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Empire Day

By the last decades of the nineteenth century London had become the city of empire; the public spaces, the railway termini, the hotels, the great docks, the new thoroughfares, the rebuilt markets, all were the visible expression of a city of unrivalled strength and immensity. It had become the centre of international finance and the engine of imperial power; it teemed with life and expectancy. Some of its gracefulness and variety had now gone; its Georgian compactness and familiarity had also disappeared, replaced by the larger scale of neo-classical or neo-Gothic architecture which somehow matched the aspirations of this larger and more anonymous city. Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, erected in 1843, was conceived upon the model of a column in the temple of Mars the Avenger, in imperial Rome, while a revised classicism was employed for the new buildings along Whitehall; the architecture of London, according to Jonathan Schneer in London 1900, celebrated “British heroism on the battlefield, British sovereignty over foreign lands, British wealth and power, in short, British imperialism.” If it was a more public and more powerful city, it had also become a less human one. Tower Bridge, which took some thirteen years to build and was eventually completed in 1894, was a representative emblem; it was an extraordinary feat of engineering, but it seems deliberately to have been built upon an impersonal and somewhat forbidding scale. In its immensity and complexity, it reflected the workings of the city itself.

Late nineteenth-century London was established upon money. The City had acquired the historic destiny that it had been pursuing for almost two thousand years. It had become the progenitor of commerce, and the vehicle of credit, throughout the world; the City maintained England, just as the riches of the Empire rejuvenated the City. The sea trade of the earliest settlers had over the centuries borne unexpected fruit since by the turn of the century almost one half of the world’s merchant shipping was controlled, directly or indirectly, by the institutions of the City. In the early decades of the twentieth century new office blocks became a familiar presence; new banks, company headquarters, insurance offices were built upon a massive scale, with intense and dramatic architectural effects. The latest edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England for the City of London notes, for example, how the Bank of England acted as a field of force for other commercial enterprises. “Around it are clustered the headquarters and major branches of the main clearing banks, many of which had grown enormously by merger and acquisition at the end of the 1910s. They were built to impress, inside and out.” Here the element of London’s essential theatricality once more emerges, but strangely mingled with the principles of profit and of power. The tendency towards “merger and acquisition” among banking institutions was reflected in a general movement towards the creation of greater and greater organisations; the newspaper industries, the enormous growth of the Post Office, the vast expansion of insurance companies, all contributed to the sense of a city growing quickly and almost unnaturally.

It was unnatural in other respects. The advent of electric light in the 1890s—its first interior use occurred, in 1887, in the premises of Lloyds Bank along Lombard Street—inevitably meant that natural light was no longer necessary to work indoors. So arrived those great waves of City workers who indeed might have been dwelling beneath the sea; they came to work in the darkness of a winter morning, and departed in the evening without once seeing the sun. So London helped to instigate one of the great disasters for the human spirit. In addition the use of new building technologies, particularly those of reinforced concrete and steel, and the introduction of passenger lifts, led inexorably to the erection of ever higher buildings. By that strange symbiotic process which has always marked the development of London, the expansion of the available space was matched only by the increase of the number of people ready to inhabit it. It has been estimated that the working population of the city numbered 200,000 in 1871, but 364,000 in 1911. Charles Pooter, of “The Laurels,” Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, is a fictional variant of one of the thousands of clerks who comprised what one guidebook terms “a very city of clerks.” “My boy, as a result of twenty-one years’ industry and strict attention to the interests of my superiors in office, I have been rewarded with promotion and a rise in salary of £100.” The fact that the Grossmiths’ comic creation has endured in public affection for more than a hundred years is testimony, perhaps, to the instinctive accuracy of their account; the ordinariness of Pooter’s life was seen as emblematic of the new type of urban, or suburban man. In his loyalty, and in his naïveté, he was the kind of citizen whom London needed in order to sustain itself.

