The Unexplained: The Mysterious London Crawlers
May 19, 2023
Sara Marie Hogg
The Crawlers were wrecks of humanity – old women reduced to a poverty so low that they no longer had the energy to beg.
Who were the London Crawlers of Victorian England? The Crawlers were members of street society around the 1870s in poor sections of London that included Sweeps, Nomads, Quacks, and Crawlers.
The Sweeps were the chimney sweeps, the Nomads were the travelers who stayed in caravans on vacant land in Battersea. The Quacks were the Street Doctors, sellers of miracle elixirs, pills, potions, and questionable medical advice. The Crawlers were those pitiful souls that barely had the energy to crawl about on the streets, searching for food opportunities.
Other street characters were boot blacks, traveling sanitation crews who removed contaminated materials to a burn pile, street musicians, pot and pan peddlers, street performers, furniture and goods menders, traveling photographers, fish and shellfish venders, rickety-boat men of the Thames, beggars, and sandwich-board men – walking advertisements.
We are given a clear picture of these destitute people by a team – a photographer, John Thomson, and a writer, Adolphe Smith – who captured and described the seamier street life of Victorian London.
Their work was published in a magazine of the same name, Street Life of London, and the magazine published three striking images a month. They wanted the middle class Victorians to have insights into the lives of the poverty-stricken.
Thomson, who was born in Edinburgh, later traveled the world capturing the lives of people on film, many in the Orient. Today, 700 of his excellent images are housed in the Wellcome Library of London.
Who were the mysterious people known as The Crawlers – also known as The Crawlers of St. Giles? They huddled on the steps of workhouses, and in the doorways, seeking the partial shelter and warmth of building overhangs. The Crawlers were wrecks of humanity – old women reduced to a poverty so low that they no longer had the energy to beg.
They lived on tea made from used tea leaves and a few crusts of bread. They had to always sleep with one eye open, so they never really slept. They were in a constant state of dozing– so lethargic they had to crawl about to get donations of boiling water for their tea leaves or pieces of bread. They really felt lucky if someone threw them a joint bone to gnaw on.
The most-recognized Crawler is seen in a shocking image as she sits on the steps of the workhouse of Short’s Gardens. How old is she? Adolphe Smith, who interviewed her, said that she was in her fifties.
She has a scarf wrapped around her head and she is holding an infant. She “cared for” the infant all day while the mother went to a job at a nearby coffee shop. The Crawler’s pay for the service was a slice of stale bread and some recycled tea.
A mystery within a mystery, no one got her name. Maybe she didn’t remember it. Who was she? She was said to be the widow of a tailor, and she once had some of those skills. Something unfortunate happened to put her on the streets.
Another mystery: who was the infant? Did the child possibly live to adulthood?
These mysteries will go unsolved, probably forever.
Please click HERE to find Sara’s historical mystery, It Rises from the Pee Dee, on Amazon.