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A Fever of Building

A drawing by George Scharf which illustrates the building of Carlton House

Terrace in the early 1830s, part of Nash’s original grand design to embellish

London. Note that the workmen are wearing hats.


London Will Soon Be Next Door to Us

From the middle of the eighteenth century London expanded in a fitful and almost feverish manner according to a cycle of profit and profiteering. The metaphor of fever was taken up by Henry Kett who, in 1787, suggested that “The contagion of the building influenza … has extended its virulence to the country where it rages with unabating violence … The metropolis is manifestly the centre of the disease … Mansions daily arise upon the marshes of Lambeth, the roads of Kensington, and the hills of Hampstead … The chain of buildings so closely unites the country with the town that the distinction is lost between Cheapside and St. George’s Fields. This idea struck the mind of a child, who lived at Clapham, with so much force, that he observed, ‘If they go on building at such a rate, London will soon be next door to us.’” By the time he grew to be a man, his words had come to pass.

The “hills of Hampstead” were in part threatened by the “New Road” from Paddington to Islington, upon which work began in 1756; it acted as a bypass, avoiding the congerie of narrow and unpaved roads which led to the centre of the city, and for a while was considered to be a northern perimeter road, acting as a barrier between the city and the country—or, rather, between the city and the assortment of brick-fields, tea gardens, orchard gardens, cow-yards, tenter-grounds, allotments and sodden marsh-like fields which were always a feature of the land immediately surrounding the capital. But then the city, almost in a bound, travelled to its other side with the erection of Somers Town and Pentonville, Camden Town and Kentish Town. The new road became a road within, rather than outside, the city; and as such it remains.

The “marshes of Lambeth” were invaded by a more deliberate act of policy, designed to increase the speed of business within the city and to open up the capital to its outer regions. Until 1750 only London Bridge acted as a conduit between the northern and southern areas of the Thames; the river itself was at the centre of all traffic. But the construction of Westminster Bridge over a period of twelve years entirely changed the relationship between the northern and southern sections; instead of being isolated and apart, almost like different countries sharing the same border, they became interrelated. A new road was built from the bridge into Lambeth for some half a mile, where it then touched existing roads which were in turn extended and widened in order to create a free-flowing route “for promoting the intercourse and commerce” between both parts of the city. In the process both Kent and Surrey became so accessible that much open country disappeared beneath streets and squares.

The experiment was so profitable that four other bridges followed at Blackfriars, Vauxhall, Waterloo and Southwark. London Bridge itself was stripped of its houses and shops in order to render it suitable for the faster movement of a new age. Everyone was going faster. Everything was going faster. The city was growing faster, too, and the traffic within its bounds was moving ever more rapidly, starting a momentum which has never stopped. By the latter half of the eighteenth century the evidence of London’s commercial power, and future imperial status, was already present. It was about to burst its bounds completely, and become the first metropolis of the world. So almost by instinct the old boundaries and gateways were destroyed; in a symbolic act of relinquishment, London prepared for its future.

The “roads of Kensington” then found the city to be advancing upon them. In the early eighteenth century the area of Mayfair, south of Oxford Street and east of Hyde Park, was established in a series of streets and squares; in its immediate vicinity the Portland estate laid out the territory north of Oxford Street. Cavendish Square, Fitzroy Square and Portman Square arose. Grosvenor Square was completed in 1737 and, at a size of six acres, remains London’s largest residential square. It was followed by the building of Berkeley Square only three streets away, so that the entire area was given a uniform discipline and appearance. The idea of the square and its surrounding streets took possession of London. The Bedford estate in Bloomsbury moved beyond its origin in Covent Garden to establish Bedford Square in 1774, and twenty-five years later this was succeeded by Russell Square, Tavistock Square, Gordon Square, Woburn Square and their network of interconnecting terraced streets. In its turn the Portman estate established Dorset Square, Portman Square and Bryanston Square. Square upon square, giving London its now familiar appearance.

But the city did not stop there. The districts of Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green in the east continued their steady growth, while south of the river areas such as Southwark, Walworth, Kennington and St. George’s Fields grew up beside the new thoroughfares. Fields were filled with terraced streets rather than corn. The population itself expanded to meet London’s demands, so that a figure of 650,000 in 1750 had reached over a million fifty years later. It was not until 1790 that baptisms exceeded burials, but from that time forward the momentum could not be stopped. In each of the five succeeding decades, after 1800, the population would rise by 20 per cent.

