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Victorian Megalopolis

Victorian London, as it might be seen from the window of a passing train; in certain areas the view has hardly changed, testimony to the conservatism of Londoners in their love for a house and back garden.


How Many Miles to Babylon?

By the mid-1840s London had become known as the greatest city on the earth, the capital of empire, the centre of international trade and finance, a vast world market into which the world poured. At the beginning of the twentieth century the sanitary historian, Henry Jephson, considered this megalopolis in other terms. “Of that period,” he wrote, “it is to be said that there is none in the history of London in which less regard was shown for the conditions of the great mass of the inhabitants of the metropolis.” Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew and Friedrich Engels are three of the Victorian city-dwellers who cried “havoc” over the exhaustive and exhausting city. In contemporary photographs and drawings the most striking images are those of labour and suffering. Women sit with their arms folded, hunched over; a beggar family sleep upon stone benches in a recess of a bridge, with the dark shape of St. Paul’s looming behind them. As Blanchard Jerrold put it, “The aged, the orphan, the halt, the blind, of London would fill an ordinary city.” This is a strange conception, a city entirely composed of the maimed and injured. But that is, in part, what London was. The number of children and tramps, too, sitting resignedly in the street, is infinite; infinite also are the street-sellers, generally depicted against a dull background of brick or stone.

The poor interiors of the Victorian city are generally crepuscular and filthy, with rags hanging among reeking tallow lamps; many of the inhabitants seem to have no faces, since they are turned towards the shadows, around them dilapidated wooden beams and staircases in crazed confusion. Many, outdoors and indoors, seem hunched up and small as if the very weight of the city had crushed them down. Yet there is another aspect of the Victorian city that photographs and images evoke: of vast throngs innumerable, the streets filled with teeming and struggling life, the great inspiration for the work of nineteenth-century mythographers such as Marx and Darwin. There are also flashes of feeling—of pity, anger, and tenderness—to be observed upon passing faces. And all around them can be imagined a hard unyielding noise, like an unending shout. This is Victorian London.

“Victorian London” is of course a general term for a sequence of shifting patterns of urban life. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, for example, it still retained many of the characteristics of the last years of the previous century. It was still a compact city. “Draw but a little circle above the clustering housetops,” the narrator of Dickens’s Master Humphrey’s Clock suggests (1840–1), “and you shall have within its space everything, with its opposite extreme and contradiction close by.” It was still only partially illuminated by gas and most of the streets were lit by infrequent oil-lamps with link-boys bearing lights to escort late pedestrians home; there were “Charleys” rather than policemen walking their beats. It was still hazardous. The outskirts retained a rural aspect; there were strawberry fields at Hammersmith and at Hackney, and the wagons still plied their way among the other horse-drawn traffic to the Haymarket. The great public buildings, with which the seat of empire was soon to be decorated, had not yet arisen. The characteristic entertainments were those of the late eighteenth century, too, with the dogfights, the cockfights, the pillory and the public executions. The streets and houses all contained plastered and painted windows, as if they were part of a pantomime. There were still strolling pedlars hawking penny dreadfuls, and ballad-singers with the latest “air”; there were cheap theatres and print-shops displaying in their windows caricatures which could always catch a crowd; there were pleasure gardens and caves of harmony, mug-halls and free-and-easies and dancing saloons. It was a more eccentric city. The inhabitants had had no settled education and no social “system” (a word which itself did not spring into full life until the 1850s and 1860s) had yet been introduced. So it was a more varied, more unusual, and sometimes more alarming city than any of its successors. It had not yet been standardised, or come under the twin mid-Victorian agencies of uniformity and propriety.

It is impossible to gauge when this transformation occurred. Certainly London took on quite another aspect when it continued to grow and stretch itself through Islington and St. John’s Wood in the north; then through Paddington, Bayswater, South Kensington, Lambeth, Clerkenwell, Peckham and all points of the compass. It became the largest city in the world, just at the time when England itself became the first urbanised society in the world.

It became the city of clock-time, and of speed for its own sake. It became the home of engines and steam-driven industry; it became the city where electromagnetic forces were discovered and publicised. It also became the centre of mass production, with the impersonal forces of demand and supply, profit and loss, intervening between vendor and customer. In the same period business and government were supervised by a vast army of clerks and bookkeepers who customarily wore uniform dark costumes.

