Strange as it might seem to us, the slums of Victorian London were, to many visitors, a tourist attraction in their own right. Many people, visiting the 19th-century Metropolis, would not consider their trip complete unless they had experienced first hand the less salubrious districts, many of which were to be found in the East End of London.
One person who enjoyed one of these slum tours, was Prince Charles Bonaparte, who in 1872, arrived in London from Rome and expressed his desire to visit the area that was frequently being referred to in the popular press as “the Inferno” or “The Abyss.”
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper published the following account of his “adventure” in its edition of Sunday, 11th February, 1872:-
THROUGH THE SLUMS WITH A PRINCE
It cannot be as pleasant as it is an instructive task to pilot the continental innocent through the slums of sin and dirt, and poverty which stain Metropolis’s never too beautiful surface.
The Prince Charles Bonaparte, newly arrived from Rome, is the latest inquirer. Mr. Blanchard Jerrold was asked by M. Filon to accompany the young Prince on his tour of inspection.
Prince, author detective, and suite descended to the “Inferno” on Thursday night. The East of London was the chosen circle – a ninth circle indeed – and the explorers entered Whitechapel at a little past 10 o’clock.
The Prince and his party passed on, under cross-fires of stares – principally directed at the detective whom Alsatia knows and really respects.
By dark, dirty, and narrow lanes and passages, they proceeded to the quarters where the thieves find shelter when “business” is over.
THE CRIMINAL COMMUNITY
Rents are high in the locality, and the householders pay them willingly as the price of an inestimable privilege – that of herding together; that of being in the midst of the 2,220 establishments kept by the receivers of stolen goods, and the 8.000 resorts where the weary mind may be refreshed after the labours of the day and confederates met without fear of intrusive listeners and plots hatched and plunder calculated.
Having seen how the Alsatians are lodged and fed, the viewers proceeded to inquire into their mode of relaxation. It lacks refinement, indubitably; yet taking into account the differences in education and nurture of the audiences, it is not very much beneath that of fashionable frequenters of music-halls nearer the centre of civilisation.
At least, the outcasts have as much of this peculiar form of pleasure as the socially “received” rakes of the West-end. Balls, entertainments and theatres are to be found in plenty.
THE THIEVES RESORT
Onwards the students passed to the thieves’ public house at Shoreditch.
Stunted houses, tortuous dingy streets kept from collapse by mouldy bars of wood, vagabonds’ beggars, thieves, and prostitutes – such composed this phase of the Inferno.
TO RATCLIFFE HIGHWAY
Ratcliffe Highway was near at hand, and here Prince Charles and his companions found the saturnalia of drunkenness and debauchery at its height.
This region, bordering the Thames is as unknown as the Sahara to the majority of Londoners.
It might correct a few ideal conceptions of that generous, brave, and jovial individual, Jack Ashore, if visited as Prince Charles visited it, a short time before midnight and under the guidance of a keen observer.
THE SAILORS HOPS
The sailors’ “hops” were crowded. Rum and gin were running freely down the case-hardened throats of the noble British tar and his lasses.
Behind every low and grimy ginshop, long rooms bordered with smeared wooden tables were open to all comers.
In the centre the “hops” were in progress, and in some cases on the stage at the end of the room, comic songs being sung by prime donne in tights and Polonaise boots.
In one of the hovels, a bronzed savage was eating fire, to the delight of simple Jack. He looked and spoke suspiciously like a native of Batignolles, but his audience evidently accepted him in good as an Eastern potentate exiled for political reasons.
At another “hop” nearly all the assembled women were Maltese. Fine, haughty faces, some of them possessed – but now ruined, distorted, and vulgarised by “English hospitality.”
TO THE OPIUM DENS OF SHADWELL
Mr. Jerrold conducted the party, at Prince Charles’s desire to the infamous dens in Shadwell where the opium smokers of London collect for the enjoyment of their ghastly dissipation.
Room after room – filled with smokers in different stages of stupefaction, until at last the explorers reached the chamber where Charles Dickens first conceived the idea of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
The place was exactly as the novelist sketched it. The Lascar husband (even as in the terrible nightmare of De Quincey) lay on the bed motionless, the little brass pipe having fallen from his hand, and beside him his wife, with pan and light, and pipe, was extended in the centre of’ the foul and ragged bed, still smoking and gazing vacantly at the visitors.
The tour concluded with an inspection of the casual ward of St. George’s-in-the-East, where the inmates for the night were sleeping.