Georgian Londoners – the making of a modern city
Lucy Inglis looks at the making of the London identity, and how it was shaped through the last years of the 17th century, then consolidated throughout the 18th century as London moved towards Enlightenment.
Lucy Inglis began the blog GeorgianLondon in 2009. In 2013, Penguin published her book, Georgian London: Into the streets
This is a big talk – I’m trying to get a pint into a half-pint pot. So, we’re going to go at speed. But, this is about the identity of London. And I think that a lot of people, they have this idea of London when they think of the Blitz Spirit and things like that. But I think that, and I would argue, and I’m going to argue today, that the identity of Londoners was forged a long time ago, in the latter part of the 17th century, and then this, kind of, springboards London and Britain into the gradual Enlightenment that happened here, with us, rather than the very much accelerated late 18th century one that happened across Europe.
In the Georgian period, throughout the 18th century, it was roughly thought that one in five people would spend part of their life in London, which makes it hugely influential on the rest of the country.
So, when Samuel Pepys ventured out into this smoking wasteland of London that Friday in September 1666, his city held only half a million people, and in little more than 150 years, London was to change from a charred medieval wreck to the capital of the world.
One fine summer’s day in the reign of George IV, Cyrus Redding walked up Primrose Hill to contemplate the city and saw:
‘Royalty, legislation, nobility, learning, science, trade, and commerce concentrated before me in a mightier whole than had ever before been in the history of the world; and its fame and glory had gone forth and been felt in the most remote corners of the Earth.’
And I argue that essentially, four events, in a very short space of time, are what created this very strong sense of London identity. The first is Restoration. So, we begin in the winter of 1659, and London was not a city that managed very well with the Commonwealth and the Puritans. It’s quite a young city. It was very dynamic back then. And also it survives on commerce, so the social aspect of sort of, there was this oppression of theatres and…life and joy didn’t go down very well with London’s large, young population.
So, Charles Stewart, the son of the executed king, was exiled in The Hague, but he was really only waiting to come back, and London was essentially waiting for him. He was proclaimed king in his absence on 8 May 1660, and John Evelyn wrote that ‘Bow Bells could not be heard for the noise of the people.’ All the problems that Amsterdam had – illness – eventually got on the boat and got over to London.
So, between the plague, and the fire the following year, in that one year, a fifth of London’s population were dead, and four fifths of the city was ashes. So, it was just catastrophic on a scale we really can’t understand now.
So, the plague begins in St Giles-in-the-Fields, sadly, the famous slum of St Giles-in-the-Fields. And, no-one really knows why it’s happening, because we don’t understand the nature of disease at this stage. And the first thing that we do is we kill all the dogs and cats because we want to stop what we see as them spreading the disease, because of course they were spread on rats and cats and dogs. But the cats and dogs were preying on the rats and it just meant that the disease bloomed immediately, across the city.
So, John Allen, who…lots of people didn’t leave, though. Many did leave, the court obviously left, but lots of people tried to stay in their jobs – clergymen and civil servants, and Samuel Pepys was one. And John Allen was a clergyman who stayed, and his brother also stayed:
‘His brother went out one morning, but when he returned he found a stiffness under his ear, where he had a swelling that could not be brought to rise and break, but choked him. He died Thursday night last.’
That week, with the deaths at their peak, Allen wrote of a doleful and almost universal and continual ringing and tolling of bells, and the plague was terrifying, mainly because the onset could be incredibly rapid and the symptoms varied quite a bit. So, men are considerably more susceptible to plague than women.
So, Daniel Defoe remembered in his memoir that ‘people who are near their end and delirious also, would run to the plague pits wrapped in rugs or blankets and throw themselves in.’ There’s this terrible sense of fatality. Drivers of the death carts became very immune to people’s sufferings and there was one who was held for public disorder and whipped in the streets for holding up the body of a child by the leg.
So, then, just as London fears extinction the spread of the disease slowed, and autumn cools the city. It seemed that more victims were surviving. We don’t know why this happens with plague outbreaks, but it does. They ‘sweat kindly’, as they used to say, and sometimes whole families were surviving, even though all the family had been sick. So the worst had passed.
‘By spring 1666, most of those who had left the city had returned to their homes, and the king and his court were back in St James. The disease would linger on through the slums for another blazing summer. But life returned to normal with remarkable speed.’
And I’m sure you’re all familiar with this story but in the early hours of 2 September 1666, Samuel Pepys made…Jane wakes him and tells him to look out across the city and there’s a fire and he doesn’t think it’s very serious, so he goes back to bed. Fires were quite common because of the galleried nature of London’s buildings, where they all added on more storeys and started to lean towards each other, and were highly flammable materials. And, by seven o’clock, 350 houses had gone, and the prevailing wind means that the fire is picking up speed the entire time. So, the Steel Yard, which essentially was light industry and shops and housing, which now lies pretty much directly under Cannon Street Station, was gone an hour later. So it shows you that the fire is accelerating incredibly quickly.
