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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

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The British Parliament’s Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 lasted (with amendments) for well over 200 years – until 1834. Under the so-called ‘Old Poor Law’, able-bodied people who were found begging on the streets could be arrested, whipped, placed in the stocks or confined in a House of Correction, and forcibly relocated to their home parish, their ‘place of settlement’. In order to avoid such stigma and punishment, the poorest of the poor often pretended to commerce, offering the most marginal of goods and services.

1Match man, Salisbury. 2Match woman, c.1823. 3Billy the match man, Liverpool, 1844. All by John Dempsey.

Many of them sold the cheapest and most commonplace of household articles – the old ‘brimstone’ (sulphur) matches that retailed at five bunches for a ha’penny.

1Match woman, Woolwich,1824. 2Crossing-sweeper, London. 3Charles McGee, crossing sweeper, London, c. 1824. All by John Dempsey.

In populous urban areas, where mud, horse manure and other muck dirtied the roadways, other beggars would sweep clear a path or crossing for middle-class pedestrians in the hope they would be given a small gratuity.

1Beggar, Durham. 2Blind beggar, Woolwich, 1824. 3Mark Custings, known as Blind Peter, and his boy, Norwich, 1823. All by John Dempsey.

Related information

Copeman, gardener, Great Yarmouth by John Dempsey
Copeman, gardener, Great Yarmouth by John Dempsey
Copeman, gardener, Great Yarmouth by John Dempsey
Copeman, gardener, Great Yarmouth by John Dempsey

Dempsey's people

A folio of British street portraits 1824–1844

Previous exhibition, 2017

Dempsey’s people: a folio of British street portraits 1824–1844 is the first exhibition to showcase the compelling watercolour images of English street people made by the itinerant English painter John Dempsey throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.