.
“But you can’t, you know,” was the unfailing rejoinder.”
According to Michael Shelden, George Orwell‘s biographer, the English writer had read London’s book while in his teens and greatly inspired as can be seen in Down and Out in Paris and London and the Road to Wigan Pier.
The People of the Abyss was published in 1903 the same year as his novel Call of the Wild was serialised – bringing London international fame. London later said: “Of all my books, the one I love most is The People of the Abyss. No other work of mine contains as much of my heart.”
Jack London’s photographs are via The Huntington Library.
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