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A Tourist in Whitechapel

June 26, 2013
by the gentle author

Now that the visitor season is upon us again, I discovered this comic pamphlet of 1859 in the Bishopsgate Institute which gives a fictional account of the experiences of a French tourist in Whitechapel yet permits us a rare glimpse of East End street life in that era too.

Monsieur Theophile Jean Baptiste Schmidt was a great observer of human nature. He was a great traveller too, for he had been across the Atlantic. But he had never been to London, so to London he determined to come.

When he arrived at London Bridge, to which he came in his Boulogne steamboat, he was met by his friend and countryman, Monsieur Hippolyte Lilly, who had resided some years in the city and knew all about its ways. Now Monsieur Lilly was a bit of a wag, so he determined to play Monsieur Schmidt a practical joke. Instead of taking his friend to the West End of London, when he landed, he led him to Whitechapel, and lodged him in a small public house called the Pig & Whistle.

“Baptiste, my friend,” said Hippolyte, “The English are a very strange people and you must not offend them – if they ask you for anything, you must give it at once.”

The Lost Child

No sooner therefore were the friends in Whitechapel, than they sallied out to see London. The stranger was very much astonished at the throng of people and vehicles, and they had not gone far before they saw a little crowd assembled on the pathway, so they at once stopped to see what was going on. Looking over the shoulders of a couple of young ladies they discovered a little child being questioned by a policeman.

“What is the matter?” asked Hippolyte. “Child lost,” replied the policeman. “Better give the man a shilling,” said Hippolyte to his friend. Baptiste therefore put his hand in his pocket and drew out a long silk purse, and taking from it a franc presented it to the policeman, who received it with a nod and a knowing wink.

The Benefits of a Long Purse

The action of the foreigner was not lost upon the crowd, and in a few minutes the friends found themselves surrounded by eager applicants. A little boy with a broom tumbled head over heels for their diversion, a Jew offered them a knife with twenty blades. an Indian begged them to buy a tract, a cabman wished to have the honour of drinking their healths, a boy offered them apples at three a penny, a woman with a child in her arms asked them to treat her to glass of gin, a man with a board requested them to fit themselves with a suit of clothes and a little girl wished to sell them a string of onions. To all of these people Monsieur Baptiste gave some piece of money, so that he was soon a very popular character. The policeman, however, cleared the way and they walked on.

The Conductors of the London Press

Presently they came to the outside of a newspaper dealers, where they saw a crowd of boys and men, laughing, talking, and playing. “These are the conductors of the London Press,” said Hippolyte.

The Disputed Fare

Soon afterwards they witnessed, and took part in, a dispute between a gentleman with a great moustache, a policeman, and a cab driver assisted by a variety of little boys. Baptiste soon settled the dispute by giving the cabman a shilling.

The Great Market

“I will now take you to the Great Market,” said Hippolyte, leading him through the dense crowd assembled round the butchers’ shambles in Whitechapel.

Monsieur Baptiste wondered very much at all he saw, thought the flaming gaslight, streaming over the heads of the people, “a very fine sight,” allowed himself to be pushed and hustled to and fro in the throng with perfect good humour, and was not in the least offended when one stall keeper offered him five bundles  of firewood for a penny, or when another recommended him to invest sixpence in the purchase of a dog collar, or when a third – stroking his upper lip – politely asked him whether she should show him the way to the half-penny shaving shop.

Nor did he doubt for a moment what his friend told him was true when he was informed that this was the principal market for the supply of London with fresh meat. At last however, he expressed a desire to get out of the hot, unwholesome throng of poor people, which became every moment more dense, more noisy, and more bewildering.

The English Aristocracy

“Let us have one little glass of wine,” said Hippolyte, and forthwith they found themselves in the centre of a throng in a low gin shop.

The space in front of the counter was crowded with people of the poorest sort – an Irish labourer, in a smock frock and trousers tied below the knee with a hay band, was treating a miserable-looking woman to a glass of gin – a poor, half-starved girl was trying to persuade her tipsy father to go home, while another child was staggering under the weight of a baby on one arm and a gin bottle under the other – a miserable hag of a woman was crying ballads in a cracked voice – while a dirty-faced man was selling shrimps and pickled eels from  a basket on his arm – and a Whitechapel dandy was joking with the smart barmaid – whose master stood at the door of his private parlour and smoked his cigar with the air of a lord.

A very hot, disagreeable odour filled the place, so that Monsieur Baptiste was obliged he must go home to his hotel. But just before he reached the door of the gin shop, he turned to his friend and asked, “What sort of people are these?”

“These are the aristocracy of England,” said Hippolyte. “These?” exclaimed Baptiste, beginning to see his friend’s joke, “then take me to see the poor.”

How many other places the friends visited that evening, how many jokes Hippolyte played upon Baptiste, and how many other shillings the foreigner spent on his first day in London, I cannot tell you. But I know that he laughed a good deal at the idea of seeing the wrong end of London first.

“Nevertheless, ” Baptiste exclaimed the next morning, “London is a very fine, great, big wonderful city.”

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. June 26, 2013

    This was a charming find! I enjoyed it very much.

  2. gary permalink
    June 26, 2013

    fantastic blog, one of the best ever

  3. Tom Whitemore permalink
    June 26, 2013

    Loved it.
    Having recently subscribed to your endeavour now I find it hard to imagine not starting my day without Spitafields life.
    Thank you very much.

  4. June 26, 2013

    What a gem you’ve shared here. The illustrations are wonderful.

  5. Gary permalink
    June 26, 2013

    That reminds me of my old local pub

  6. Chris F permalink
    June 26, 2013

    ‘He took out his purse and was instantly surrounded by types offering goods & services’….. Sounds like a trip Mrs F & I took to Egypt!

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