The Street Characters of Bradford.
By the mid 19th century, Bradford in West Yorkshire had become one of the most affluent cities in Britain. It had become a world centre for the manufacture of worsted textiles and its population had rocketed from 47,000 in 1831 to nearly 108,000 by 1851.
The rapid growth of mills had created work for thousands, great wealth for hundreds – and misery for many who fell between the social cracks.
There were many, because of infirmity, old age or lack of skill, who could not work in the mills, shops or offices of the city. There was little welfare support, so their prospects were often very bleak unless they could scratch a living on the streets hawking, begging, or in other ways. The alternative was the dreaded workhouse.
Although there are photographs of 19th century street workers in England, there are few paintings of them. But one wealthy Bradford artist/businessman – John Sowden – wanted to paint the many characters he met on his journeys around the city, and between 1891 and 1906 he painted portraits of 315 street characters, creating an invaluable social record of the times.
John Sowden rose from fairly humble beginnings to become a very wealthy architect and artist. His father, William, was a self-employed joiner and saw the building opportunities presented by the rapid growth of the city. William combined successfully and profitably with others to build houses, which gave the Sowden family a secure place on the social ladder in Bradford.
John showed artistic talents early in life, so his father found him work as an articled architect; a training and profession that served him well in later life.
However, John was drawn to painting, so alongside his architectural work he pursued evening art classes at the local Mechanics Institute, where his talents flourished.
When the art master left the Institute in 1859, John was appointed in his place, and he also appointed as an art tutor at the prestigious School of Design in the city.
John was determined to make a living from his art, so set himself up as an artist and used his network of contacts from his architectural practice to build a successful business. He painted the portraits of the rich and influential citizens of Bradford and began to buy property for development, using his architectural knowledge to good effect. By the latter end of the 19th century he was a very wealthy man.
However, his home life was unhappy. His wife, Anne, suffered badly from depression, probably resulting from the difficult birth of their only child, and she became a virtual recluse, rarely venturing beyond her home. Her emotional state, combined with his Liberal political views, made John sympathetic toward the plight of others in society less successful than himself.
He was also moved by a description of the London poor, as described by Henry Maythew in his book, ‘London Labour and London Poor’ . Mayhew had awoken the public to the plight of the poor with his words; John Sowden wanted to do the same with his art. Here are just a few of the portraits he painted.
James Mannis was 54 when he posed for Sowden in 1888. From the age of 13, James had been crippled from the waist and wheeled himself around the town in a home-made wheelchair.
He played the violin and begged, but his bad language (when people refused him money) made him an unpopular character and the police moved him on regularly.
For this reason, James did not confine his begging to Bradford – John Sowden noted in his diary that Mannis had “visited all the principal towns and cities in England” to beg.
Ellen Hargreaves was a blind concertina player, who usually stood outside the Midland Hotel in Bradford accompanied by a child as her guide.
She posed for Sowden on May Day 1888, but by the time the sketches had been made, Ellen’s guide had gone. So John guided Ellen back to her pitch outside the hotel, and gave her his arm to hold on to during their journey through town.
Passing the Wool Exchange in the city, they passed a number of prominent businessmen who were clearly shocked to see Sowden with a beggar on his arm. This did not seem to trouble the artist; indeed, he probably gained some quiet satisfaction from seeing their reaction.
James Ashley, known as ‘Salt Jim’, wandered around Bradford searching for someone to buy a bar of salt he carried, but this was just a pretext for begging, rather than selling.
Often when asked by Magistrates why he was begging, he would say “because all his money was in the bank”. Few believed him, but when he he died in Bradford Workhouse – where he had been certified as ‘half witted’ – over £200 was found in his name at the main Bradford bank.
Jem Fletcher, or ‘Blind Jim’, was 83 when Sowden painted him. He had been one of a band of blind musicians who were guided around the town, all holding onto a pole and led by the group member who knew the chosen route and destination best.
After the group split up, Jem played his fiddle solo on the streets and in the pubs.
Jem had married a blind woman and their marriage had lasted for 43 years. When she died, he married again, by now well into his seventies.
Police Constable Thomas Bottomley, or Tom Bott, as he was known on his beat, was well-regarded for his tolerance.
He would often threaten to “run tha’ in” if you didn’t go home quietly, but in thirty years of pounding his beat, he had never taken anyone to court!
Tom was one of 256 constables in the Bradford City Police, but until the last decade of the 19th century, they were very poorly paid and worked long hours.
‘Cockle Sarah’, or Sarah Jane Laycock, sold cockles from her baskets around the streets of Bradford, where she was a popular character.
She had married early in life to a fish dealer who turned out to be a bigamist. This didn’t stop her from taking over his business when he died, and when she married again in 1893, aged 59, thousands of local people turned up at her wedding to wish her well, blocking the traffic in all directions.
But the marriage was short-lived, as by 1909 she was again a widow and came to a sticky end, falling down the cellar stairs at her home and breaking her neck.
‘Whistling Tommy’ Bairstow, christened Benjamin Bairstow, was a casual labourer at a hardware store in the city, but was well-know for his incessant, loud and extravagant whistling as he strode around Bradford, inevitably followed by a gang of jeering children and youths.
On Jubilee Sunday in 1897 he unofficially led the civic procession to Bradford Parish Church whistling the ‘Marsillaise’, to the great appreciation of the crowd and great annoyance of the dignitaries.
When he posed for Sowden in 1890, Tommy whistled a selection of popular tunes for over four and a half hours.
One of the saddest examples of a fall from financial grace, was William Holmes, who at 91 years of age had to play a mouth organ outside pubs and theatres to survive. He had worked as a tracklayer on railways in Britain and abroad and had retired with a lump sum of £2,000 saved – a significant amount in those days.
He gave the money to his son to open a grocery shop on their behalf, but the son emigrated with the money to Australia and was never seen again.
Following a stroke, William was forced to live in the Bradford workhouse and played his mouth organ for a few coppers to spend on himself. His battered top hat and torn overcoat was his fiercely independent attempt to stay and look respectable until the very end.
A Precious Record
These paintings are a precious record of a lost time. The lives and images of these characters would have faded into history had it not been for Sowden’s intervention – and generosity – as he paid all his models well for their services.
The paintings can be viewed by appointment only at the Bolling Hall Museum in Bradford – the watercolours are now fragile and cannot be exposed to the light for too long.
However, the best way to see images of over 40 of Sowden’s street characters, and read about their lives, is via the book shown below, which is readily available on the internet through Ebay, Amazon, or ABEbooks, usually at a reasonable price.
All the photographs shown in this article have been taken by me from a book in my own collection (copyright: Bradford Museums Service).