There’s an almost instant breakdown in public order, which London is very keen on in this sort of situation, and the French – the Catholic French – are attacked in the streets. 14-year-old schoolboy, William Taswell, who is a fantastic witness for the fire for us, remembered seeing a blacksmith who met ‘an innocent Frenchman walking along the street and felled him instantly to the ground with an iron bar.’ And his brother saw a Frenchman mobbed in Moorfields for what they said were a box of firebombs and he was trying to say that it was tennis balls.
John Evelyn recalled how throughout the city, the fall of towers, houses and churches was like a hideous storm.
On Thursday morning, the fire burned only in localised patches and young William puts on his breastplate and his helmet and gets his sword, obviously (!), and walks along Fleet Street into the city. And he has a stop on the Fleet Bridge because he’s so hot because of the heat coming up from the ground is so strong that he thinks he’s going to faint. But he is determined to get to St Paul’s Cathedral and pick up melted bits of the bells and the windows and things like that. And he finds a woman totally mummified, essentially, in the corner of one of the buttresses, trying to hide from the fire and had just perished in the heat. And we don’t know how many of these casualties there were. People talk about the casualties of the Great Fire being very low, but it’s quite possible they were much higher, now, because we think that prison officers and warders weren’t particularly keen on letting prisoners out before they got out themselves.
So, the fire had destroyed over 13,000 houses, 87 churches and a cathedral, and almost all the city’s public buildings. John Evelyn surveyed the damage and wrote ‘London was, but is no more.’ However, we soon get to rebuilding. The Great Fire shaped London like no event until the Blitz. It meant that we had instant rebuilding rules, almost – the Rebuilding Acts, which meant you had to have a totally different and very formulaic style of housing. So, it dominates how London is going to look…built landscape, but also, it creates this almost uniform, sudden rebuilding.
Also, and very, very odd, there used to be…London Bridge used to be colonised by a yellow mustard plant called London rocket, and, obviously when we pulled old London Bridge down, we thought that it had disappeared. And it had flowered all across the ash of the Great Fire, and bizarrely, it’s still here because, during the Blitz, when there was huge destruction in the city, this rocket plant returned and colonised all the wreckage there.
So, the writer and social commentator, Gideon Harvey, estimated that in the four years after the Fire of London, was earned by tradesman relating to building only the sum of 4,000,000…1,000,000 per annum. Using relative earnings comparisons, this equates to approximately 7 billion today, and London was changing rapidly. But these changes weren’t only physical; they were social, cultural and political, too, and of course everyone knows about, sort of, Restoration Theatre, and the arrival of women on the stage. And so you’re having these enormous changes, particularly led by Charles’ Court. And then, of course, we get his Catholic brother, the Duke of York, on the throne, King James, and things take a considerable turn for the worse.
London is not particularly interested in being governed by a Catholic, having had a terrible time under Queen Mary Tudor. And, Londoners feel, or used to feel, that Moorfields and Smithfield were their public places, that they owned those places. And when Mary Tudor executed Londoners in Smithfield, it was this huge deal, and it took London…it’s never really overcome this very practical Protestantism.
So, when we get James, it’s inevitable that his reign is not going to be a great success. And of course, come next 1688, we have the Glorious Revolution, when we get…William and Mary come to the throne, William Prince of Orange. And it’s very interesting that the city – lots of people talk about how William proceeded from Torbay and that it’s, you know, relatively bloodless, and all of this. And he was, sort of, this military leader, which he was – he loved making war, but there’s a very interesting thing that happened that Christmas.
Guildhall got together all the big merchants and they made a thing called the Guildhall delegation, and what they did was send a messenger to William on his progress to Oxford, and said you have to stop at Henley because we need to talk. And, so William stopped and they had a, sort of, a dinner at Henley, where basically 12 big merchants from the city of London said to him ‘well, this is how it’s got to be. So, you know, you can come and be king, but this is how it’s got to be.’ And that is a huge…it’s quite an overlooked aspect of the Revolution, but it’s enormously important in setting up this city and Westminster dynamic, which still dominates, I think, as well, today.
So, the Catholic Question remains throughout the 18th century one of the central questions to the identity and the identity of London. It’s hugely important, and it’s really only resolved in the 19th century. So, as this is accomplished in the first part, these are the four big events that set up new London, the modern London, and this new sense of very hardy, very dynamic, very commercial people, who have seen their property go, they’ve seen their families go, and they’ve still – they’ve forged through it and they are ready for the new century that is coming and one of the big reasons – what we’re going to concentrate on today is ‘why is it coming?,’ and we’re going to explore that through the medium of printed matter.
