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A City Morning

God give you good morrow, my master, past five o’clock and a fair morning”: that is how the watchman of the seventeenth century heralded the dawn, the time when most of the citizens were waking and preparing for the work of the day.

Then as now the eastern suburbs of the city went to bed earlier, and rose earlier, than their western counterparts. The markets were busy and the produce had already been brought from the surrounding countryside in wagons. One of the complaints of Londoners was that they were perpetually being woken, while it was still dark, by the clatter of the wheels and the neighing of the horses as fruits and vegetables were transported to Leadenhall or Covent Garden. The essayist Richard Steele has a fine description (11 August 1712) of the gardeners who sailed down the river with their produce to the various markets of the city: “I landed with Ten Sail of Apricock Boats at Strand-Bridge, after having put in at Nine-Elms, and taken in Melons, consigned by Mr. Cuffe of that Place, to Sarah Sewell and Company at their stall in Covent-Garden.” They unloaded the cargo at Strand-Bridge at six that morning, at the time when the hackney-coachmen of the previous night were just going off duty. Some passing sweeps engaged in “Raillery” with the fruit girls “about the Devil and Eve.” The details of the wit are not recorded. There are other descriptions of the cart-horses steaming and stamping in the market as the dawn breaks, of the carters sleeping upon their sacks, of the lines of porters carrying fruits and vegetables to their various stalls.

By six o’clock the apprentices were already pulling up the shutters, lighting the fires, or putting out the wares for sale and display. They washed down the pavement outside, while the maids swept the steps of the more fashionable houses. The street vendors, and sweeps, and other itinerants, were soon making their way through the thoroughfares which grew more crowded as the day advanced. And, as the years progressed, the street activity seemed to increase. In the eighteenth century it was suggested that cheesemongers “should not set out their butter and cheese so near the edge of their shop-windows, nor put their firkins in the path-ways, by which many a good coat and silk gown may be spoiled.” Here was one indication of the general lack of room. The sheer crowdedness of the daytime city is always a paramount feature of its life, and there were remarks that “barbers and chimney sweepers have no right by charter to rub against a person well-dressed, and then offer him satisfaction by single combat.” There were other traders whom it was wise to avoid including the baker with his apron covered in flour and paste, the small-coal man, the butcher with his bloody leather apron and the chandler from whose basket spots of tallow might fall. There were constant complaints about car-men using the pavement rather than the road to carry their charges, and about workmen carrying ladders or pieces of timber upon their shoulders in the middle of crowded thoroughfares.

So there was of necessity an art of walking the streets by day, as well as by night. There were certain rules which were generally observed. The wall was “surrendered” to females, so that they would not be jostled on to the road, while it was considered a duty to direct “the groaping Blind.” Never ask directions from an apprentice, because these young and lively Londoners were known to delight in sending any stranger in the wrong direction; it was always best to ask assistance from a shopkeeper or tradesman. If you wished to urinate go into some court or “secret corner.” Avoid Watling Street and Ludgate Hill because of the crowds that throng there; much better to walk along the broader pavements of the Strand or Cheapside, but in every main street, nevertheless,

Full charg’d with News the breathless Hawker runs,

Shops open, Coaches roll, Carts shake the Ground,

And all the Streets with passing Cries resound.

In the early nineteenth century, as occupations and areas began to be differentiated on social lines, various formal urban types appear. At eight o’clock and ten o’clock the postman, in scarlet tunic, made his deliveries in the West End, while the “musicians” and old-clothes-sellers made their way from the East End towards the centre. The commercial clerks walked down the Strand towards the Admiralty and Somerset House, while the government clerks tended to ride down to Whitehall and Downing Street in broughams.

This was the morning tide of the citizens. The nineteenth-century journalist G.A. Sala knew them well. “You may know the cashiers in the private banking houses by their white hats and buff waistcoats; you may know the stock-brokers by their careering up Ludgate Hill in dog-carts, and occasionally tandems … you may know the Jewish commission agents by their flashy broughams … you may know the sugar-bakers and soap-boilers by the comfortable double-bodied carriages,” and the warehousemen only “by their wearing gaiters.”

Between nine and ten the omnibuses arrived at the Bank with thousands of occupants, while on the Thames itself a large number of “swift, grimy little steamboats” had picked up passengers from the piers at Chelsea and Pimlico, Hungerford Bridge and Southwark, Waterloo and Temple, before disgorging them to the piers by London Bridge. Thames Street, both Upper and Lower, was “invaded by an ant-hill swarm of spruce clerks, who mingle strangely with the fish-women and the dock-porters.”

The London morning “hungered” for its crowds and, equally voracious, “the insatiable counting houses soon swallow them.” Not just the counting-houses were filled, but also all the workshops, warehouses and factories of the metropolis. The bars of the public houses were opened. The baked-potato men and the owners of coffee stalls were engaged in their brisk business. In the West End the shoe-cleaners and commercial travellers were already at their work, while in the adjacent courts and alleys the vast army of the poor swarmed out of doors. There was a nineteenth-century phrase that “you can hardly shut the street door for them” and, even in the poor quarters, the morning brought “a desperate, ferocious levity” as if the opening of each day’s misery could elicit only an hysterical response.

There is indeed an insistent rhythm to the routine of London. The Exchange opens and closes its gates, the banks of Lombard Street are filled with and then emptied of customers, the glare of the shops brightens and then fades. In the later decades of the nineteenth century the trains as well as the omnibuses brought in the multitudes from the suburbs. But what the city takes in during the morning it spews forth at evening, so that there is a general pulse of people and power which keeps its heart beating. This is what Charlotte Brontë meant when she recorded that “I have seen the West End, the parks, the fine squares; but I love the City far better. The City seems so much more in earnest; its business, its rush, its roar, are such serious things, sights, sounds … At the West End you may be amused; but in the City you are deeply excited.” She was “deeply excited” by the process of urban life itself, fulfilling in its own fashion the rhythms of night and day.

By the time the Post Office had barred up its letter boxes on the stroke of six o’clock, the businessmen and their clerks had left the City to its shopkeepers and dwindling number of householders. The full tide of the citizens ebbed and, through a thousand different streets, returned homeward. And, at the close of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, “as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar,” all to return on the following morning.

And if they had woken up fifty, or a hundred, years later no doubt they would still have been able to follow the instinctive movement of the rush hour. Yet there is one distinction. If a nineteenth-century Londoner were to be set down in the City of the twenty-first century, perhaps at twilight in Cheapside when the office workers and computer operators are returning homeward, he would be astonished by the orderliness and uniformity of their progress. He might recognise a type, or an expression of thoughtfulness or anxiety—he might also be familiar with those who mutter to themselves— but the general quietness, together with a lack of human contact and of friendly exchange, might be unnerving.

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