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Night in the City

There have been many accounts of the London night. Books entitled City Nights and Night Life have been entirely devoted to the subject. James Thomson called it the city of dreadful night (1874). It may be that the city is truly itself, and becomes truly alive, only at night. That is why it exercises a constant fascination. The effect begins at twilight, in that crepuscular hour with “the dusky multitude of chimney pots and the small black houses,” of “muddy ways and slatternly passages” when, in the words of Julian Wolfreys’s Writing London, “the sinister, the threatening, monstrous inhumanity of the limitless city” becomes apparent. These are all accounts from the nineteenth century, but night terrors of earlier centuries are no less substantial. From earliest times the streets of the city have never been safe at night. Curfew was rung at nine and, in theory, the alehouses were closed and citizens were meant to stay indoors. In the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, however, drama, verse, epistles and satires came to emphasise the nature of the city night with lines such as these quoted in Thomas Burke’s The Streets of London:

Frightening of cullies, and bombastine whores,

Wringing off knockers, and from posts and doors

Rubbing out milk maids’ and some other scores,

Scowring the watch, or roaring in the streets,

Lamp-blacking signs with divers other feats …

These were the pranks of the “roaring boys,” which were juvenile enough compared with the more violent excesses of the gangs, or the thieves, or the rapists, under cover of darkness. Thomas Shadwell, the late seventeenth-century dramatist, remarked how at approximately “two in the morning comes the bell-man, and in a dismal tone repeats worse rhymes than a cast poet of the nursery can make; after him come those rogues that wake people with their barbarous tunes, and upon their tooting instruments make a more hellish noise than they do at a Playhouse when they flourish for the entrance of witches.” From the evidence of the drama, and reports such as this, it seems clear that at night the city was almost as noisy as day, with the difference only that the sounds at night were more frantic and desperate, among yells and screams and shouts and whistles punctuating the early hours with their own uneasy refrain. If you were to listen intently you might hear “Who’s there?” or “Your purse!” or “Dog, are you dumb? Speak quickly!”

“My ears were so serenaded on every side,” wrote Ned Ward at the beginning of the eighteenth century, “with the grave musick of sundry passing bells, the rattling of coaches, and the melancholy ditties of Hot Bak’d wardens and Pippins … nothing could I see but light and nothing hear but noise.” The unnaturalness of the London night is emphasised here, filled as it is with light and sound rather than the silence and darkness celebrated in the poetry of the evening landscape. When Samuel Pepys accompanied Lady Paulina Montague through the nocturnal streets she was terrified “every step of the way.”

The reasons for her fear are outlined in John Gay’s poem, “Of Walking the Streets by Night,” which is part of his Trivia—trívium being the point where three streets meet, the word generally used to characterise public thoroughfares of every description. In the “busie Street” at night planks and ladders and low awnings offered continual obstacles to progress. “Now all the Pavement sounds with trampling feet” amid the neighing of horses and the lowing of bullocks; the coachmen hustled each other, and lashed each other with whips; there were fights in the streets also “till down they fall and grappling roll in Mud.” Gay noticed one notorious spot for night traffic jams, by St. Clement Danes in the Strand where the church itself acted as a massive impediment; the streets upon either side of it had no posts to distinguish road from pavement, so the result was a confusion of coaches, horses and pedestrians worse compounded by the fact that loaded wagons were brought from the Thames through the narrow side-streets which led on to the main thoroughfare. To be caught in the “mob” or “throng” was dangerous indeed. If the solitary walker was not pushed and jostled and cursed, his wig, or cambric handkerchief, or watch, or snuff-box were likely to be stolen; to the raucous sounds of the night, then, was added the cry of “Stop Thief!” The pedestrian risked being crushed by carriage wheels, or pushed aside by chair-men, but more dangerous were the open cellars from which goods were sold. There was thick mud in the streets and, from above,

empty Chamber-pots come pouring down From

Garret Windows; you have cause to bless

The gentle Stars, if you come off with Piss.

It was wise to pay no attention to the sound of blows being exchanged, or the cries for help.

Yet, at night, even the houses of Londoners were not necessarily havens from the anxiety and unrest of the streets. About two o’clock in the morning on 21 March 1763 Boswell’s candle went out at his lodgings in Crown Street, Westminster. He went down to the kitchen in order to find a tinder-box, but he could see nothing of the kind there. “I was now filled with gloomy ideas of the terrors of the night.” So the darkness without spread fear within. “I was also apprehensive that my landlord, who always keeps a pair of loaded pistols by him, might fire at me as a thief.” The dangers of vandalism and theft were very great, then, if the owner of the house must keep pistols by his bed; it resembles the practice of Samuel Johnson, who always took a stout cudgel with him before he ventured upon the streets. So Boswell “went up to my room, sat quietly till I heard the watchman calling ‘Past three o’clock.’ I then called to him to knock at the door of the house where I lodged. He did so, and I opened it to him and got my candle relumined without danger.” Here is a vignette of London life which, despite its brevity, is arresting—the call of the watchman, the instruction from Boswell, and the hurried lighting of the candle.

The night of nineteenth-century London has a less intimate aspect. The Victorians were fascinated and appalled by it. It is the period when the genre of “night painting” emerged among the artists of London, while in the theatre there were melodramas such as London By Night (1845) and After Dark, a Tale of London Life (1868). The poetry of the age is filled with intimations and images of the dark city, from Dowson and Lionel Johnson to George Meredith and Tennyson. It is as if the inhabitants of nineteenth-century London were haunted by the night city so that, in the words of Rudyard Kipling recalling his early experience of London in lodgings, “Here, for the first time, it happened that the night got into my head.”

