London in the Eighteenth Century
London in the Eighteenth Century: ‘A Great and Monstrous Thing’
Bodley Head 682pp £25
‘This is London! How d'ye like it?’ concluded John Bancks’ poetic paean to metropolitan diversity in 1738. In this comprehensive survey of the emergence of the world’s first modern city Jerry White has chosen the overarching theme of division to make sense of the kaleidoscope of people, places and events that constituted the metropolis. This was an age of contrasts, a time of ‘starving poverty as well as shining polish’, a ‘strikingly violent place’ in an age of politeness.
Surprisingly for a city which in a century almost doubled its population and witnessed a dramatic growth in commerce change is not a major theme. White acknowledges there was some progress in healing London’s multi-layered divisions: the metropolis was united physically by the building of new bridges and improvements to the road network and socio-politically at the end of the century, when the elites of the City of London made peace with Westminster in the face of threats of riot and revolution. Yet as this suggests the divisions of class intensified, while intolerance, crime and disorder continued to be juxtaposed with growing humanitarianism and ‘an extensive machinery of repression through prisons and punishment’ remained in place. The conclusion that, despite the foundation of voluntary hospitals, improvements in policing and the articulation of new claims for a more representational political system by 1800 there was ‘much work still to do’ will no doubt evoke wry agreement from contemporary Londoners.
London in the Eighteenth Century is organised thematically, with chapters on London’s buildings, peoples and types of work, followed by ones on culture, religion and politics. But individual lives predominate; each chapter opens with a sketch of a notable Londoner. While many of these figures, including Samuel Johnson, Henry and John Fielding, and John Wilkes, are familiar, others are fresh and evocative, including William Beckford, West India merchant and twice Lord Mayor, the ‘first commoner in England to die a millionaire’; Teresa Cornelys, proprietor of the hugely successful Carlisle House, venue for concerts, assemblies, and masquerades; and Martha Stracey, workhouse orphan and later prostitute, who was executed at the age of 18 for robbing a chairman (the stolen guinea was found hidden in her mouth).
Billed as ‘the first major social history of 18th-century London for 40 years’, this book actually invites comparison with Dorothy George’s classic London Life in the Eighteenth Century (1925). Life in White’s London is less desperate than that portrayed by George (he is sceptical of claims that the gin craze was a social catastrophe), but White also sees less progress by the end of the century (in his extensive treatment of the 1780 anti-Catholic Gordon Riots he notes that the rioters destroyed ten times more property than was destroyed in Paris during the French Revolution). White’s London is also a city brimming with culture, with around a quarter of the book devoted to the city’s architecture and print culture, concerts and theatres, pleasure gardens and fairs and clubs and societies, all of which, with their concomitant drinking, gambling and prostitution, brought rich and poor together in sometimes uneasy coexistence.
Like George’s London Life, White’s book is thoroughly researched (with extensive notes and a 40-page bibliography), but, writing more than 80 years later, he has also been able to take advantage of the extensive range of sources available on the Internet. The vast amount of information presented here sometimes overwhelms the argument, but the wealth of captivating vignettes means readers will return to it again and again.
Robert Shoemaker, Professor of Eighteenth-Century British History at the University of Sheffield, is the author of The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England (Continuum, 2004)
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