By the end of the eighteenth century “the City of London” was only part of the city; instead of being essentially London it had turned into an enclave within London. This led to no diminution in its power: the dispersal of its population, and the attendant removal of various trades and occupations, allowed it to focus its energies even more fiercely upon commercial speculations. The City became purely a place of business. It remained the financial capital of the world, even if it was not in itself the capital of England; for that purpose, it was continually recreating itself in each generation. Many of the great livery halls were rebuilt or refaced; the largest commercial enterprises, private banks and insurance companies established their premises on a grand scale, imitating or in some cases anticipating the construction of the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange. It truly became a city of Mammon, with precincts and labyrinths and temples devoted to that deity. There was a new Custom House, a new Excise Office, a new Stocks Market, while Sir John Soane and George Dance exercised all their gifts for a “neo-classicism” not untouched by an acquaintance with the mysteries of Piranesi and of Egyptian form. The destruction of the old walls allowed more development upon the northern perimeters of the city, where Moorfields and Finsbury Circus were laid out. The hospitals and prisons were rebuilt or refurbished, although it is not clear which of the two institutions imitated the other. We might speak of religious architecture, such as Hawksmoor’s wonderful if barbaric St. Mary Woolnoth, except that by this date Christianity itself had little impact upon the momentum or atmosphere of the newly resurgent City.

But even as London grew, it maintained and deepened its coherence. There were Road Acts, Lighting Acts and Pavement Acts. The Building Act of 1774 had a greater effect upon London than any other legislative measure. It standardised and simplified houses into four categories, thereby recreating large areas in a uniform image. It may not be too fanciful to suggest that this method of identifying and controlling London in the course of its immense expansion represented a means of purging all the excess and theatricality of the city in order to make it fit for its imperial destiny.

Such an exercise in architectural uniformity, however, could never succeed. London was too large to be dominated by any one style or standard. Of all cities it became the most parodic and the most eclectic, borrowing architectural motifs from a score of civilisations in order to emphasise its own position as the grandest and most formidable of them all. Indian, Persian, Gothic, Greek and Roman motifs vied for position along the same thoroughfare. It says much for the heterogeneity of its development in this period, for example, that architects as unalike as Robert Adam and William Chambers were working within a few hundred yards of each other on strikingly different projects which leave their mark upon London still; Chambers was presiding over Somerset House, while Adam was working upon Adelphi. Where Adelphi had a light and extravagant aspect, Somerset House was solid and conservative in feeling; one is the work of innovative genius, the other of academic solemnity. Both architects found a place within the city.

The only successful and permanent attempt to bring uniformity and order to London’s chaos was the grand scheme to link St. James’s Park in the south with Regent’s Park in the north. With the creation of Regent Street and Waterloo Place, it remains the single most important exercise in city planning within the metropolis. That it worked is not in doubt; the combination of the genius of John Nash with shrewd speculation was perhaps unstoppable in such an opportunistic age and city. Nash formulated the plans for Trafalgar Square; he created the conditions for Piccadilly Circus; he designed the reconstruction of Buckingham Palace; he laid out the terraces on the perimeter of Regent’s Park; he created Oxford Circus. “London,” wrote Prince Pückler-Muskau in 1826, is “extremely improved … Now for the first time, it has the air of a seat of Government, and not of an immeasurable metropolis of ‘shopkeepers’ to use Napoleon’s expression.”

But this “air” of government was only achieved by demarcating poorer and richer areas, in effect cutting off the rich from the sight and odours of the poor. Nash himself declared that he wished to create a line or barrier “between the Streets and Squares occupied by the Nobility and Gentry” and “the narrow Streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community.”

It has been suggested that Nash’s achievement was out of keeping with the history and atmosphere of the city, but he was a Londoner by birth, probably homosexual, who became prosperous through a legacy from a merchant uncle; here was a man who understood in every sense the workings of the city. From these roots sprang his genius for theatricality, for example, and it has been observed that the curve of Regent Street resembles that of an amphitheatre. The great designs of Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and Oxford Circus have been in turn seen as a form of popular stage-set combining all the energy and spectacle of London in a great work of cunning artifice. When Nash took advantage of the reversion of Marylebone Park to the Crown in 1811, and fashioned Regent’s Park out of an undistinguished patch of land, all his skills as a theatre designer were used to project a grand double circus with what was described as a “National Valhalla” rising in the centre. Financial restrictions, however, made such a scheme implausible and impossible; what emerged from the wreckage of Nash’s ambition were eight villas and the ring of terraces which still possess what Sir John Summerson has described as “an extravagant scenic character … dream palaces, full of grandiose, romantic ideals” but, behind the scenes, comprising “identical houses, identical in their narrowness, their thin pretentiousness, their poverty of design.” He concludes that the terraces of the park are “architectural jokes … an odd combination of fantasy and bathos.” Yet in that sense they convey the sheer vulgar theatricality and opportunism of the city, and of Nash himself; that is why the great tourist attractions of Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square seem in a sense to be a joke upon their visitors themselves.

