This photograph of Mary Smith, the East End knocker-up wielding a pea shooter, was taken by legendary Sidcup photographer John Topham in 1931. He was a policeman at the time and, although it was against the rules, he carried a camera. He sold the picture

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This photograph of Mary Smith, the East End knocker-up wielding a pea shooter, was taken by legendary Sidcup photographer John Topham in 1931. He was a policeman at the time and, although it was against the rules, he carried a camera. He sold the picture to the Daily Mirror for five pounds and it changed his life.

Setting himself up as a freelance photographer, he began to document urban life on the expanding edges of south-east London. He took pictures of ordinary people doing ordinary jobs, before moving on to rural life. He came into his own in the Second World War taking pictures that still stir powerful emotions.

John Topham worked continually from 1931 to 1973, photographing (in his words) "the little things of life - the way it really was". By the time he retired, "Top", as he was known, had accumulated a legacy of an incredible 121,228 negatives, of which the first 20,000 or so were glass plates. Topham died at his home in Edenbridge in 1992 but how pleased he would be to know that his work is on display every day at the Topfoto Gallery in Edenbridge, in the same building as the family-owned image library which began with his collection.

Alan Smith, proprietor of Topfoto, told me that he first met "Top" in Hever in the 1970s when he wanted a picture of children in a trench to illustrate a book his wife was writing. "He was on the point of retiring and in the end we bought 122,000 pictures," said Alan. Today the company has 10 million images and owns one of the largest photographic libraries in the world.

The gallery opened for the first time last week with a John Topham exhibition that was originally shown at the Impressions Gallery of Photography in York (1982) and then in the USA. It includes the Eden Vallery Gallery, available for local exhibitions, as well as rare historic displays from the archives of House of Jaques, sports and games manufacturer since 1795 and still in the original family's ownership and whose building houses the gallery.

The picture of the lady knocker-up, the one that started it all, is included in the collection. Her name was Mary Smith and she woke up very early (sometimes as early as 3am) to rouse sleeping people so they could get to work on time. Most knocker-ups used a long light stick (often bamboo) with a piece of wire at the end to reach windows on higher floors. Mary, and her daughter Molly Moore, used a long rubber tube as a pea shooter and shot dried peas at their clients' windows in the East End of London. They were paid a few pence for this job and would not leave a window until they were sure their client had woken up.

The knocker-up, also knocker-upper, was a trade that lasted until alarm clocks became affordable and reliable. Some were employed by mills or larger factories to wake the workforce in time. Mary's daughter Molly is believed to have been the last in England. In the 1930s she was photographed for a children's picture book based on her mother and aply entitled Mary Smith.

Alan Smith has kindly loaned me a small collection of John Topham's famous photographs taken in or close to his home in Sidcup. These will be featured on this page over the next few weeks. Topham worked closely with a Kentish Times photographer, Tom Fassam. I wonder if readers remember them?

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