I was at the corner of Shadwell Basin
and I gazed upon the slate-coloured river before me shining and exhaling mist;
the northern bank winds and bounds the horizon with its blackish fringe mottled
with red; a few vessels descend with the supple and slow movement of a sea-bird;
their sombre hulls and brown sails balance themselves upon the water which
shimmers. To north and south a mass of ships raise their crowded masts. The
silence is almost complete; one hears but the strokes of distant hammers, the
vague tinkle of a bell, and the fluttering of birds in the trees. A Dutch
painter, Van der Heyden, Backhuysen, would have taken pleasure in beholding this
plain of water, the distant tones of brick and tar, this uncertain horizon where
stretch the sleeping clouds. I have seen nothing more picturesque in London. The
rest is too scrubbed and varnished, or too bustling and too foul.
Shadwell, one of the poor neighbourhoods, is close at hand; by the vastness of its distress, and by its extent, it is in keeping with the hugeness and the wealth of London. . . Beggars, thieves, harlots, the latter especially, crowd Shadwell Street. One hears a grating music in the spirit cellars; sometimes it is a negro who handles the violin; through the open windows one perceives unmade beds, women dancing. Thrice in ten minutes I saw crowds collected at the doors; fights were going on, chiefly fights between women; one of them, her face bleeding, tears in her eyes, drunk, shouted with a sharp and harsh voice, and wished to fling herself upon a man. The bystanders laughed; the noise caused the adjacent lanes to be emptied of their occupants; ragged, poor children, harlots—it was like a human sewer suddenly discharging its contents. Some of them have a relic of neatness, a new garment, but the greater number are in filthy and unseemly tatters. Figure to yourself what a lady’s bonnet may become after passing during three or four years from head to head, having been crushed against walls, having had blows from fists; for they receive them. I noticed blackened eyes, bandaged noses, bloody cheek-bones. The women gesticulate with extraordinary vehemence; but most horrible of all is their shrill, acute, cracked voice, resembling that of an ailing screech-owl.
From the time of leaving the Tunnel, Street boys abound—barefooted, dirty, and turning wheels in order to get alms. On the stairs leading to the Thames they swarm, more pale-faced, more deformed, more repulsive than the scum of Paris; without question, the climate is worse, and the gin more deadly. Near them, leaning against the greasy walls, or inert on the steps, are men in astounding rags; it is impossible to imagine before seeing them how many layers of dirt an overcoat or a pair of trousers could hold; they dream or doze open-mouthed, their faces are begrimed, dull, and sometimes streaked with red lines. It is in these localities that families have been discovered with no other bed than a heap of soot; they had slept there during several months. For a creature so wasted and jaded there is but one refuge—drunkenness. ‘Not drink!’ said a desperate character at an inquest. ‘It were better then to die at once...
Here and there is a dust-heap. Women are labouring to pick out what is valuable from it. One, old and withered, had a short pipe in her mouth. They stand up amidst the muck to look at me; brutalized, disquieting faces of female Yahoos; perhaps this pipe and a glass of gin is the last idea which floats in their idiotic brain. Should we find there anything else than the instincts and the appetites of a savage and of a beast of burden?
A miserable black cat, lean, lame, startled, watches them timidly out of the corner of its eye, and furtively searches in a heap of rubbish. It was possibly right in feeling uneasy. The old woman, muttering, followed it with a look as wild as its own. She seemed to think that two pounds weight of meat were there.
Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, Notes on England, 1872.