In other respects the pressures of commerce and property speculation have damaged Nash’s dream city beyond repair. Regent Street had been first constructed on a purely commercial basis, with the selling of prime sites along the road, but what is born in commerce dies in commerce; the famous colonnade lasted for thirty years before being removed on the grounds that business was being lost in its obscurity, while the street itself was extensively remodelled in the 1920s and 1930s. The dereliction or damage also suggests a more general truth about London, where grand and large-scale developments have rarely been successful. The finest of London’s public buildings, like the Bank of England, are somehow secret and withdrawn, as if not wishing to overstate their case. In the same way grandiose projects failed because, as Andrew Saint has observed in London World City, “any but the most pragmatic approach to planning was doomed to failure.” Once again that note of pragmatism, so intrinsic to the intellectual and social life of the capital, is struck.

The “improved” London of the early nineteenth century had acquired a momentum of its own. The National Gallery, the British Museum, the Marble Arch, Westminster Palace, the Royal College of Surgeons, the Law Courts, the screen and arch at Hyde Park Corner, the General Post Office at St. Martin’s le Grand, London University, the Inner and Middle Temples, as well as various theatres, hospitals, prisons and gentlemen’s clubs, completely changed the external aspect of London. For the first time it became a public city. The detailed drawings of George Scharf, throughout this period, provide a significant account of the work itself. A great mobile crane stands before a half-completed Marble Arch, while a man in a top hat is perched upon a wooden scaffolding making notes; a new portico is being constructed, and Scharf notes the iron rod which is being cased within brick to form a pillar; plasterers are at work, standing upon wooden stalls, while two workmen strain upon a rope to raise a beam. These are views of building sites which could have been taken in London in any period over the last six hundred years. There is always building and rebuilding. Yet Scharf emphasises the human scale of this new London, before the advent of the Victorian megalopolis. He shows citizens in small groups, or as couples, rather than crowds; people are seen talking from upstairs windows, and Scharf is very interested in particular trades and in the names of individual shops or shopkeepers. Yet he still manages, in this compendium of local and specific detail, to capture a sense of progress and renewal; there is something distinctly and distinctively inspiriting in the air of these drawings. The city had lost something of its old packed intensity but it had recaptured its sense of the marvellous. Talleyrand, arriving in London in 1830 after an interval of thirty-six years, described it as “much more beautiful,” while an American visitor believed it to be “a thousand times more beautiful.” A visiting Italian general wrote in 1834 that London “has become an exceedingly beautiful and magnificent city; it is, in short, the leading capital of the world.”

But had there been any concomitant improvement in the lives of its citizens? Some contemporaries believed that there was a true connection. Francis Place, the London radical and democratic reformer, declared that “the progress made in refinement of manners and morals seems to have gone on simultaneously with the improvement in arts, manufactures and commerce. It moved slowly at first, but has been constantly increasing in velocity … we are much better people than we were then [in the 1780s], better instructed, more sincere and kind-hearted, less gross and brutal.” This enthusiastic report may seem surprising, in the light of subsequent denunciations of the Victorian city by writers as diverse as Engels and Booth, but it cannot be dismissed. Place was very close all his life to the actual conditions of the city, and he had seen a clear diminution in mob violence, open licentiousness and the intermittent savagery of ordinary life. He was a moral as well as a social reformer, and noticed with satisfaction an abatement of observable vice and squalor.

In fact the “improvements,” with the new roads as well as the changes in transportation, had a general and profound effect upon the nature of the city. As one historian of London, Donald Olsen, has put it, in The Growth of Victorian London, “The nineteenth century saw the systematic sorting out of London into single-purpose, homogenous, specialised neighbourhoods … Strict social segregation became a prerequisite for success in any new development.” In addition, “the shift from multi-purpose to single-purpose neighbourhoods reflected the pervasive move towards professionalisation and specialisation in all aspects of nineteenth century thought and activity.” The generalisation is perhaps too broad, since there continued to be areas where rich and poor were obliged to mingle, but it hits upon an important truth. It is the truth which Francis Place in part expressed, albeit unwittingly. The vices of the poor could no longer be seen, and therefore there must have been an improvement. In fact they had departed into areas of misery created by the slum clearances of the new city. They had moved “behind the scenes” of the newly dramatised London.

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