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Prints and Authors in the Time of Manet

John Thomson
Scottish, 1837–1921

Recruiting Sergeants at Westminster

Woodburytype, 1877–78
Gift of an anonymous donor, 1977.54

John Thomson was a pioneer in the field of documentary photography. He was the first to use his camera to record social problems in London in a straightforward, unsentimental way. His Street Life in London, illustrated with 36 woodburytypes (a kind of photomechanical reproduction of a photographic image), is generally considered to be the first book to include photographic social documentation.
The book included commentary written by journalist Adolphe Smith. About the men paid to recruit soldiers for the British army, Smith wrote, “Recruiting sergeants have the credit of making large incomes, but insufficient account is taken of the expenses they are forced to incur. They receive a guinea for every man they enlist, and who, after the doctor’s examination, is accepted as fit for service. This sum, however, must cover all expenses, and includes the shilling given to the recruit on his volunteering to join. But it often happens that men accept the shilling and are never heard of again…. Thieves and other dishonest characters consequently profit by this opportunity to obtain a shilling, which, of course, is never refunded to the deluded sergeant.”