But it was not only a city of clerks. London had become the workplace of the new “professions,” as engineers and accountants and architects and lawyers moved ineluctably towards the city of empire. In turn these affluent “consumers” created a market for new “department stores” and new restaurants; there arose a revived and more salubrious “West End” of theatres under such actor-managers as Irving and Beerbohm Tree. There were also more refined delights. The parks, the museums and the galleries of mid-Victorian London were discovered by a new and more mobile population of relatively affluent citizens. There were better libraries, and a plethora of distinguished or specialised exhibitions to satisfy a new urban taste for instruction compounded by enjoyment. It was also the city of Fabians, and of the “new woman”; it was the home of the fin-de-siècle, most readily associated in the public mind with the spectacular London career of Oscar Wilde.

But the old city never went away. In the 1880s approximately four hundred people of both sexes used to sleep in Trafalgar Square among the fountains and the pigeons. As H.P. Clunn noted in The Face of London (1932), “only about one-third of these people had any regular calling or occupation, and the rest simply lived from day to day as best they could from childhood, and could hardly explain how they had managed to exist for so long.” In any one year of that decade approximately “twenty-five thousand people were charged with being drunk and disorderly in the streets,” in part because the public houses were allowed to remain open all night; perhaps the strain of being the richest and most powerful city in the world had some effect upon the citizens themselves. It was a city of contrast. Until the late 1870s, Leicester Square was littered with “tin pots, kettles, old clothes, cast-off shoes, dead cats and dogs.”

The streets were filled with the ceaseless and incessant stream of horse-drawn, motor-driven and steam-propelled traffic; the average speed of the hansoms and the growlers and the vans and the “bumpers” or buses remained approximately twelve miles per hour. Old women squatted in the streets selling herbs, apples, matches and sandwiches. There was a floating population of ragged barefoot children who slept in alleys or beneath bridges. There were costermongers with their carts selling anything from coals to flowers, fish to muffins, tea to crockery. There were also epidemics of surprising speed and savagery which passed through the floating urban population. But somehow, perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight, the lives and roles of the poor seem diminished within the immensity and complexity of late nineteenth-century London; their voices are heard less easily amid the incessant traffic, and their struggles are lost among the army of clerks and “professions” and the whole multiplying population of the city.

This immensity and complexity, the emanations of so much wealth and power, created problems for the authorities themselves. How could the Metropolitan Board of Works, together with all the vestries and parishes, supervise or control the largest and most important city in the world? As a result, in 1888, the London County Council (LCC) was established to administer an area of approximately 117 square miles. It covered the whole of London, inner and outer, from Hackney in the north to Norwood in the south. There had always been unstated fears concerning an over-mighty and overweening city, so the LCC was granted no powers over the police or the public utilities: yet even at the time its inauguration was considered an event of great significance in the development of London. Sidney Webb described it as a movement towards a “self-governing community,” which indirectly aroused memories of the medieval “commune” with its wall and its army. The great constitutional historian of London, Laurence Gomme, became Clerk of the LCC which for him represented “the reincarnation of the democratic spirit of the medieval charters, and traditions of citizenship as ancient as the Saxon and Roman origins of the city.” In 1899, in a further act of reorganisation, twenty-eight Metropolitan Boroughs were created out of the vestries and district boards of the preceding century; although these were designed to impede any centralising impulses of the LCC they, too, had a somewhat atavistic air. At a “royal review” in the summer of 1912, each borough mustered a battalion to march before King George V; it may have been a harbinger of the Great War but the troops from Fulham and Wandsworth, Stepney and Camberwell, Poplar and Battersea, were a reminder of old territorial loyalties issuing from the earliest days of the burg and the soke.

The LCC embarked upon its municipal duties with enthusiasm and animation. The earliest priority was that of slum clearance and the development of public housing. What might seem, in retrospect at least, a symbolic gesture claimed the area of the “Jago” in Bethnal Green; the squalid alleys and tenements immortalised by Arthur Morrison were swept away in the late nineteenth century, and in their place was erected the Boundary Green Estate. Other areas of inner London were cleared but, in deference to the prevailing taste for “expansion” as a physical and mental imperative, “cottage estates” were erected in places like East Acton and Hayes.

