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Voracious London

A detail from an aquatint by Rowlandson entitled “Revellers at Vauxhall”; the gardens of that area had been known for their gentility, but they eventually degenerated into a place of drunkenness and sexual licence.


Into the Vortex

When in the early months of 1800 de Quincey travelled towards London in an open carriage he experienced a “suction so powerful, felt along radii so vast, and a consciousness, at the same time, that upon other radii still more vast, both by land and by sea, the same suction is operating.” The image here, from his essay “The Nation of London,” is of a “vast magnetic range” drawing all the forces of the world towards its centre. When he was within forty miles of London, “the dim presentiment of some vast capital reaches you obscurely, and like a misgiving.” An unknown, and unseen, area of energy has found him out and leads him onwards.

One characteristic phrase, “London conquers most who enter it,” is perhaps now a truism. There is a famous early nineteenth-century cartoon, which has been embellished and elaborated in a thousand different ways. Two men meet beside a London milestone. One, returning from the city, is bowed and broken down; the other, advancing upon him, full of animation and purposefulness, shakes his hand and asks him, “Is it paved with gold?”

“Long ago,” Walter Besant remarked in East London, “it was discovered that London devours her own children.” It seems as if great city families die out or disappear within a century; the principal names of the fifteenth century, Whittington and Chichele, had vanished by the sixteenth. The families of seventeenth-century London were no longer active in the eighteenth. That is why London must continue to exert a continual attractive energy, and pull in new people and new families to replenish the constant loss. On the road to London de Quincey had noted the “vast droves of cattle,” all with their heads directed towards the capital. But the city needs animal spirits as well as animals.

In 1690 records show that “73 per cent of those given the freedom of the City by apprenticeship were born outside London”: an astonishing figure. The annual migration to London in the first half of the eighteenth century was approximately ten thousand, and in 1707 it was observed that for any son or daughter of an English family “that exceeds the rest in beauty, or wit, or perhaps courage, or industry, or any other rare quality, London is their North star.” The city is the lodestone, or magnet. By 1750 the capital was home to 10 per cent of the population, prompting Defoe’s remark that “this whole Kingdom, as well as the people, as the land, and even the sea, in every part of it, are employ’d to furnish something, and I may add the best of every thing, to supply the city of London with provisions.” A million people swarmed in the metropolis by the end of the eighteenth century; within fifty years that figure had doubled, and there was no sign of abatement. “Who could wonder,” wrote an observer in 1892, “that men are drawn into such a vortex, even were the penalty heavier than this?” Until the middle of the twentieth century the figures bear in one direction only—ever upward, counting by the millions, until in 1939 eight million are recorded to have inhabited Greater London.

Nearer our time these figures have diminished, yet still the power which De Quincey felt exerts its attraction. A recent survey at the Centrepoint night shelter, only a few hundred yards from the old haven of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, discovered that “Four fifths of young people … were from outside London and most were recent arrivals.”

As Ford Madox Ford has put it, “It never misses, it never can miss anyone. It loves nobody, it needs nobody; it tolerates all the types of mankind.” Yet if London needs nobody in particular, it requires everything to sustain its momentum. It draws in commodities, and markets, and goods. The anonymous author of Letter from Albion (1810–13) was suitably exultant. “It is impossible not to be astonished in seeing these riches displayed. Here the costly shawls from the East Indies, there brocades and silk tissues from China, now a world of gold and silver plate … an ocean of rings, watches, chains, bracelets.” Voracity, repeating itself in endless different ways, is one of the most prominent characteristics of London.