In the middle of the nineteenth century there came a vogue for “night walks”: sketches or essays in which the solitary pedestrian made his way across the dark city, marking significant moments and scenes in a journey of unknown destination. For Charles Dickens, walking at night was a way of allaying private miseries; as a child he had walked through the city, and even in its nocturnal aspect it offered him a strange comfort and reassurance. It was if, whatever his own personal unhappiness, “it,” the thing known as London, would always be there both solid and tangible. It was his true home, after all, and somehow it was incorporated within his own being. So Dickens walked “under the pattering rain … walk and walk and walk, seeing nothing but the interminable tangle of streets save at a corner, here and there, two policemen in conversation.” This was now a guarded and supervised city, its corners manned by officers of the law; no longer the anarchy and exuberance recorded by John Gay in the 1770s. The silence is the silence of its vastness. Dickens crossed Waterloo Bridge, paying a halfpenny to the toll-keeper wrapped up in his booth, where the Thames had an “awful look” of blackness and reflected light and where “the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to be oppressively upon the river.” This is what is most noticeable about the nineteenth- and twentieth-century city at night: its “immensity,” a vast capital stretching outwards into the darkness. Having crossed the bridge Dickens passed the theatres of Wellington Street and the Strand, “with the rows of faces faded out, the lights extinguished and the seats all empty.” Here is a representation of London in miniature as one great darkened theatre. It is significant that Charles Dickens next made his way to Newgate Prison in order to touch “its rough stone.” London is both theatre and prison. At night its true aspects are outlined clearly, shorn of the vagaries of the day.

He visited the Courts of Law, then at Westminster, before moving on to the abbey where it became for him “a solemn consideration what enormous hosts of dead belong to one old great city and how if they were raised while the living slept, there would not be the space of a pin’s point in all the streets and ways for the living to come out into. Not only that, but the vast armies of dead would overflow the hills and valleys beyond the city, and would stretch away all round it, God knows how far.” This is perhaps what one inheritor of Dickens’s urban vision, George Gissing, meant when he exclaimed “London by night! Rome is poor by comparison.” It is the presence of the past, or the presence of the dead, which lends the night images of London their peculiar intensity and power. Of all cities London seems most occupied by its dead, and the one which most resounds to the tread of passing generations. It is not as if the physical fabric of the old city has survived intact. Gissing’s comparison with Rome is again appropriate here; the “eternal city” has so many ruins of its greatness that the spirit of the past has had no room in which to flourish. In London the past is a form of occluded but fruitful memory, in which the presence of earlier generations is felt rather than seen. It is an echoic city, filled with shadows, and what better time to manifest itself than at night?

Another night voyager of the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Manby Smith, noticed, in an essay entitled “Twenty Four Hours of London Streets,” that the slightest sound reverberated between the great walls of houses and public buildings, with his own footsteps echoing as if “some invisible companion dogged our march.” He heard the silence in the old walled City, which is all the more fearful and oppressive after the “humming, booming surge-like sound” of the day.

It represents a great change in the nature of city life which over the years spread wider and wider beyond the old City; that which was most populous during the day is now the least populated at night. Few people lived in the City—and fewer now, at the start of the twenty-first century—and the old centres of habitation have been steadily abandoned for life upon the perimeters. It is the single most important reason for the relative silence and peace-fulness of London over the last century.

This mid-nineteenth-century pedestrian anticipated the later environment and atmosphere of London, when he observed “the apparently numberless and interminable rows of streets lying in the voiceless silence, and distinctly mapped out by the long and regular lines of lamps on either side of the way.” This is a vision of the city as part of an inhuman, mechanical alignment. “There is no other spectacle, that we know of that intimates so significantly the huge extent of this overgrown metropolis. The dead dumbness that reigns in these long, empty avenues appals the mind, and sends the imagination of the pedestrian wandering for ever onwards and onwards.” So at night London becomes a city of the dead, the silence of the nineteenth century continuing through the twentieth into the twenty-first.

In London Nights, published in 1925, it is remarked that “the past has a stronger hold on the night than it has on the day”; while walking beneath the Thames in the tunnel which connects the north and south banks, for example, “you might be exploring the tombs of buried London thousands of years hence.” In this sense it then becomes an infinite city—“London is every city that ever was and ever will be”—which in its illimitable regions manifests the true nature of the human community. That is why at night the most visible inhabitants of the city are those without a home. In “all manner of holes and corners the homeless may be found sleeping in winter nights; ’mid the ruin of half-demolished houses, on the stairs leading from viaducts, in corners of the Blackwall Tunnel, in recesses in massive buildings, in porches of churches.” That reality has not changed in the intervening years. Then, as now, the Embankment remains a central place for the vagrants to gather despite the cold and damp air coming from the Thames. It is almost as if, at night, the river calls them.

There are certain streets which in the present century seem never entirely empty at night—one may name Old Compton Street in Soho, Upper Street in Islington and Queensway in Bayswater as examples—and there are, as there have been over the centuries, all-night restaurants such as those in St. John Street and in the Fulham Road. But the general impression of contemporary London at night is of a dull silence. There is no feeling of real danger, only the awareness that one can walk until dawn, and then a further dawn, without coming to the end of interminable streets with houses on either side. The shopping malls and some of the thoroughfares are monitored by surveillance cameras, so that it is impossible ever to feel completely alone.

The cameras represent one way in which modern London has changed. It has become self-conscious, forever watchful of its own citizens, almost daring them to manifest the energy and violence of their predecessors. There is never complete silence, however; it is punctuated by the humming of neon lamps and by the sirens of police cars or ambulances. That low and remote sound is of the traffic perpetually passing through, while in the east the glow of the lamps becomes paler with the approaching dawn.

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