John Thomas Smith’s Cries of London

For centuries, the most popular prints produced in the capital were The Cries of London. From the Elizabethan era until the last century, these lively images of street-traders were treasured by Londoners, and exist now as almost the only visual record of the outcast poor in the metropolis.

Historically, those who had no job or shop or market stall could always make a living in London by selling wares in the street and turning their presence into a performance through song, winning the hearts of generations and incarnating the spirit of the city.

Two hundred years ago, John Thomas Smith was the first to draw individual portraits of street-traders in London and many of his subjects were East Enders. He preferred to do his drawings on the street but his work was not without hazard, as he discovered when he was chased through Whitechapel Market by an angry mob who mistook him for a police spy.

‘Buy a Mat’

‘Pickled Cucumbers’

Joseph Johnson’s wounds rendered him incapable of further duty on the ocean, so he was obliged to gain a living by placing a model of his ship ‘Nelson’ on his cap and walking up and down Fleet St singing for alms.

James Sharpe, the Flying Pie Man, sold his pies with his hair powdered, his dress neat and apron spotless. He was remarkable for never standing still for a moment and crying ‘All Hot, Red Hot!’

John Thomas Smith described Israel Potter as “one of the oldest chair menders now living”.

George Smith was a brush maker who gave up his work due to rheumatism and took to selling groundsel and chickweed which he could obtain for free. Such was the popularity of singing birds, he had no need to cry his wares only to stand where the birds could see it.

This Jewish Mendicant lost the use of his legs and was placed in a wooden cart so that he might be drawn about the neighbourhood of Petticoat Lane. His venerable appearance rendered it impossible for a Christian or a Jew to pass without giving alms.

William Conway of Crab Tree Row, Bethnal Green, walked twenty-five miles every day, calling, “Hard metal spoons to sell or change.”He had eleven walks around London which he took in turn, wore out a pair of boots every six weeks and claimed that he never knew a day’s illness.

The Gentle Author’s Cries of London is published by Spitalfields Life Books at £20 and is available from

The Gentle Author writes daily about the culture of East London at You can also follow @thegentleauthor on twitter.

Images courtesy of The Gentle Author