So, the first one is obviously very important to London – money. And, Londoners have always been financial animals, in fact Voltaire was stunned when he came to London to see that ‘the Jew, the Mohammedan and the Christian transact together and give the name “infidel” to none but the bankrupt.’
But how were we using money at the time? Obviously, largely coinage, but we’d had a re-coinage in the late 17th century because our coins were so worn out, and some of them were even still Elizabethan, and it was okay if everyone sort of used the same ones and passed them off as the same thing, but clearly that was breaking down, the system was breaking down. So we had a mass re-coinage but we still hadn’t mastered the bank note, which was the big commercial revolution, and we did this through the Bank of England – the creation of the Bank of England.
The 17th century people invested their money with the people that they trusted. And we still have some of those banks now – Charles, Hawes and Coutts. But, essentially, and very often these men were goldsmiths, so they were holding bullion, so we knew that they were holding a certain standard of gold, rather than, sort of, the alloys that were passing through the system. However, we’re trying to get away from this, and their promissory notes are known as running cashes but they’re made out to you. They’re a bit like when you go and get a banker’s draft, and you have as much as you want to pay someone on this thing. But that’s very, you know, it’s, sort of, time-consuming, it was really only applicable for big numbers.
So, London needs an official bank, and we’re looking again to Amsterdam for this, and Germany, but really Amsterdam. A group of city merchants stepped up, who believed they could raise £1,000,000 to start this new bank. A significant number of these men were Huguenots, including their leader, John Houblon, who has just gone off the note, very sadly. The £1,000,000 would go to the state, so that William could carry on his wars, and we were a bit less bankrupt, and a newly created Bank of England was to reap £65,000 in interest for its investors in perpetuity, which is a big sum. Thus, in one swift act in 1694, the National Debt was created. A lot of politicians talked a lot of rot about the National Debt recently. And it’s amazing that they don’t even have a concept of what the National Debt is and how it originated, but, you know, that will never surprise anyone, will it?
At the chapel, in Mercer’s Hall in Poultry, people could go and hand over their cash to be an investor in the Bank of England, and 1,267 people did this in the end of a very short period. The Huguenots were – Houblon was appointed the first governor – and the Huguenots were dominant on the Board of Governors.
And this was coupled with the 1696 re-coinage, so we’re immediately moving into a far more professional system of money. And Houblon was charged with appointing a man who was good with bullion. And he appointed Moses Mocatta, who was a partner in the firm Mocatta and Goldsmid, who controlled the Bank of England bullion up until the Great War. And de Moses Mocatta was from a very big Sephardic family who worshipped at the Bevis Marks Synagogue. So, essentially, we had put the control of the Bank of England into the hands of a group of French immigrants and a man whose religion was totally illegal in this country, and also couldn’t hold property officially.
So, it’s amazing to see that the sense of commerce, that driving force that we have, overrides everything. So, the early trade. Immediately the bank starts to try and make these promissory notes. And when John Houblon went off the notes someone put a little model of him outside the Bank of England. Again, we need to find a watermark system of paper, and that’s done by a Huguenot called Henry Portal, at a place called Bere Mill in Hampshire. And, Henry Portal watermarks this paper. It’s an immediate success – he’s another Huguenot, so – and the Portals still make all of our banknotes now. So, anyway, they are such an immediate success that people start to fake them, almost immediately, as well, and lots of women are involved in the faking. This is quite fine work, and the bank ends up supporting, through the 18th century, various women who have been caught defrauding the bank with fake notes, then end up in prison and then write to the bank, asking for charity. And the bank, surprisingly enough, sends…there’s one poor chap, who has to keep getting a boat – a rowboat – out to the prison barge in Deptford, where all these people are about to be transported, and handing out £10 notes to them.
So, as an aside, one of London’s most famous wardens of the Royal Mint, Englishman Isaac Newton, aged 19, made a list of his sins, and along with ‘stealing, punching my sister, falling out with the servants and having unclean thoughts,’ was ‘striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne,’ which is possibly a less than promising start.
Assisting this enormous rise in London trade and its establishment as a financial centre are two things – coffee houses and Lloyd’s. And the Court of Exchange and other things. John Casson is another Huguenot, strangely enough, who spends his time in coffee houses, and he – particularly Jonathan’s – and he starts to think, well, we need someone to be writing up all these stocks prices, and all the prices for currency exchange. And he starts to do this, and he’s hugely successful and he does it so in order to trade with the continent, he can write it up on Monday, it can be printed, and it goes to Harwich and the Hook of Holland on the Tuesday packet boat. So he establishes himself as this, you know, sort of, the guru on these prices. And this was used for decades, and became a very professional set-up. And, it’s a bit like a, what do they call it…Bloomberg – a Bloomberg of his day.
