C A Mathew: 100 years of photography in Spitalfields

Crispin St. 1912. Pic: C A Matthew

Crispin St. 1912. Pic: C A Matthew

The photographs of C A Mathew, taken in Spitalfields 100 years ago, are on show at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery in Tower Hamlets until April 25.

Most people have a hard time imagining what their neighbourhood looked like 100 years ago, but for residents of Spitalfields in Tower Hamlets that’s no longer the case and for that they have the mysterious C A Mathew to thank.

Taken in 1912 and called dubbed by the writer of the Spitalfields Life blog “the most vivid evocation we have of Spitalfields at this time”, Mathew’s photographs are being exhibited for the first time at the Eleven Spitalfields Gallery, on 11 Princelet St in Tower Hamlets.

Gallery owner Chris Dyson said Mathew’s work is significant as it is a record of an age bygone. “I think these photographs are a very interesting record of a particular time frame of the neighbourhood which has seen waves of change over the 300 years or more of its existence,” he explained.

“They were taken by a surveyor with a particular purpose in mind; he also had a very good eye and a great sense of perspective.”

These evocative images owe their new lease of life to one man in particular. Jeremy Freedman, a fellow photographer, who, after the photographs were found in the archive of the Bishopsgate  Library where they had been left for over 60 years, took it upon himself to restore the pictures. He said: “The images where just so powerful, they instantly struck me, and it just seemed something had to be done.”

“Their condition was not ideal. The prints had started to decay; some had cosmetic damage like scratches and rips, whilst others had fungus [growing on them]. It must be said, however, their condition was better than expected.”

After taking high resolution scans of the original prints, Freedman began to digitally repair the images, but took great care not to alter their history: “I felt it was very important not to remove the finger prints and old scratches, as this was very much part of the story of these prints, and to Photoshop to make them look new would destroy their integrity.”

Mathew died only four years after recording these snapshots of Tower Hamlets’ history and there are numerous ideas as to why he decided the take his heavy camera into the heart of Spitalfields on that particular day.

Dyson believes the photos were commissioned because the photographer was “hired or was scouting for building sites but then the First World War came along” destroying any plans for building development in the area, a theory backed up by the neatly written notes of measurements on the backs of the photo’s cardboard mounts.

However, the author of the Spitalfields blog provides a different theory, explaining that it was simply a case of serendipity. “He was waiting for a train home to Brightlingsea in Essex where he has a studio in Tower St, and simply walked out of the station, taking these pictures to pass the time,” he said.

No matter the reason for these unique photographs, their power is unquestionable and it is hard not to feel some sort of attachment to the men, women, and children of the time just before World War I.

Freedman has his own connection to the images after spending so long working on them. “I’ve been looking into these images for nearly three years, most likely in more detail than others before me. I’ve been looking into the eyes of the subjects in the photographs as they gaze back. These are the streets of my forebears; my family have had a continuous presence in Spitalfields since the late 18th Century,” he said.

“They are a snapshot in time just before one of the greatest conflicts of our shared history. They impart clues of a time now lost, of a building no longer there.”

Mathew’s photographs provide a useful and entertaining insight into Spitalfields life over a century ago. Residents of the area could spend hours pointing out the differences and similarities between the areas they know, from Frying Pan Alley to Spital Square, and the areas that used to be. Whatever the reason for their existence, these photos will be remembered and respected as a piece of local history.

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