This photograph, taken around the year 1876, depicts a group of Italian street musicians performing in the streets of London. The photograph was taken by John Thomson, a renowned Scottish photographer, and traveler, who was best known for being one of the first Western photographers to travel to the Far East and return with pictures for all to see. This photograph of the street musicians was originally found in the serialized magazine Street Life in London, which was a photography magazine curated and published by Thomson. The magazine sought to provide glimpses into the street life of London’s poorer communities and can be considered a particularly early source of documentary media.
Thomson was certainly a fan of their performances – as written in that magazine, these street musicians “…nurtured in our courts and alleys echoes of purer music than could otherwise have reached these dismal abodes”. However, a particular social criticism is offered regarding the presence of children in the photograph, who are spending their days in the streets rather than in schools. The magazine suggests that it would be much more beneficial if the children were sent to school instead of playing music in the streets, and demands that England’s Elementary Education Act, a then-recent legislative act providing the framework for public school funding and standardization, be extended to include foreign children as well as English citizens. At this time, children like these were not included and therefore were ineligible for public education. This provided avenues for the exploitation of children as street musicians, performers, and urchins, especially poorer ones from foreign countries, who were often able to procure more money from passersby than adults by merit of being sympathetic children.
“In the meanwhile”, the magazine concludes, “it is to be hoped that the English public will continue to welcome with their penance all who cheer with good music our dull streets”.
That’s an iconic photo often described as “little slaves of the harp.” Give it a Google, it’s interesting. Not going to school was the least of their worries. They were caught in a child trafficking scheme and forced into street begging for their padrones, mostly from a handful of remote villages in Basilicata. They were sold to padrones about age 6-8, by desperately poor parents for a fraudulent apprentice contract, and leased or resold among the padrones. The era was about 1850-1895, all over Europe and in many other countries. My great grandfather was one of those children.