The revolutionizing agenda of co-author of Street Life in London, Adolphe Smith, was overtly political. Born in Yorkshire, he made his way while in his early 20s to France, where he served as a medic with a French ambulance corps during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. During the war he saw significant action, but the more consequential experiences for his own future development as an activist journalist came after France had surrendered to Prussia and the war had ended.
The citizens of Paris, infuriated at the capitulation and angered at their treatment by the French government, rebelled. They forced the government to leave the city, electing instead a group of citizen-leaders and forming the Paris Commune. Adolphe Smith remained in Paris as a medic for the entire period and, though not a Communard himself, clearly sympathized with the Commune’s collectivist goals. During the Commune he saw French workers given a voice and a vote, and permitted a degree of self-determination that they had rarely experienced before. He was deeply moved, and irrevocably changed, by the experience.
The French workers’ social and political liberation was temporary: the Commune was violently crushed by the French national authority in May 1871. At that time Smith left Paris, fleeing to London alongside many other refugees. On his return to his home country he retained his collectivist sympathies, however, and in all his subsequent journalistic endeavours he was motivated, at base, by a desire to promote the dignity, and better the living conditions, of poor and working-class people.
His work on Street Life in London grew from and, at least initially, clearly expresses this revolutionizing agenda. In essays like London Cabmen he openly praises trade unionist movements and argues forcefully against the idea that cabdrivers and other labourers are somehow innately inclined towards criminality, demonstrating instead the corruption and exploitation inherent in the systems employing them. Texts like Recruiting Sergeants at Westminster also incorporate clear calls for broad reform of the unfair, class-based system of military recruitment and, by extension, the entire social class structure in Britain.
[From: Emily Morgan, Foreword to Street Life in London.]