In 1904 the county council assumed control of elementary education in London, and funded a system of scholarships whereby clever children might move on from board schools to grammar schools. Such innovations directly affected the lives of Londoners. A city government impinged upon the citizens for the first time in living memory. The administration of London was no longer some distant and almost unrecognisable presence, characterised by what Matthew Arnold described in another context as a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”; it had become a force for change and improvement.

London once more embodied a young and energetic spirit, with a curious acquisitive atmosphere which floods the pages of urban chroniclers such as H.G. Wells. The laborious and intricate city of the fin-de-siècle seems to have vanished, together with that heavy and lassitudinous atmosphere so peculiar to the memoirs of the period; it is as if the city had come alive with the new century. It was the first age of the mass cinema, too, with the advent of the Moving Picture Theatre and the Kinema. The Underground lines had abandoned their steam trains, and the whole network was electrified by 1902. Motor buses, tram-cars, lorries and tricycles added to the general momentum. London was, in a phrase of the period, “going ahead.” Where in the late nineteenth century, wrote the author of The Streets of London, “it had been rich and fruity, it was becoming slick and snappy.” One of the permanent, and most striking, characteristics of London lies in its capacity to rejuvenate itself. It might be compared to some organism which sloughs off its old skin, or texture, in order to live again. It is a city which has the ability to dance upon its own ashes. So, in the memoirs of Edwardian London, there are accounts of thés dansants, tangos and waltzes and Blue Hungarian bands. There were twelve music halls and twenty-three theatres in the central area, with another forty-seven just outside. The shops and restaurants grew in size, while the tea shops became “corner houses” and “maisons.” There were picture domes and prizefights and soda fountains and cafés and revues, all compounding the atmosphere of a “fast” city.

The Great War of 1914–18 cannot be said to have impeded the city’s growth or its essential vitality. London has always been energetic and powerful enough to buttress itself against distress and disaster. Herbert Asquith heard a “distant roaring” on the final day of peace at the beginning of August 1914. He wrote that “War or anything that seems likely to lead to war is always popular with the London mob. You remember Sir R. Walpole’s remark, ‘Now they are ringing their bells; in a few weeks they’ll be wringing their hands.’” London was accustomed to violence and to latent savagery, not least in the manifestations of the mob, and for many the vision of chaos and destruction acted as a restorative. The inhabitants of a large city are always the most sanguineous. It is true, also, that London expanded during the years of war. Just as in earlier centuries it had killed more than it cared for, so in the present conflict it seemed to thrive upon slaughter. The city’s economy was fuelled by full employment, with so many of its young males detained elsewhere, and as a result the standard of living improved. Of course there were local hazards and difficulties. Building work was suspended, and at night the city was only partly illuminated by lamps which had been painted dark blue as a precaution against the raids of Zeppelin warships. Parks and squares were used as kitchen-gardens, while hotels became government offices or hostels. But there were more foreign restaurants and pâtisseries than ever, as a result of the presence of émigrés, while the dance halls and music halls were full. There was a loss of life in the capital—it is still not unusual to find plaques upon the walls of long-since renovated buildings, commemorating a Zeppelin raid upon the site—with approximately seven hundred killed in the four years of war. In contrast it has been estimated that almost 125,000 Londoners died in battle. Yet London is prodigal of life.

The close of the war in November 1918 was greeted with scenes of revelry and enthusiasm which have always punctuated the city’s history. Stanley Weintraub has depicted the occasion in A Stillness Heard Around the World: The End of the Great War. “The street was now a seething mass of humanity. Flags appeared as if by magic. Streams of men and women flowed from the Embankment … Almost before the last stroke of the clock had died away, the strict, war-straitened, regulated streets of London had become a triumphant pandemonium.” This is a description of the city stirring into life again, with the “streams” of its citizens like the blood once more racing through its arteries. Pedestrians “were dancing on the sidewalks” and vast crowds gathered in all the public places in order to experience that inchoate sense of collective feeling which is one aspect of urban identity on these occasions; the citizens do indeed become one body and one voice. George V drove “through waves of cheering crowds,” with the image of the sea once more invoking the strange impersonality and inexorability within this expression of mass emotion. Osbert Sitwell recollected that the last time he had seen such a crowd “was when it was cheering for its own death outside Buckingham Palace on the evening of August 4, 1914; most of the men who composed it were now dead.”

