A Frenchman Visits London

The East End of London held a great fascination for many people who visited Victorian London, and no trip to London was considered complete without a visit to its streets, courts and institutions.

The Newbury Weekly News and General Advertiser, on Thursday, 23rd April 1868, reported on an article that had recently appeared in the French press about a Frenchman’s experiences when he had toured the East End of London:-


M. A. Wolff, who has given in the Paris Figaro a description of the London police, has also contributed to the same journal an account of his experiences in the East End of London.

He visited, under the guidance of the police, the cells of the Whitechapel police-station, where he saw three drunkards, a pickpocket in white kid gloves and patent leather boots, a feeble looking man of 50, accused of a double murder, and other interesting characters.

But what surprised him most, was the presence at the station of a number of homeless, destitute persons, who received from the police tickets entitling them to supper and a bed at the workhouse.


Before dropping in at the workhouse, M. Wolff made the round of the theatres, music halls, and “gaffs,” and at one establishment was offered a glass of brandy and water.

“The counter of the refreshment room was covered with doubtful sandwiches, sausages which had seen better days, and bottles, containing liquors of various kinds.

In front were several individuals drinking small glasses of brandy.

Behind the counter stood the manager in his shirt sleeves. As he saw us come in he left his place to show us the way to the theatre.

At the end of a corridor was an orange woman who sold the tickets. The price of admission was twopence.

I was about to take places when the manager stopped me, and gave me to understand that we were his guests.”

Crowds leaving the Pavilion Theatre.
People Leaving The Pavilion Theatre, Whitechapel.


The audience was composed of young workmen, reprobates, thieves, and girls of from thirteen to fourteen years of age, “whose features already bore the stigma of vice.”

The front rows alone were full; and M. Wolff supposes the thin attendance may be accounted for by the fidelity with which the thieves of Whitechapel observe Passion Week.

On the back benches several drunken men had stretched themselves out to sleep. In place of an orchestra there was a harpist, whose instrument had lost most of its strings.

The public gave out a nauseating odour of gin and tobacco, and instead of attending to the business of the stage, stared at M. Wolff and his companions.


Suddenly, some embarrassment seemed to be caused to one of the policemen in attendance by a proposition on the part of the manager.

It turned out to be nothing more than an offer of grog. The manager wished to stand glasses round, and M. Wolff thought it would be only civil to respond to this manifestation of good-will. He, moreover, wished to see what the “brandy of the people” was like.

He accordingly tried it, and found that it was like vitriol.


At every theatre and music-hall M. Wolff was received with similar hospitality.

One of the directors took him behind the scenes, when he had the opportunity of addressing some compliments to an actress who played Lady Macbeth.

He was grieved to find that at this theatre Shakespeare furnished only the lever de rideau, the great attraction being the subsequent ballet.


After these scenes of splendour, M. Wolff did not like the idea of going to the workhouse – the next place to which his guides proposed to conduct him.

An account of the interior of a workhouse, published in a certain English journal a few years ago, and reproduced in the French papers, had, it appears, “presented such a sombre picture of these resorts of misery” that M. Wolff was very unwilling to enter.

He went in, however, and did not find the place so bad as he had anticipated.

A view of Poplar Workhouse.
Poplar Workhouse


To begin with, the eyes of the impressionable Frenchman were gladdened by the sight of a pretty girl (une furte jolie Anglaise), whose business it was to take the tickets which the applicants for relief had received at the police-office.

The women go in on the right, the men on the left; and it was found that one hundred and twenty-three men, and one hundred and thirty-four women had already been admitted.


On turning to the right the visitors entered a bath-room, in which there were four baths, and in each a man washing himself “with soap furnished by the administration.”

Those who had just taken their bath were in the next room drying their skin by the side of an immense oven, “in which had been placed the rags of all the lodgers, so that while they reposed, the heat and steam might destroy the vermin of their clothes.”

The pauper, says Wolff, after taking his bath, puts on a shirt, which he has to return the next morning.


He is then supplied with “an enormous piece of bread,” a glass of water, and a ticket indicating the number of his bed in the dormitory.

“The dormitory’ is a long gallery, with a camp bedstead occupying the whole length on each side.

Planks about 15 centimetres (nearly 6 inches) high separate the camp bedstead into so many couches. A mattress, a blanket, a pillow, make up the bed furniture.

The first comers are already asleep, and the iron-heeled boots of the ‘Hercules’ (one of the attendant policemen) which resound on the flags do not trouble the men.

Others sitting up in bed are devouring the bread they have just received. One can scarcely imagine these are the same individuals that one saw just before in the police-court, so changed are their faces by the soaping and the supper.


Everything in the asylum is sufficiently clean. The flags of the pavement shine, the walls are white.

Certainly (says M. Wolff) I should not advise M. de Rothschild on his next visit to London to put up at a workhouse. But a pauper, who an hour before was dying of hunger, must fancy himself at the Grand Hotel when the doors of one of these places of refuge are opened to him by the police.


At six in the morning all the lodgers must be up.

They give back their shirts, resume their purified garments, have some good soup, and go away without being asked on their departure any more than on their arrival any of those particulars as to their civil condition, which would be required from them in other countries.


In Paris, for instance, where the administration is full of good-will, things are managed quite differently.

I have the honour of knowing M. Levy, mayor of the 11th arrondissement; he is an excellent man, always ready to relieve distress when his attention is called to it.

But what formalities have to be fulfilled before succour reaches the pauper!

The officials go to and fro in search of information, while the poor man waits in his garret the assistance which will arrive infallibly, but rather late.


In England the course pursued is quite different.

A poor man is hungry, they begin by giving him apiece of bread; he is cold, they warm him; he is dirty, they wash him; and in a turn they make a man of a strange being who before was like an animal.

“And if these poor wretches cannot get work to-morrow, if these beggars do not gain a penny, can they return tomorrow evening?” I said to my guide.

“As often as they like,” he replied. “The first three days they can enter free; hut in order that idle vagabonds may not take the place of honest men, we force them to pay for their lodging after the third.”

M. Wolff was told that from the fourth day , “the ‘ lodgers” had to pay for their accommodation in the form of work.


The exploring party went from the Whitechapel workhouse to a sailors’ ball, “in a quarter  where every house is a tavern, and where in every tavern there is dancing.”

M. Wolff was struck, as a student of manners, by the following notice displayed at one of the taverns:- “Persons with knives are requested to leave them at the bar.”