John Topham

John Topham British Social Documentary Photographer 1908-1992

John Topham began his working life as a policeman in the East End of London in the 1920s, where he carried a camera and took photographs of daily life in Kent, especially around the Sidcup area.

A now very famous photograph of Mary Smith, a “knocker-up” who woke London dock workers with a peashooter, was his first published photograph. He sold it for five pounds, a week’s wages, to the Daily Mirror newspaper, and decided to become a free-lance photographer.

He worked steadily from 1927 to 1973, documenting the “ordinary way of life of ordinary people…the little things of life – the way it really was.” He is particularly noted for his photographs taken during the World War II era – with several appearing in Life magazine.

He amassed 121,228 negatives including 20,000 glass negatives of his earliest work before selling his entire collection, with all rights, to TopFoto in 1975.

Topham joined the RAF as a photographer in 1941 and was soon drafted into Intelligence. During the early part of WW2, John Topham, or ‘Top’ as he was known, had a contract with Life Magazine as well as being a freelancer. He would regularly get calls from national newspapers directing him to photograph areas of war damage or action. His most famous image shows the children of hop pickers watching the aerial ‘dogfights’ of the Battle of Britain. It was used in a propaganda campaign alongside the slogan “Help England And It Won’t Happen Here” which helped to convince millions of Americans to join the war against Nazi Germany In 2009 the image was used to publicise ‘Outbreak’ – the major Imperial War Museum exhibition commemorating 70 years since the start of World War II.

In the same year it was used on the cover design of the Imperial War Museum book ‘Outbreak: 1939: The World Goes to War’ After the war, he refused offers of staff jobs in the RAF to become a freelance photographer again, working mainly in South East England and Scotland. ‍ ‍