And, this shows you how central these coffee houses were to this information network. They used to send out young boys out to Gravesend to see the ships coming in and the boys would have ponies and they would be racing back into the city. And in all this information which, if you remember, the Baltic, or Jonathan’s or any of these other coffee houses – the information you were interested in would be chalked up on the board immediately, changing the nature of the business you were doing.
And the other huge difference that we have at that time is Lloyd’s comes out of a coffee house. The Great Fire had taught London to insure, and the advent of cheap paper and printed matter meant that records were kept. The 18th century is the first truly documentary century, and this huge amount of information, as I’m sure loads of, you know, insurance records are as dull as dishwater, but they are fascinating on about who was living where, how much their stock in their shop was worth, how many children lived under the counter. You know, all of that kind of thing.
And these coffee houses ran, all from mainly from Exchange Alley, near the Royal Exchange, and became this huge hub of information, and information was really what it was about. This rapid exchange – things are accelerating super-quickly, from about 1700 to about 1740. Jonathan’s burns down in 1748, and is rebuilt and emerges as a stocks market, ‘where many a man traded whose greatest ambition is to ride over others. In order to which, he resolves to win the horse or lose the saddle.’ Some things don’t change. And Lloyd’s, of course, on Tower Street was where the insurance deals started to be done, starting and shipping and moving on. And it finally moved to the Royal Exchange in 1774 as a society of Lloyd’s and by 1774, this is really…London has consolidated its position as this enormous financial hub.
So, the next one, we move to, is the power of the press – I’m showing you a post-boy here. And when we go back to our enormously unpopular King, George I, they had already realised in Westminster that they could use the newspapers to influence the people of Britain to favourably accept the new King.
So, all these different little sort of bits of information were put out, and the new penny post system, which was, sort of, up and running, was used to distribute these propaganda newspapers to coffee houses free, as long as they were the right newspapers. So, you can see how Westminster is already influencing the press by the time George I comes to the throne.
So, lots of these cheap publications were printed in Moorfields. Almost all of London’s cheap press was printed in Moorfields, which, as I’m sure a lot of you know, is where Bedlam’s set, and which…Alexander Pope thought that Moorfields with this sort of madness, and this cheap nonsense literature was going to be the downfall of society. And we didn’t even have the Daily Mail (!).
So, Cripplegate is the church that’s still standing in Barbican Cripplegate…and St Giles-without-Cripplegate is the church that’s still standing in the Barbican and really their east was where Moorfields sort of emanated. Now, most of Moorfields is underneath the Barbican. It’s enormously boggy, and in the Tudor period had wet, sort of, it had causeways across it, it was so wet. And, that, I think that’s brilliant now that the Barbican is sort of this swamp, inside. It’s very reminiscent of it for me. Anyway, so Moorfields was this really chaotic place. It was one of the biggest cruising grounds in London, and there were lots of arrests for homosexuality made there. One man was actually apprehended by his penis, which was unfortunate for his wife.
And lots and lots of, sort of, public fighting, craziness, went on in Moorfields, but one of London’s… predominantly, London’s pornography…Moorfields produces an enormous amount of pornography, and London itself produces an enormous amount of pornography.
This is ‘The Cabinet of Love,’ which is quite a famous edition here. Samul Pepys represents the most typical sort of ‘early user’, when he has – probably the wrong word – when he has a picture, a naked print of Nell Gwynn, behind his desk at the Admiralty, which is – I don’t know, it always reminds me of, when I was young and you used to go and drop off the car at the garage, and there used to be, sort of, the calendars behind the thing and everyone used to think that was fine. The two streets that were there – there were two streets that specialised almost exclusively in pornography. And the Times spent most of the 18th century trying to get it shut down, and failed totally. But, apparently, it was footmen and housemaids were the most frequently-sent members of the household staff to go to the pornographer and pick things up. So, Samuel Pepys goes to his bookseller, John Martin, and buys himself a nice little tome, and on February someday, the Lord’s Day – as he notes in his diary – he went to the office to do some work and have a little read of his new purchase, ‘which is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man wants to read over and inform himself of the villainy of the world.’
So, and as we’ve seen, women are not only the stars of this pornography, but the producers – there are some very famous 18th century female producers of pornography – Elizabeth Nutt and Daughters was one, in the 1740s. And Mary Cooper printed and sold ‘The Concubita’ in 1750, which was featured on the front cover of the Ladies’ Magazine in its first year of publication. And the Ladies’ Magazine was a very decorous sort of publication, and it had a tea party pictured on the front, so…apparently it could be bought quite legitimately by respectable women. In 1805, Baptisa Bertazzi was sentenced to six months in prison for selling obscene prints in a London boarding school for girls, and George Cannon was a pornographic bookseller who employed hawkers to throw pornography over the walls of boarding schools.