It was said of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, a somewhat disturbing collection of anatomical specimens, that “the whole earth has been ransacked to enrich its stores.” To ransack is to pillage and to destroy—that, too, is the nature of the city. Addison was worked up into a similar enthusiasm by the spectacle of the Royal Exchange, “making this Metropolis a kind of Emporium for the whole Earth.” Emporium in turn excites Imperium, since the master of trade is the master of the world. The fruits of Portugal are bartered for the silk of Persia, the pottery of China for the drugs of America; tin is converted into gold, and wool into rubies. “I am wonderfully delighted,” Addison wrote in the Spectator of 19 May 1711, “to see such a Body of Men thriving in their own private Fortunes, and at the same time promoting the Public Stock … by bringing into the Country whatever is wanting, and carrying out of it whatever is superfluous.”

Here is an indication that London had become, by the early eighteenth century, the centre of world commerce. It was the age of lotteries and flotations and “bubbles.” Everything was for sale—political office, religious preferment, landed heiresses—and, said Swift, “Power, which according to the old Maxim, was used to follow Land is now gone over to Money.” In The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) John Bunyan had also derided London’s vanity, whereby “houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts” all come under the general denomination of “trade.”

By 1700, 76 per cent of England’s commerce with the world passed through London.

There was trade in money, as well as goods. The centre of commerce was also the centre of credit, with the banker and the jobber taking over the spirit of the merchant adventurer. The bankers emerged out of the Company of Goldsmiths. Goldsmiths knew how to protect their goods, and for a time their offices had been used as informal places of safety for the deposit of money. Yet during the seventeenth century this primary function of hoarding and protecting was subtly supplanted by the issue of banking orders or cheques to facilitate the passage of revenue throughout the capital and beyond. Francis Child and Richard Hoare had both been goldsmiths before establishing their banking houses; with three or four others they were, as Edward, Earl of Clarendon put it in his autobiography of 1759, “men known to be so rich, and of so good reputation, that all the money of the kingdom would be trusted or deposited in their hands.” Out of these banking ventures emerged the Bank of England, the single greatest emblem of the City’s wealth and confidence; the principal stockholders of this new bank were themselves London merchants, but this essentially speculative venture was soon lent constitutional status when it was guarded by soldiers during the Gordon Riots of June 1780. Its gold was turned into guineas at the Mint of the Tower of London, and its huge reservoir of bullion was the prime agent in maintaining the financial stability of the nation through a succession of bubbles, panics and wars. Yet even as it maintained good governance, it expedited the adventures and trades of London businessmen—from linen and diamond merchants to small-coal men, from the exporters of hats to the importers of sugar.

One of the key figures of the period, derided in verse and drama, was the stockbroker or “jobber.” Gay denounced a capital and an age where “In sawcy State the griping Broker sits.” They sat, in fact, in the coffee houses of Change Alley. Jobbers were the lineal descendants of the London scriveners who set up documents for the exchange of land or of houses, but now they were concerned with the floating of companies and the transfer of stock or assets. Cibber anatomised the scene in his play The Refusal, of 1720. “There (in the Alley) you’ll see a duke dangling after a director; here a peer and a ’prentice haggling for an eighth; there a Jew and a parson making up differences; there a young woman of quality buying bears of a Quaker; and there an old one selling refusals to a lieutenant of grenadiers.”

Eventually the noise in the coffee houses, such as Jonathan’s or Garraway’s in Change Alley, grew too loud, and the jobbers removed to New Jonathan’s which in the summer of 1773 was renamed “The Stock Exchange.” A little more than twenty years later, a new building arose in Capel Court, its voices recorded in The Bank Mirror of 1795. “A mail come in— what news? What news? Steady, steady—consols for tomorrow—A great house has stopt—Payment of the Five per Cents commences—Across the Rhine—the Austrians routed!—the French pursuing! Four per cents for the opening!”

The Bank of England and the Stock Exchange still dominate this small compact area of land. The Mansion House stands close by, on the site of the original Stocks Market, where fish and flesh were traded from the thirteenth century. And so this trinity of institutions may mark one of the city’s sacred sites. A study of successive maps shows the area being more and more darkly engraved, as the building of the Bank of England gradually grew in size until it took up the entire area between Lothbury and Threadneedle Street. To the south of this site, during the Great Fire of 1666, John Evelyn observed the concurrence of the two great fireballs. It is not necessary to be a psychogeographer to recognise that this area is devoted to energy and to power.