Here the exultation comes very close to savagery, and a kind of barbaric triumph is let loose upon the streets of London. “The God of Herds” had taken over as the people “sometimes joining up, sometimes linking hands, dashed like the waves of the sea against the sides of Trafalgar Square.” The celebrations there would continue for three days without ceasing. Paradoxically there was a certain amount of violence and riot to celebrate this peace, while one observer described it “as a sort of wild orgy of pleasure: an almost brutal enjoyment. It was frightening. One felt that if there had been any Germans around, the women would have advanced upon them and torn them to pieces.” The same cruelty had of course been visible in the crowd’s delight at the beginning of the war. In one novel relating these events, James Hilton’s Random Harvest, the scenes represent “a common earth touch—a warm bawdy link with the mobs of the past.” The frenzy spread in unexpected directions. There is the story of the famous parrot in the Cheshire Cheese Public House who with his beak “drew a hundred corks without stopping amid the din of Armistice Night 1918 and then fell down in a faint.” It may seem perverse to pay more attention to the celebrations of a few days in winter than to the whole course of a war, but in that shorter period the city became more intensely itself.

Out of that conflict, too, emerged dynamic movement and a fresh sense of purpose. By 1939 the population of Greater London had risen to 8,600,000; it was the largest level it had ever attained, and is perhaps ever likely to attain. One in five of the British population had become a Londoner. The city had expanded in every sense, with new dual carriageway roads and radial highway schemes which reached out to Cheshunt and Hatfield, Chertsey and Staines. Just as it grew outwards, so its interior fabric was renewed. New banks and office blocks arose in the city, while the Bank of England itself was rebuilt. A new Lambeth Bridge was being constructed. With new initiatives in education and welfare, as well as schemes for the redevelopment of housing and of parks, the London County Council sustained the momentum of the city’s development. H.P. Clunn, writing The Face of London in 1932, suggested that “the new London is rising, with irresistible energy, on time-honoured sites.” It was not the first, nor the last, period of restoration; London is perpetually old, but always new. It was an appropriate sign of renovation, however, that in the autumn of 1931 the most significant public and commercial buildings of the capital were for the first time illuminated by floodlighting.

Its novel brightness attracted powerful forces; the process of what has often been called “metropolitan centralisation” attracted politicians, trade unionists and broadcasters; thus the BBC, ensconced in the heart of London, also became the “voice of the nation.” The film and newspaper industries, together with the myriad advertising companies, migrated to the metropolis, in the process helping to spread images and visions of the capital throughout the entire country. Industry, too, was part of this mass migration. The authors of the County of London Plan noted that many commercial leaders were attracted by “the sight of numerous flourishing factories and the general air of prosperity associated with Greater London.” Once more London had reverted to type and become Cockaigne or the city of gold.

The 1930s have in particular been anatomised as the age of anxiety, when economic depression, unemployment and the prospect of another world war materially affected the general disposition of the city. Yet the historians and reporters bring their own preoccupations to the subject; London is large enough, and heterogeneous enough, to reflect any mood or topic. It can hold, or encompass, anything; in that sense it must remain fundamentally unknowable.

J.B. Priestley, for example, saw evidence of a giant transition. He described a new urban culture, growing up all around him, as one “of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor coaches, wireless.” The familiar London sensation, of everything growing too large, once more emerged. It was reported in 1932 that Dagenham, for example, had within ten years increased its population by 879 per cent. In 1921 it had been a small village, complete with cottages and fields of corn; within a decade 20,000 houses had been erected to sustain a working-class population. George Orwell had mentioned Dagenham in his account of a new city where the citizens inhabit “vast new wildernesses of glass and brick,” where “the same kind of life … is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads.” He was describing the same reality as Priestley, with “miles of semi-detached bungalows, all with their little garages, their wireless sets.” They were both reacting to the single most important change in London life within the last 150 years. They were talking about the suburbs.

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