It was the city of fog and darkness but in another sense, too, it was packed to blackness. A population of one million at the beginning of the century increased to approximately five million by its close. By 1911, it had risen to seven million. Everything was becoming darker. The costumes of the male Londoner, like those of the clerks, switched from variegated and bright colours to the solemn black of the frock-coat and the stove-pipe hat. Gone, too, was the particular gracefulness and colour of the early nineteenth-century city; the decorous symmetry of its Georgian architecture was replaced by the imperialist neo-Gothic or neo-classical shape of Victorian public buildings. They embodied the mastery of time as well as that of space. In this context, too, there emerged a London which was more massive, more closely controlled and more carefully organised. The metropolis was much larger, but it had also become much more anonymous; it was a more public and splendid city, but it was also a less human one.

Thus it became the climax, or the epitome, of all previous imperialist cities. It became Babylon. There was in the twelfth century a part of London Wall called “Babeylone,” but the reasons for that name are unclear; it may be that in the medieval city the inhabitants recognised a pagan or mystical significance within that part of the stone fabric. It was unwittingly echoed by a piece of late twentieth-century graffiti, by Hackney Marsh, with the simple scrawl “Babylondon.” There was of course the mysterious song

How many miles to Babylon?

Three scores miles and ten.

Can I get there by candle light?

Yes, and back again.

If your heels are nimble and light,

You may get there by candle light.

Although the derivation and meaning of the verse are unclear, the image of the city seems to assert itself as a potent beckoning force; in a variant of this song “Bethlehem” takes the place of Babylon, and may point to the madhouse in Moorfields rather than any more remote destination.

In the eighteenth century, too, London was considered “cette Babilone, le seul refuge des infortunés” in which the association of size and power is coloured by the invocation of the “infortunés” or refugees; this indeed is the other connotation of London as Babylon, a city loud with many disparate and unintelligible voices. To name London as Babylon, then, was to allude to its essential multiplicity. So William Cowper, the eighteenth-century poet, spoke of this “increasing London” as more diverse than “Babylon of old.”

Yet the association or resemblance became pressing only in the nineteenth century when London was continually described as “modern Babylon.” Henry James referred to it as “this murky Babylon” and, for Arthur Machen, “London loomed up before me, wonderful, mystical as Assyrian Babylon, as full of unheard-of things and great unveilings.” So Babylon has many associations; it conjures up images of magnitude and darkness, but also intimations of mystery and revelation. In this great conflation, even the gardens of Park Lane became known as the “hanging gardens,” although some echo may be found here of the Tyburn tree which was once located beside them.

By 1870 the sheer quantity of life in the city was overwhelming. Every eight minutes, of every day of every year, someone died in London; every five minutes, someone was born. There were forty thousand costermongers and 100,000 “winter tramps”; there were more Irish living in London than in Dublin, and more Catholics than in Rome. There were 20,000 public houses visited by 500,000 customers. Eight years later there were more than half a million dwellings, “more than sufficient to form one continuous row of buildings round the island of Great Britain.” It is perhaps not surprising that mid-nineteenth-century Londoners were themselves struck with awe, admiration or anxiety at the city which seemed without any apparent warning to have grown to such magnitude and complexity. How could it have happened? Nobody seemed quite sure. Frederick Engels, in his The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844 (1845), found his own considerable intellectual faculties to be strained beyond use. “A town such as London,” he wrote, “where a man may wander for hours together without reaching the beginning of the end … is a strange thing.” The strange city is indescribable, and so Engels could only resort to continual images of immensity. He writes of “countless ships,” “endless lines of vehicles,” “hundreds of steamers,” “hundreds of thousands of all classes,” “the immense tangle of streets,” “hundreds and thousands of alleys and courts” together with “nameless misery.” The sheer incalculability of the mass seems to render it also unintelligible, and therefore induces fear.

So great was London that it seemed to contain within itself all previous civilisations. Babylon was then joined with other empires. The naves and transepts of Westminster Abbey were compared to the City of the Dead beyond Cairo, while the railway terminus at Paddington invoked images of the pyramid of Cheops. Nineteenth-century architects, in their fantastic images of London, created pyramids for Trafalgar Square and Shooters Hill while also designing great pyramidal cemeteries beside Primrose Hill. Here we see the power of imperial London creating a cult of death as well as of magnificence.

In Ree’s Cyclopaedia of 1819, the docks once more arouse primitive imagery. The climate and atmosphere of London in turn create “startling hieroglyphics that are written by soot and smoke upon its surface.” So the stones of London became ancient by association. Somehow the spectacle of the metropolis encourages intimations of unfathomable age—“petrified,” to have been turned into stone, may also be covertly introduced into this vision in its contemporary sense of great fear.