And as the city incorporated more money, and more credit, so steadily it grew. It stretched out to the west and to the east. By 1715 the scheme of building Cavendish Square, as well as certain streets to the north of the Tyburn Road, was first suggested. Then came Henrietta Street and Wigmore Road, the development of which prompted the extraordinary growth of Marylebone. In the 1730s Berkeley Square emerged on the western side. Bethnal Green and Shadwell were built up in the east, Paddington and St. Pancras to the west. The maps grew denser, too, so that one square of the 1799 map covered six squares of the 1676 map. “I have twice been going to stop my coach in Piccadilly, thinking there was a mob,” wrote Horace Walpole in 1791, only to realise that it was the usual Londoners “sauntering or trudging” down the thoroughfare. “There will soon be one street from London to Brentford,” he complained, “and from London to every village ten miles round.” He was announcing a law of life itself. The direct consequence of power and wealth is expansion.

The eighteenth-century “improvements” within the capital were also an aspect of that power and wealth. Lincoln’s Inn Fields was enclosed in 1735 and, four years later, the increasingly squalid Stocks Market was removed from the centre of the city. In 1757 the houses upon London Bridge were demolished and, in the same year, the noisome Fleet Ditch was filled and covered and the Fleet River itself embanked. Four years later, the City gates were removed in order to encourage freer access into the centre of London. As the gates went, so did the street-signs, making the thoroughfares “more airy and wholesome” but also divesting London of its old identity. All these measures were designed to encourage the traffic of goods as well as of people, allowing a freer circulation throughout the urban body with a novel emphasis placed upon speed and efficiency.

In this spirit, too, the Westminster Paving Act of 1762 inaugurated legislation for lighting and paving throughout the city, and thus initiated a general cleansing and clearing of the civic thoroughfares. And, in a city which brought in silk and spice, coffee and bullion, why should not light also be imported? In the 1780s a German visitor wrote that “In Oxford Road alone there are more lamps than in all the city of Paris.” They represented more illumination for the burgeoning centre of world commerce. These measures had, according to Pugh’s Life of Hanway, altogether “introduced a degree of elegance and symmetry into the streets of the metropolis, that is the admiration of all Europe and far exceeds anything of the kind in the modern world.” “Symmetry” is another expression of uniformity and in the Building Act of 1774 there was a further attempt at standardisation; it categorised the types of London houses in a series of “grades” or “rates” so that the city might become as infinitely reproducible and as uniform as its currency. This was the age of stucco, or white light.

The public monuments were also a credit to commerce, with such homages to trade as the new Custom House, the Excise Office in Old Broad Street, the Corn Exchange in Mark Lane and the Coal Exchange in Lower Thames Street. South Sea House in Threadneedle Street and East India House in Leadenhall Street vied with one another for magnificence, while the Bank of England in 1732 rose to be continually embellished and enlarged. The livery halls of the various trades, too, were constructed in terms of munificent display.

And then there was Westminster Bridge, opened in the winter of 1750 to the accompaniment of trumpets and kettledrums. Its fifteen arches of stone spanned the river to create “a bridge of magnificence.” It had a decisive effect upon the appearance of the city in another sense, since its commissioners persuaded Giovanni Canaletto to visit London in order to paint it. It was still in the course of construction when he depicted it in 1746, but already his vision of London was tempered by his Venetian practice. London became subtly stylised, Italianate, stretching out along the Thames in a pure and even light. A city aspiring to fluency and grace had found its perfect delineator.

Yet the diversity and contrast of London are nowhere better exemplified than in the fact that at the same time the city was being celebrated by William Hogarth. In the foreground of a “new improved” street, Hogarth shows a beggar child scoffing pieces of a broken pie.

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