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Wild Things

As there is a darkest Africa, is there not also a darkest England … May we not find a parallel at our own doors, and discover within a stone’s throw of our cathedrals and palaces similar horrors to those which Stanley has found existing in the great Equatorial forest?” These are the words of William Booth in the 1890s. He notes in particular “dwarfish dehumanised inhabitants, the slavery to which they are subjected, their privation and their misery.” In this sense the city has created and nurtured a wild population. The poor of the slums and tenements were characteristically described by other observers as “savages” and even at the time of great national religious revival among the middle classes, when England was supposed to be the quintessentially Christian nation, the working class of London remained outside the Church. A report of 1854 concluded that the poor of London were “as utter strangers to religious ordinances as the people of a heathen country” or, as Mayhew put it, “religion is a regular puzzle to costers.” How could there be devotion, or piety, in such an oppressive commercial city where there was little chance of beauty or dignity, let alone worship?

The city of empire and commerce contained dens and lodging-houses “in the midst of a dense and ignorant population” where “the most diabolical practices were constantly perpetrated.” “I have seen the Polynesian savage in his primitive condition,” Thomas Huxley wrote, “before the missionary or the blackbirder or the beachcomber got at him. With all his savagery he was not half so savage, so unclean, so irreclaimable, as the tenant of a tenement in an East London slum.” The paradox here is that the imperial city, the city which maintained and financed a world empire, contained within its heart a population more brutish and filthy than any of the races it believed itself destined to conquer. “He thought he was a Christian,” Mayhew wrote of a young “mudlark” or river scavenger, “but he didn’t know what a Christian was.”

The poorest Irish immigrants sensed the atmosphere. “The Irish coming to London seem to regard it as a heathen city,” according to Thomas Beames in The Rookeries of London, “and to give themselves up at once to a course of recklessness and crime.” So the savagery was endemic, and also contagious; the inhabitants of the city were brutalised by its conditions.

Verlaine believed that, after Paris, in London he was living “among the barbarians,” but his commentary is on a wider scale; he is referring to the fact that in the alien city the only worship was that of money and power. Again the name of Babylon emerges to encompass this great pagan host. As Dostoevsky expressed it in 1863, on his journey to London, “It is a biblical sight, something to do with Babylon, some prophecy out of the Apocalypse being fulfilled before your very eyes. You feel that a rich and ancient tradition of denial and protest is needed in order not to yield … and not to idolise Baal.” He concluded that “Baal reigns and does not even demand obedience, because he is certain of it … The poverty, suffering, complaints and torpor of the masses do not worry him in the slightest.” His heathen slaves and worshippers are in that sense powerless as, with the break of each day, “the same proud and gloomy spirit once again spreads its lordly wings over the gigantic city.”

If mid-Victorian London was indeed a city of heathenism and pagan apocalypse, as Dostoevsky suggests, then what more appropriate monument for it than the one erected in 1878? An obelisk, dating from the Egyptian pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty, was brought in a sealed ship to London; it had previously stood before the Temple of the Sun in On, or Heliopolis, where it had remained for 1,600 years. “It looked down upon the meeting of Joseph and Jacob, and saw the boyhood of Moses.” In 12 BC it had been moved to Alexandria but was never erected there, lying prone in the sand until its removal to London. The monolith of rose-coloured granite, hewn in the quarries of southern Egypt by bands of slaves, now stands beside the Thames guarded by two bronze sphinxes; on its side are hieroglyphics naming Thothmes III and Rameses the Great. This stone, known as Cleopatra’s Needle, has become a tutelary presence. As one French traveller noted of the Thames at this point, “the atmosphere is heavy; there is a conscious weight around, above, a weight that presses down, penetrates into ears and mouth, seems even to hang about the air.” Tennyson, on contemplating the pagan monument of a pagan London, gave it a voice. “I have seen the four great empires disappear! I was when London was not! I am here!” The granite has slowly disintegrated through the perpetual influence of fog and smoke, and the hieroglyphics have begun to fade; there are “chips and gashes” where a bomb fell in the autumn of 1917. Yet it has survived. Still buried beneath it, in jars sealed in 1878, are a man’s suit and a woman’s costume, illustrated newspapers and children’s toys, cigars and a razor; most significant, however, for the imperial obelisk, is a complete set of Victorian coinage embedded in its base.

Other pagan associations are intimately linked with the nineteenth-century city. Here the Minotaur made its appearance. In pagan myth the monster in the labyrinth was each year given seven youths and seven maidens, both as food and tribute. So Victorian crusaders against poverty and prostitution were, in the public prints, given the name of Theseus who killed the monster. Yet it did not wholly die. One journalist in the Pall Mall Gazette of July 1885 compared “the nightly sacrifice of virgins in London to the victims of the Athenian tribute to the Minotaur,” and it seemed that the “appetite of the minotaur of London is insatiable.” It was also described as the “London Minotaur … moving about clad as respectably in broad cloth and fine linen as any bishop.” This indeed is a vision of horror, worthy of Poe or De Quincey, but the suggestion of a pagan beast alive and rampant is one curiously aligned to the nineteenth-century perception that the city had indeed become a labyrinth to rival anything upon the Cretan island. In response to these articles on child prostitution in London George Frederic Watts depicted the horned beast, half man and half bull, gazing over a parapet of stone across the city.

In his Remaines of 1686 John Aubrey wrote that “on the south side of Tooley Street, a little westward from Barnaby Street, is a street called the Maes or Maze, eastward from the Borough (another name for labyrinth). I believe we received these mazes from our Danish ancestors.” Less than two hundred years later, however, new labyrinths emerged. Arthur Machen, reaching what he believed to be the outskirts of the city, “would say ‘I am free at last from this mighty and stony wilderness!’ And then suddenly, as I turned a corner the raw red rows of houses would confront me, and I knew that I was still in the labyrinth.” Of the labyrinth as a device the architectural theorist Bernard Tschumi has stated: “One can never see it in totality, nor can one express it. One is condemned to it and cannot go outside and see the whole.” This is London. When De Quincey wrote of searching for the young prostitute Ann whom he had befriended, he described their passing “through the mighty labyrinths of London; perhaps, even within a few feet of each other— a barrier no wider than a London street, often amounting in the end to a separation for eternity!” This is the horror of the city. It is blind to human need and human affection, its topography cruel and almost mindless in its brutality. The fact that the young girl will almost certainly be betrayed into prostitution once more conjures up the beast at its centre.

For De Quincey Oxford Street was made up from “never-ending terraces” and “innumerable groans.” Here the streets tease and bewilder. Of the City it has been written that a “stranger would soon lose his way in such a maze” and in fact the old centre is characterised by its curious serpentine passages, its secluded alleys and its hidden courts. H.G. Wells noted that if it were not for the cabs “in a little while the whole population, so vast and incomprehensible is the intricate complexity of this great city, would be hopelessly lost for ever.” This is curiously suggestive—a population lost in its own city, as if it had been swallowed up by the streets and the stone. A writer at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Robert Southey, had a similar vision with his realisation that “It is impossible ever to become thoroughly acquainted with such an endless labyrinth of streets; and, as you may well suppose, they who live at one end know little or nothing of the other.” The image is of a labyrinth which is constantly expanding, reaching outwards towards infinity. On the maps of England it is seen as a dark patch, or stain, spreading slowly but inexorably outwards.

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