So, we’ve got this idea…also loads of music was printed in Moorfields, and…this is a bit of an aside, but culturally quite important. Handel became the English choral composer that he was through a very clever system of partnership with a man called John Walsh, I don’t know if any of you have heard of John Walsh. Lots of people who study Handel talk about the importance of his copyists, cause Handel was a messy writer and he liked to eat, and you know, drink, while he was writing. And so, they talk about these beautiful copyists, who did his work for him, but actually the bond with Walsh, who he joined up with when he first came over to England was vital, because Walsh had the monopoly on Handel’s music, but he also had it printed overnight very, very quickly, as soon as it had premiered anywhere. And he had it done for every instrument that was ordinarily played. So, if you were a 15-year-old girl and you go to Vauxhall Gardens and you are astonished by this new piece of Handel’s music, the next day, you can go to Covent Garden, to Catherine Street, and you can buy from John Walsh, the piece of music so you can recreate that, that afternoon, you can do that. The sense of immediacy, again, it’s not about these great works of…musical scholarship, by, you know, Handel’s, sort of, employees. It’s a canny, cheap publisher using lead and pewter in Covent Garden. But that was an aside.
So, we go to social and cultural change. Things that bring people to London. We’ve done money, and we’ve done, kind of, this rise in print culture, but there’s also like, love and sex, and the changing in society. And, London is a place where people can find a home – there’ll be other people like them, you know, you’re not going to be ‘the only homosexual in the village’. And, especially not at this stage. So, we have this rising tolerance, that starts very early, as I’ve said, and it carries on strongly throughout the 18th century.
So, and also we have a very sort of…London is certainly the city for the sexual buccaneer, as Benjamin Franklin found when he arrived here. And his first visit to London, as a young man, he made a pass at his best friend’s girlfriend, who was ‘a pretty, gently-bred, sensible and lively milliner with her own shop in the Exeter Exchange.’ She repulsed him, and his friend fell out with him, and he noted in his autobiography that this was another ‘erratum’.
So, socially, things changing very quickly. Marriage age is high. People often think of sort of ‘Jane Austen’ Misses felling very left on the shelf by like 19 or something. But it varies throughout the period. Really, men and women are a year apart, men are a year older. It goes from about 27 at the beginning to about 28, 29 at the end, and women – 27, 28. So, first marriage age is high. People did co-habit. It’s a subject for the debating societies fiercely from the 1740s onwards: why are so many people co-habiting? And, also, of course, you could, essentially and legitimately, kind of leave your wife in York, and arrive in London, and nobody really knew that, you know, you had left a wife and a family. So, you do get a lot more ‘romantic mobility’, I think, and people think.
Also, people, many working people were in apprenticeships until 21. They got a lot of social and personal credit from these apprenticeships – they’ve got a good skill, but they still had to establish themselves, even if they were just going to carry on working for someone else. The men in particular wanted to be able to run a household. I think there’s a lot to be said for that, but it’s an interesting concept – the 18th century marriage. And also, you do get particularly long engagements that essentially function where, you know, where the boyfriend is a lodger and things like that. It’s very interesting.
However, because you do have this late marriage age, and because London has this, kind of, very tolerant moral code, prostitution is an enormous presence. And it’s mainly foreign diarists who comment on the absolute abundance of prostitutes on London streets because before the internet, how were you going to, you know, advertise your wares? And, also, no sensible woman would sit in a first floor window if she didn’t want to be, sort of, have people knocking on the door downstairs.
So, Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz was the German diarist who was absolutely agog at our prostitutes here, and was also great fun in writing on them. He was particularly amazed by the number of streetwalkers in Covent Garden and the Strand. And was taken aback by how the lower class of prostitutes would ‘accost the passengers and offer to accompany them. They even surround them in crowds, stop and overwhelm them with caresses and entreaties.’ He was even more shocked by what happened after midnight, ‘when the old wretches, of 50 or 60 years of age descend from their garrets and attack the intoxicated passengers, who are often prevailed upon to satisfy their passions in the open street.’
Lots of people again, they have sort of this idea of the 18th century with gin, and child prostitution is a big preoccupation as well for them. And – although that’s also a Victorian preoccupation – but it wasn’t necessarily such a problem as it became later on, when it was reported in the 1880s.
Archenholz, after watching such children attempting to sell their bodies on the street, wrote ‘such is the corruption of the human heart that even they have their lovers.’ And, he was commenting when people like Jonas Hanway and the Foundling Hospital were setting up charities, and the Fieldings, particularly, to get children off the street. The Link-boys, who carried torches through the streets, were very often trading, you know, their bodies as well, and there’s a fantastic Joshua Reynolds picture, I don’t know if any of you have seen it, of the Link-boy [http://www.wikiart.org/en/joshua-reynolds/cupid-as-a-link-boy]. It’s very phallic, and very dark. And he’s looking back over his shoulder at the… clearly leaving and going to work and there are all sorts of different conversations. The Strawberry Girl is kind of a companion in a series, being murdered by the white lead on her face, and the rouge, you know to look like strawberries and cream [http://www.wikiart.org/en/joshua-reynolds/the-strawberry-girl-1777].
