Or are you looking for Search the Archives?

Please complete the form to email this item.

Photograph - The Independent Shoe-Black
  • The Independent Shoe-Black
    Thomson, John, born 1837 - died 1921
  • Enlarge image

The Independent Shoe-Black

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    London (photographed)

  • Date:

    1877-1878 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Thomson, John, born 1837 - died 1921 (photographer)

  • Materials and Techniques:


  • Credit Line:

    Given by Mrs D. Crisp

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case X, shelf 37, box A

Object Type
The photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) used the 'Woodburytype' process patented in 1864 for the images in Street Life in London, including this photograph. This was a type of photomechanical reproduction using pigmented gelatin, usually of a rich purple-brown colour. The process was complicated but remained popular until about 1900 because of the high quality and permanence of the finished images.

Subject Depicted
There was division and competition among boot-blacks (shoe-polishers) in the 19th century. They either worked independently or joined organisations known as the 'Boot-blacking Brigades'. The Boot-blacking Brigade movement was started in 1851 with 36 boys and grew to 385 members by the time this photograph was taken. The independent boot-blacks were often treated severely by the police, especially if they did not have a licence. The police would move along the boot-black, and might kick his box of polish and tools into the road where they would be broken by passing carriages. The boy shown in the photograph had served in the Boot-blacking Brigades before working independently. He planned to join the navy to escape life on the streets.

Real or Posed?
The people in the pictures were arranged or posed by Thomson to form interesting compositions. However, the results were often naturalistic because the subjects and surroundings were always authentic.

Physical description


Place of Origin

London (photographed)


1877-1878 (made)


Thomson, John, born 1837 - died 1921 (photographer)

Materials and Techniques



Height: 11 cm unmounted, Width: 9 cm

Object history note

Taken in London by John Thomson (born in Edinburgh, 1837, died in London, 1921)

Descriptive line

An independent shoe black

Labels and date

British Galleries:

These photographs were first published in 12 instalments in 1877-1878 in a series entitled 'Street Life in London'. John Thomson had earlier photographed in China and recognized London as a remarkable new subject. Together with journalist Adolphe Smith he wrote commentaries on each image. 'Street Life' is among the earliest and most evocative examples of social documentary photography. [27/03/2003]




Photographs; Scotland; Europeana Fashion Project


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

Large image request

Please confirm you are using these images within the following terms and conditions, by acknowledging each of the following key points:

Please let us know how you intend to use the images you will be downloading.