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Packed to Blackness

There was once a Dark Lane, in the medieval city; a tavern was erected there, known as the Darkhouse. That narrow thoroughfare was then renamed Dark House Lane, and is to be seen on eighteenth-century maps of London. On the same site there now stands Dark House Wharf, which is dominated by the headquarters of the Bank of Hong Kong. This building is clad in dark blue steel and dark, tinted glass. So does the city maintain its dark secret life.

Dust, mud, soot, slime and smut were the objects of continual dissatisfaction. “Though a chamber be never so closely locked up,” John Evelyn complained in the seventeenth century, “men find at their return all things that are in it evenly covered with a black thin soot.” In the same century a Venetian chaplain described “a sort of soft and stinking mud which abounds here at all seasons, so that the place more deserves to be called Lorda (filth) than Londra (London).” The “filth of the city” was also depicted as being “rich and black as thick ink.” In the eighteenth century the road outside Aldgate “resembled a stagnant lake of deep mud,” while in the Strand the puddles of filth were three or four inches deep so that they “fill coaches when their windows happen not to be up, and bedaub all the lower parts of the houses.” If they were not strewn with mud, the streets were filled with dust. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, according to the Quarterly Review, there was not a man or woman in London “whose skin and clothes and nostrils are not of necessity more or less loaded with a compound of powdered granite, soot, and still more nauseous substances.” It was said that St. Paul’s Cathedral had a right to be blackened because it was built with a tax upon sea coal, but it was hard upon the animals of the city which were similarly affected by the smoke and dirt; the feathers of the redstarts and the martins were suffused with soot, while the dust of London was believed to clog the breathing and dull the senses of the omnipresent spiders. All creatures were affected and, as a late twentieth-century character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince puts it, “I could feel the thick filth and muck of London under my feet, under my bottom, behind my back.”

Yet it is more than material filth. There is a drawing of Fish Street Hill by George Scharf, executed in the late 1830s, as accomplished and as detailed as all his work. But in the foreground a vast shadow obscures the people and the house-fronts; it is in fact the outline of the Monument, otherwise concealed from sight, but in that shadow Scharf has somehow managed to depict something of the nature of London itself. It has always been a shadowy city.

As James Bone, the author of The London Perambulator, remarked in 1931, it resides in “the appearance of great shadows where there can be no shadows, throwing blackness up and down.” This is also the London vision of Verlaine, who writes of “l’odieuse obscurité … quel deuil profond, quelles ténèbres!” within “la monstrueuse cité.” Much of the slate used in London building is striated by what geologists term “pressure shadows” but they are inconspicuous beside the blackened surfaces of Portland stone. One foreign traveller remarked that the streets of London were so dark that the citizenry seemed to delight in playing “hide and seek” with the light, like children in a wood, while in the summer of 1782 Charles Moritz noted that “the houses in general struck me as if they were dark and gloomy.” The gloom affected him profoundly: “At that moment I could not in my own mind compare the external view of London with that of any other city I had ever before seen.”

There were almost a score of Dirty Alleys, Dirty Hills and Dirty Lanes in the medieval city; there were Inkhorn Courts and Foul Lanes and Deadman’s Places. Lombard Street in the City, at the centre of capitalist imperialism, was a notoriously dark street. At the beginning of the nineteenth century its brick was so blackened with smoke that the walls resembled the mud in the road. Today, in the twenty-first century, it is still just as narrow and just as dark, its stone walls constantly echoing to the sound of hurried footsteps. It is still close to what a century ago Nathaniel Hawthorne called “the black heart of London.” Hawthorne’s compatriot Henry James also noticed the “deadly darkness” but he revelled in it as if he were a “born Londoner.” In the 1870s Hippolyte Taine simply found the darkness “horrible”; the houses from a distance looked “like ink-stains on blotting paper” while from a closer vantage the “tall, flat straight façades are of dark brick.” The darkness of London seems to have entered Taine’s soul with his crepuscular invocations of “a bone-black factory” which is a London dwelling, of “porticoes foul with soot … every crevice inked in … long ranks of blind windows … the fluting of the columns full of greasy filth, as if sticky mud had been set flowing down there.”

There were others who were intimate with this darkness. In his account of nineteenth-century Whitechapel, Charles Booth, the sympathetic chronicler of The Life and Labour of the People of London, mentions that the tables of the poor are “fairly black” with thick swarms of flies congregating on every available surface while, in the streets outside, at the level of the hip, “is a broad dirty mark, showing where the men and lads are in the constant habit of standing.”

Charles Booth’s images of disease and torpor somehow increase the darkness of the capital, as the very embodiment of those shadows which the rich and powerful cast upon the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. The effect of the industrial revolution, although less noticeable in London than in some of the northern manufacturing towns, deepened those shadows. The growth of factories as well as small workshops, and the increasing demand for coal in a city which by the beginning of the eighteenth century was already the manufacturing centre of Europe, only intensified London’s characteristic darkness.

In another sense its darkness suggests secrecy, and the titles of many accounts of the city confirm that sense of concealment, among them Unknown London, its Romance and Tragedy, The London Nobody Knows and London in Shadow. And yet that secrecy is of its essence. When Joseph Conrad described the city “half lost in night,” in The Secret Agent (1907), he was echoing Charles Dickens’s remark seventy years before in Sketches by Boz that “the streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark dull murky winter’s night.” The tone is ironic but the meaning is by no means so. In his last completed work Dickens returned to it in his description of “a black shrill city … a gritty city … a hopeless city, with no vent in the leaden canopy of its sky.” Darkness is of the city’s essence; it partakes of its true identity; in a literal sense London is possessed by darkness.

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