So, people were commenting on this, people were very committed to helping children, and the Fieldings and Hanways founded the Marine Society really to get Link-boys off the streets and off to sea, which I’m not sure how helpful that was but, people are, this rise in philanthropy and this awareness that perhaps all…morality, the tolerance that exists in London is not always the best kind, is really rushing in on us on the latter part of the 18th century.
However, our favourite, or my favourite purveyor of London’s prostitutes, is James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, of course. And you can’t imagine two more different men, can you, you know, lumbering Johnson, you know, with his sort of scorched wig from holding his candles too close to his eyes and, you know, not really getting down with the ladies, as such; and you’ve got Boswell just roaming the streets, crazy. So, he engaged many street prostitutes during his career in London, which included his favourite kind: ‘the civil nymph with white thread stockings, who tramps along the Strand and will resign her engaging person to your honour for a pint of wine and a shilling.’
However, there are some quite comforting accounts about sex workers, and I bet a lot of you have heard of ‘Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies?’. And his style of humour was very good. But in the 1788 editions, one of my favourites, which is:
‘Mrs Dot, who is indeed turned of 40, rather fat and short, yet she looks well, dresses neat, keeps the house and after giving you a whole night’s entertainment, is perfectly satisfied, and will give you a comfortable cup of tea in the morning for £1 1d.’ This lady at a talk I once gave said that sounded like a very expensive cup of tea.
My final point on this is homosexuality. I think there is too often a need for people to make a case for homosexuality, as if it’s sort of, I don’t know, invented in Brixton in the 60s or something. The case does not need making. In 1834, during the rebuilding of London Bridge, a head of the Emperor Hadrian, whose lover was Antinous, was dredged up in the River Thames, which had stood they think, in sort of the Roman centre of London.
One night, in the reign of George II, William Brown, who was apprehended cruising in Moorfields, but indignant of being arrested, responded to the questioning: ‘I did it because I thought I knew him, and there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body.’
His defence echoed the words of the philosopher John Locke, who I’m sure lots of you are familiar with, and of course Locke’s philosophies are really what the declaration of independence encompasses, this idea of freedom, and the right to the pursuit of happiness. And it’s astonishing that a man pursuing, you know, his own sexual path in London, in the much earlier part of the century, is quoting Locke, to defend his actions. I think it’s fascinating, anyway. Despite Brown’s high-minded assertion of his right to use his own body as he wished, he was sentenced to stand in the pillory, where he was pelted with rotten eggs, dead cats and turnips.
By the end of the century, Jeremy Bentham, another philosopher, said simply: ‘If the mere circumstance of it not being necessary was sufficient to warrant the terming of it unnatural, it might as well be said the taste a man has for music is unnatural.’ By which stage both men and women were leading openly homosexual and transgender lives. Matthew Lewis, a gothic author, was…one of London’s most ordinary gay men living an ordinary life, and a high profile life, as well.
Truth and happiness. I was having a discussion this morning, about how people are constantly surprised that we have this public and private persona, and when these are exposed in the press, that people are surprised, and this is an idea that emerges in the 18th century. The letters of Lord Chesterfield are very impressive, to his son, on the nature of the public and the private. And it’s a concept that is emerging again, from the reign of George I, very, very strongly. And it’s debated very hotly, and people are as much as in the Elizabethan period, there’s this idea of dissembling – ‘I am not what I am.’ In the 18th century, there’s very much a nature that something is true, something about you is true. And that truth is ‘how do I -not how do I fit myself to society, but how does society fit itself to me?’ And it goes on to become the preoccupation (new teeth) of the early 19th century.
And also personal happiness was becoming much more important, people married increasingly for love, and again that’s much more common in London, where you’re meeting far more people, and it’s not just that you’re getting towards 30 and ‘who was going to marry me?’
And, also, the truth and happiness and this assertion of how can the two join up, is very much explored by the 1,400 men and women at the top of the social tree in Britain, the aristocracy. And that’s all kicked off mainly by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who built Burlington House. An astonishing man, who’d been on his third grand tour by the time he was 21. And he came back with something like 878 crates of art, two harpsicords, a sculptor, William Kent – the interior designer – he picked up on his travels. And he builds this astonishing house, and he marries for love, and his wife is a wonderful equal partner in his life. And they, together they advance London’s musical scene, it’s cultural scene, and they really set the bar for what it is to be an aristocrat who is engaging with this new age.