And beyond Egypt there was Rome. The subterranean vaults beneath the Adelphi reminded one architectural historian of “old Roman works” while the sewer system of Joseph Bazalgette was often compared with the Roman aqueducts. It was the sense of magnificence, combined with the triumphalism of empire, which most notably impressed these observers of the nineteenth-century city. When Hippolyte Taine ventured into the Thames Tunnel, itself compared with the greatest feats of Roman engineering, he described it “as enormous and dismal as the gut of some Babel.” Then the association of ideas and civilisations became too strong for him. “I am always discovering that London resembles ancient Rome … How heavy this modern Rome, as did the ancient one, bear down upon the backs of the working classes. For every monstrous agglomeration of building, Babylon, Egypt, the Rome of the Caesars, represents an accumulation of effort, an excess of fatigue.” Then he described “the Roman machine” which made slaves of those who toiled for it. This was another truth, then, about London as Rome: it turned its citizens into the slaves of the machine.

As a model for the archway leading to the Bullion Yard of the Bank of England, Sir John Soane chose the Roman triumphal arch; the walls of Lothbury Court beside it were inscribed with allegorical figures taken from Roman mythology. The massive corner of the Bank, between Lothbury and Princes Street, was based upon the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. The interiors, as well as the exterior, of the Bank had Roman antecedents. Many halls and offices constructed within, like the Dividend Office and the Bank Stock Office, were designed from models of the Roman baths; in addition the chief cashier’s office, forty-five feet by thirty, was built in homage to the Temple of the Sun and Moon at Rome. Here then, in direct form, is the worship of money based upon Roman originals; when the association is made with that ancient city, it is essentially one of barbaric triumphalism.

But there were other associations. Verlaine suggested that it was “a Biblical city” ready for the “fire of heaven” to strike it. Carlyle described it in 1824 as an “enormous Babel … and the flood of human effort rolls out of it and into it with a violence that almost appals one’s very sense.” So in one context it is compared with the greatest civilisations of the past, with Rome or Egypt, and yet in another it is quickly broken down into a violent wilderness, a savage place, without pity or restraint of any kind. When Carlyle adds that London is also “like the heart of all the universe,” there is a suggestion that London is an emblem of all that is darkest, and most extreme, within existence itself. Is it the heart of empire, or the heart of darkness? Or is one so inseparable from the other that human effort and labour become no more than the expression of rage and the appetite for power?

In one sense London has always been known as a wilderness or jungle, a desert or primeval forest. “Whoever considers the Cities of London and Westminster, with the late vast increases of their suburbs,” Henry Fielding wrote in 1751, “the great irregularity of their buildings, the immense number of lanes, alleys, courts and bye-places, must think that had they been intended for the very purpose of concealment, they could not have been better contrived. Upon such a view the whole appears as a vast wood or forest in which the thief may harbour with as great security as wild beasts do in the deserts of Arabia and Africa.” He described another aspect of this wilderness in Tom Jones, where he dwelled upon the difficulties of London life, “for as you are not put out of countenance, so neither are you cloathed or fed by those who do not know you. And a man may be as easily starved in Leadenhall Market as in the deserts of Arabia.”

Fielding’s contemporary Tobias Smollett had the same vision. London “being an immense wilderness, in which there is neither watch nor ward of any signification, nor any order or police” affords thieves and other criminals “lurking places as well as prey.” The images of jungle and desert are used as if they were alike precisely because they both suggest the “wilderness” of untamed and uncharted human nature; London represents some primeval force or habitat in which the natural instincts of humankind are allowed free expression.

In the nineteenth century the connotations of wilderness changed from unconstrained and uncurtailed life to one of barren desolation. The city is what Mayhew called “a bricken wilderness,” and the image of dense cover is replaced by one of hard stone with “its profuse rank undergrowth of low, mean houses spreading in all directions.” This is the nineteenth-century desert, far larger and far more desolate than that of the eighteenth century. It is what James Thomson, in “The Doom of a City” published in 1857, described as the “desert streets” within “a buried City’s maze of stone.” The endlessness of the city streets, so well evoked by Engels, is here associated with the coldness and hardness of stone itself; it represents not the wilderness of burgeoning life but the wilderness of death without sorrow or pity. “Wilderness! Yes, it is, it is,” a character says in Nicholas Nickleby. “It is a wilderness,” says the old man with such animation. “It was a wilderness to me once. I came here barefoot—I have never forgotten it.” And Little Dorrit cries out, “And London looks so large, so barren and so wild.”

