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The Victorian City

By David Waller | Posted 31st January 2013, 11:53
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The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London
Judith Flanders
Atlantic Books   560pp   £25

Victorian Bloomsbury
Rosemary Ashton
Yale University Press   320pp   £25

By 1800 London was already the largest city ever known, ‘double the size of Paris with one million inhabitants, living in 136,000 houses’. Fifty years of ceaseless construction later, nearly three million people lived in 306,000 houses, figures that doubled again by the end of the century.

Nineteenth-century London was thus overwhelming: huge, noisy, stinky and overcrowded. Teeming with life and death, visitors often said that the city was unknowable in its vast, inhuman scale. Only creative artists of the stature of Charles Dickens were able to comprehend its immensity.

If one suspected for a moment that Dickens exaggerated his portrayal of Victorian London, Judith Flanders’ latest work of Victorian social history will dispel that thought within a few pages. ‘Much of what we take today to be the marvellous imaginings of a visionary novelist turn out on inspection to be the reportage of a great observer,’ she writes in The Victorian City.

In 1862, for example, the Fleet Ditch, known as the Black River of North London as it was little more than a sewer, burst its banks and flooded the near complete workings of the underground tunnel alongside. The massive brick structure gave way and the foul water rushed across two and half miles of London from Farringdon Road to Paddington, carrying with it not merely the debris of the tunnel but also scores of corpses stored in a mausoleum. It took ten days for the water to be stemmed and the bodies recovered.

This ghoulish story could have come out of the pages of a Dickens novel, as could the account of a man who lit his cigar with a twist of paper he held to a gaslight outside a shop. He threw away the paper and it fell into a sewer, where it promptly ignited and blew up ten houses. What happened to the smoker is not recorded.

‘Within the single entity called London, many Londons existed simultaneously,’ Flanders shows. The homes of the poor, the so-called rookeries in the vicinity of Paddington or St Giles, were cheek-by-jowl with the sumptuous residences of the rich. When labourers began their walk to work in the early hours of the morning, they overlapped with revellers and ‘fallen women’ returning home.
If Dickens liked to pace the streets in search of inspiration, Flanders calculates that by 1866, 750,000 people walked miles to work in the morning, creating long orderly lines as they made their way from the suburbs to the City or the Inns of Courts. This contrasted with the mayhem on the streets, where there were no traffic rules and progress was notoriously slow.

Flanders’ book ranges broad and deep, demonstrating the vitality of Dickensian London as well as the horror. Rosemary Ashton, also a distinguished social historian of the 19th century, focuses more narrowly on Victorian Bloomsbury, that area of west central London defined by Tottenham Court Road to the west, Euston Road in the north, Holborn and New Oxford Street to the south and Gray’s Inn Road in the east.

In 1904 Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) and her siblings moved there from Kensington and thus founded the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ of writers and artists. Ashton’s purpose is to ‘identify a more comprehensive, and ultimately more significant, influence in the activities of an earlier set of Bloomsbury-based pioneers’.

If the elegant squares of Bloomsbury were deemed socially far less exclusive than those of Mayfair, there was an extraordinary concentration of progressive intellectual and cultural activity. Ashton describes the foundation of the University of London in 1826, designed to end the anomaly that the great city did not have its own university. To this day the secular and enlightened spirit of its founders is memorialised in the form of Jeremy Bentham’s skeleton, displayed fully clothed with a wax head in the entrance to what is now University College.

Nineteenth-century Bloomsbury also saw the first medical school for women, the first teaching of modern languages, geography and architecture and the first kindergarten. Under the tutelage of novelist Mrs Humphry Ward the first organisation offering after-school care for the children of working parents was established there. The famous ‘new’ Round Reading Room of the British Museum was opened in 1857. Thackeray, Trollope, Disraeli, Gissing and Mrs Braddon all lived in and wrote about Victorian Bloomsbury, as did Charles Dickens himself, who lived in Gower Street as a child and chose Doughty Street for his first marital home.

Drawing on original sources, such as the largely unpublished writings of the diarist Henry Crabb Robinson, Ashton tells the story of the men and women who ‘fought against entrenched opinion and vested interests for universal education, from kindergarten to university, and for cultural opportunities for all’. Her account of the Victorian ‘march of mind’ is fascinating and original.

David Waller is the author of The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman (Victorian Secrets, 2011).


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