Alcohol is very central to London’s identity, and has been for a long time. There’s a very good book on it – I think it’s called ‘The Politics of Alcohol,’ and it deals mainly with the 18th century, by a very gifted historian. So, the expansion of trade in the early 18th century meant that we were getting more spirits in, but spirits are still really expensive for the ordinary people, drunk mainly by, you know, rich people. And these cheap gins that are coming in from Holland are suddenly cheap enough, because they can use really foul grain, that can’t be used for bread. They’re cheap enough for working people to afford. It’s absolutely disastrous. The government loves them, however, because it can tax them, and it keeps the price of bread high. So it’s a win-win for the government.
However, because it’s very popular amongst casual labourers who either have money in their hand and time, or have to go out to work. It was almost disastrous immediately, and because it’s not served in taverns, it’s served in houses, men and women drink together. So, you’ve got, number one, a breakdown in sexual conduct amongst working people, but number two, you’ve got women becoming addicts.
And the idea of addiction really starts at this point in the 18th century, during the gin craze, when women are affected. Suddenly, society is threatened. And that’s when…before that, it’s largely about self-medication. And suddenly we get this concept that people are driven to addiction and it happens really quickly. And it happens between about 1720 and 1750. Totally changes the idea of it. We have the Gin Acts but they’re largely ineffectual because once people are in this situation, you know, they’re going to find money for drinks, so you get…the Fieldings noted this corresponding rise in prostitution in Covent Garden, and mainly, the areas worst affected were Clerkenwell and St Giles-in-the-Fields.
And it ruined St Giles-in-the-Fields in the 18th century. This sort of group of Tudor tenements that had survived the fire, then became poorer and poorer and poorer, and there’s a fantastic memoir online [https://archive.org/details/autobiographyofb00burn] by a boy named James Dawson Burn, that I would recommend you read, and he spent part of his youth in St Giles-in-the-Fields after walking to London with his alcoholic father, who tries to stab him in the street, in his sleep, and leaves him, abandons him in the street and all of that kind of thing. And it’s a fantastic memoir. And he was there when a huge vat of beer at the MEW [?] & Company brewery broke and crashed into its neighbour and toppled the others, and more than 300,000 gallons of beer flooded through the streets, drowning six women and girls and one three-year-old boy. We only know his name, Thomas Mulvey. So, drink was still killing in St Giles at the end of the period. And James Dawson Burn would recall living there, saying it was ‘a place of huge sufferings, savage lives and innumerable crimes.’ And it was a place where addiction really had done its worst in London.
So, a stone’s throw from St Giles-in-the-Fields, in Soho Square, we have an individual story of one of the most famous addicts, of one of the 18th century’s most famous drugs, which of course was opium. And, I think you’ll know Thomas De Quincey, the memoir, yes? So, although cannabis was widely smoked in London, in the 18th century. Someone said to me the other day, ‘what?’ I was like, well, yeah, through our trading with India, it was here, and Robert Hook smoked it in, I think 1684, and presented to – no, 1689-90, and he smoked it experimentally on behalf of the Royal Society, and then presented his findings [laughter] and it’s fantastic work if you can get it, isn’t it? And he noted that:
‘It rendered the user unable to speak a word of sense, yet he is very merry and he laughs and sings, yet he is not giddy, or drunk, but walks and dances, and after a little time he falls asleep, and sleepeth very soundly and quietly. But when he wakes, he finds himself mightily refreshed and exceeding hungry.’
So, I think, there we go, we knew all about it…everything we needed to know by 1690. So, and marijuana was the drug of choice amongst the aristocratic young men and gangs, and a particular one, very famous, called the Mohocks, who were a violent gang of the 1720s, you’ll find lots about them online.
So, Thomas De Quincy came here, fled Manchester Grammar School, ended up in London, ended up living with a young maid – who’d been abandoned very young, sort of, about eight or nine – in an abandoned house. And then he met up with a prostitute called Anne, who was 15, who ended up selling herself to feed his habit. And he realised that this was just a totally unacceptable state of affairs. And so he goes home to his family, and he promises to return and find her, and he does, he does come back to London, and he’s still an addict, but he comes back to London, and he never finds her. And it’s one of the really sad stories of the Georgian period, and it gets me every time. So, this idea of addiction and drug use, it’s all moving towards this romantic, sort of heightened consciousness that London’s undergoing.
And I’m going to race through the last bit, which contributes so much to science and the arts, particularly the idea of pain relief and the advances in medicine that we’re undergoing at the time.
So, everyone knows Smugglerius, don’t they, the Dying Gaul…there’s a copy of him now in the Royal Academy [https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/object-of-the-month-october-2014]. And this is an amazing joining up of doctors and sculptors to take criminals from Tyburn, and put them in classical poses and let rigor mortis set in. They propped them with bits of wood and stuff like that, and then strip them, flay them, and then the sculptors move in. There’s one particularly famous one called Carlo Agostini. Then they move in, and they cast the body, very, very quickly – it’s all done in about 12 hours. And you get these incredible partnerships of, kind of, the Royal Academy, and all these doctors creating these classical poses, and this is one of the most famous. We don’t really know what he did, but he was chosen off the scaffold, by (can you imagine?) by the group, both the groups – the doctors and the artists. And he’s in this position because his neck wouldn’t hold. They wanted to do a different position, but because his neck had been broken, then we ended up with Smugglerius, as he’s known, because apparently he was a smuggler, but we don’t think he was now.