So in turn London has recalled Pompeii, another wilderness of stone. After the bombardments of the Second World War, for example, it was remarked that London already looked “as ancient as Herculaneum.” But London has not been buried or overwhelmed by the lava-flow of time. All the constituents of its life return. An Italian visitor, perhaps more astute than those who preferred the conventional analogies, described London as “the Land of the Cyclops.” In a survey of late twentieth-century Docklands we find a great “Cyclops Wharf.” There is a photograph of South Quay in the same vicinity, where the tower of South Quay Waterside is surmounted by a pyramid. The great tower of Canary Wharf is adorned with a pyramid in similar fashion, suggesting that the associations with that empire have never really faded. Even the pumping station for storm water in the Docklands has been constructed, like some guardian of the waters, in the image of an Egyptian monument.

Yet there is one more salient aspect to this continual analogy of London with ancient civilisations: it is the fear, or hope, or expectation that this great imperial capital will in its turn fall into ruin. That is precisely the reason for London’s association with pre-Christian cities; it, too, will revert to chaos and old night so that the condition of the “primeval” past will also be that of the remote future. It represents the longing for oblivion. In Doré’s vivid depiction of nineteenth-century London—London, essentially, as Rome or Babylon— there is an endpiece. It shows a cloaked and meditative figure sitting upon a rock beside the Thames. He looks out upon a city in awful ruin, the wharves derelict, the dome of St. Paul’s gone, the great offices simply piles of jagged stone. It is entitled “the New Zealander” and derives its inspiration from Macaulay’s vision of a “colonial” returning to the imperial city after its destiny and destruction were complete; he wrote of the distant traveller as one “who shall take his stand on the broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.” It is a vision which, paradoxically, emerged during the period of London’s pride and greatness.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century Horace Walpole described a traveller from Lima marvelling at the ruins of St. Paul’s. Shelley looked towards that far-off time when “St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins in the midst of an unpeopled marsh.” In his imagination Rossetti destroyed the British Museum and left it open for the archaeologists of a future race. Ruskin envisaged the stones of London crumbling “through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction.” The vision is of a city unpeopled, and therefore free to be itself; stone endures, and, in this imagined future, stone becomes a kind of god. Essentially it is a vision of the city as death. But it also represents the horror of London, and of its teeming life; it is a cry against its supposed unnaturalness, which can only be repudiated by a giant act of nature such as a deluge. There may then come a time when London is recognisable only by “grey ruin and … mouldering stone,” sunk deep into “Night, Gothic night.”

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Yet the term “Gothic” has associations of its own which are no less powerful than those of Rome or Babylon, Nineveh or Tyre. The author of The London Perambulator, James Bone, has suggested that the shapes and textures of London stones might reveal “a Gothic genius loci of London fighting against the spirit of the classic.” But what, then, is this spirit of London place? It brings with it suggestions of excess and overpowering amplitude, of religious yearning and monumentality; it suggests ancient piety and vertiginous stone. In the eighteenth century Gothic acquired connotations of horror, then horror combined with hysterical comedy. All this the city can encompass.

Nicholas Hawksmoor, the great builder of London churches, defined a style which he termed “English Gothick”: it was marked by dramatic symmetries and sublime disproportion. When George Dance designed the Guildhall in the late 1780s with an elegant amalgam of Indian and Gothic elements, he was restoring a form of extravagance and vitality in homage to the great age of the city. But if Gothic was an intimation of antiquity, it was also an aspect of veneration. That is why the churches of Hawksmoor provide such a powerful statement in the places where they are located, among them the City, Spitalfields, Limehouse and Greenwich. As one eighteenth-century artist, Flaxman, remarked of the tombs within Westminster Abbey, they are “specimens of magnificence … which forcibly direct the attention and turn the thoughts not only to other ages but to other states of existence.” There is that within London which compels recognition as not of this earth.

Its most extravagant and notable manifestations were in the nineteenth century, however, when the spirit of neo-Gothic infused London. It found its first significant incarnation in the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament after the great fire of 1834, but by 1860 “Gothic was the recognised language of all leading architects.” It has been suggested that the Gothic style embodied “the influence of London’s past.” That is why the Law Courts were constructed in Gothic style as a way of instilling the authority of time upon the judicial deliberations of the present; it is also the reason why London churches of the mid-nineteenth century were invariably in the Gothic style. Ironwork was fashioned in the same manner, and suburban villas were rendered in what was known as “Wimbledon Gothic”; the area of St. John’s Wood, in particular, is known for its toy or ornamental Gothic. Anything which might be considered too recent, or too newly made, was covered with a patina of false age.

So, in the nineteenth-century city, Gothic possessed the consolation of supposed antiquity; in a city which seemed to be careering beyond all familiar or predictable bounds, it offered the reassurance of some theoretical or presumed permanence. But sacred images have the strangest way of showing another face. The power of Gothic originals can also be associated with the presence of the pagan or the barbaric. That is why the city of empire was also known as a city of savages.

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