Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin was a French politician who fell out of favour, both with the public and the president Napoleon III. After an unsuccessful attempt to impeach the president he fled the country in 1848, and lived in exile in London, where he wrote about his experiences. In 1850, his three-volume work The Decline of England was translated into English, with an editor’s note criticising the books but pointing out that they were of interest. In a chapter on poverty and crime, he relates his experience of visiting lodging houses for homeless criminals.
I have remarked that the streets of London, at night, present a solemn — an almost funereal — aspect, when the thousands of creatures are wandering in them, without bread; but there is an equally ineffaceable impression experienced, on visiting, at that hour, the lodging-houses and the arches of the Blackwall Railway.
The lodging-houses are considered as the most prolific source of all kinds of depravity and of crime. According to a Report of the Commissioners of Police, there were in London, in 1839, twenty-two such houses, and the number is now considerably increased. Each of these houses affords nightly shelter to from sixty to seventy individuals. Almost all these dens resemble each other — they are composed of two apartments, a kitchen and a dormitory. In the one I visited, the kitchen was furnished all round with a wooden bench, fixed to the wall, and bordered with tables, upon which the inmates were leaning, or sleeping at full length. Several were grouped round the chimney, some without a shirt, and seated on the ground, thought of nothing but warming themselves; while others were kneeling down before the fire, and cooking their wretched food. The heads of these men presented an infinite variety, and some striking contrasts. For instance, there was a boy before me, of truly remarkable beauty; his countenance expressed so much candour, and his appearance was so prepossessing, that I had conceived a strong idea of his honesty; yet I was assured, that he was a most consummate pickpocket. Again, a little farther off, at the end of the room, I observed a man whose appearance created almost a feeling of horror. His eyes were buried deeply in their orbits, his cheeks were sunken, and his nostrils pinched-up by want; his stiff beard imparted to his physiognomy something of the demoniacal, yet there was a patient and resigned air in his expression, which awakened a feeling of pity. His clothing was wretched in the extreme; and I never remember meeting with a portrait which denoted the horrors of famine so strikingly, as that poor creature’s did. To this day even that figure has not ceased to follow me….
In lodging-houses, the conversation runs principally upon robberies, and the best manner of robbing. The moment a young thief arrives with a booty, he is immediately surrounded, and complimented on his success, if the produce of his larceny is worth the notice of the adepts. It is certain, that the earnings of pickpockets and beggars is much below what is generally thought. Idleness and vagabondage are the only compensations for the harsh and frequent privations which they endure.
Nothing remains of the site of these observations in London. Blackwall Railway Station itself was closed in 1926 and subsequently demolished.