So, medicine. This is one of the most extraordinary images of the 18th century [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_van_Rymsdyk]. It’s by an artist – people always say it’s by William Hunter, the doctor, but it was not – it was by an artist called Jan Van Riemsdyk, who was in William Hunter’s book, ‘The Gravid Uterus in Figures.’ And it changed the way we understood obstetric science and it gave birth to obstetrics, basically and the images are very, very difficult to look at, but they are beautiful. They’re photorealism in the 18th century, and they’re one of the aspects that is where you get this incredible, sort of, mash-up in the late 18th century in London of Art and Science. And it’s really…there’s an unbelievable beauty and tenderness to these images, and they are works of art, as far as I’m concerned.
So, we also get the Royal Humane Society. Is anyone, is anyone familiar with their work? Yeah, well, when do you think the first heart was started by electricity – restarted, on record, by electricity? Lots of people say 1930, but it was actually 1774 in the Middlesex Hospital in Soho. And it was a girl, a six-year-old girl called Sophia Greenhill, whose heart had been stopped by a fall from a second story window. And they used a friction machine to, well they started by shocking her arms and her head and that didn’t work, so they shocked her torso, very quickly, soon after the accident, and it restarted her heart. And that was the beginning of the work of the Royal Humane Society, who then opened throughout London places where you could go and get shocked, essentially, which were our first accident and emergency departments. They were the model for how we operated them.
So, last words, pretty much. We have the theatres and the pleasure gardens. We have, up until 1741, Shakespeare was declaimed. Shakespeare was declaimed – so it was done very quickly, and sort of no nonsense and put out there. And certain characters were expected to appear in certain guises. And a man called Charles Macklin was working with a Jewish theatre director called Aaron Hill, who, they decided they were going to play Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ as a really creepy character. And it changed theatre. It just changed it overnight, people couldn’t stop talking about it. They were actually terrified of this character. It wasn’t a comedy Jew in a mask and a big nose, and all these flowing sort of plague doctor robes, this look. He was a really terrifying guy who wanted his pound of flesh and Garrick was the successor to this new style of acting, and made it enormously, enormously successful.
And Garrick also brought female playwrights and female actresses firmly into the spotlight, Sarah Siddons being the most famous one. And, Sarah Siddons was almost constantly pregnant throughout her career, and she performed right up until the birth of the children, and whenever she was…well, when she wasn’t pregnant, David Garrick ordered a big belly, because of her constant[ly] getting pregnant.
So the cult of celebrity had begun. In 1777 the Robin Hood Society posed the question ‘whether the love of fame may be truly said to be universal passion. It was carried unanimously in the affirmative.’
So, our final move towards the Enlightenment, through printed paper of course, comes with the Romantics, Pepys being the only true Londoner of all of them, although Byron was very fond of the place. Lots of our amazing romantic literature comes about because of London and association to London. Pepys was an apothecary’s apprentice and Shelley was actually a surgeon’s apprentice after he was sent down from university.
And ‘Ozymandias’ was written because of the Egyptian objects arriving in London. It was written for a newspaper competition and he didn’t win, but his best friend won it, so that’s fine. And, ‘Frankenstein,’ the story of which, you know, this love that won’t die, and the galvanisation of the body, was when…was written when Mary Shelly…well, Mary and Percy met, and she was listening to him talk about galvanism after she’d been to his lectures, when she was very, very young. And this idea germinates and germinates and then becomes this enormous work of literature later on. So London is influential in all these different ways.
Coleridge, of course, is one of the most famous of the romantic poets. And he is a London drug addict, and he watches…his supplier, in his Highgate Hill apothecary, is a young man called Seymour Porter, who’s 15, and he’s also getting his drugs from John Murray, the publisher, as well, who liked to keep him well-doped-up, so was always sending out copies of the Quarterly Review, stuffed with all sorts. And Coleridge watches the funeral cortege for Byron come through the village on its way to London, with his young drugs pusher. And he says that Byron had a very difficult life, and he thinks that ultimately his fame will overcome this difficult life, and we will remember him favourably and that he hopes the same for himself. And, maybe? Maybe not.
But, we’re going to leave the last words of this lecture to Coleridge, who died in his doctor’s house, overlooking London, and he wrote these words, that through his window was:
‘The ocean of London, and nowhere of its kind could you see a grander prospect on a bright summer’s day.’
And that was the same year that Victoria came to the throne .
Transcribed as part of a volunteer project by Abigail Teece, March 2015