VI. LONDON

Johnson’s first view of London (1737) was one of virtuous horror:

Here malice, rapine, accident, conspire,
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey;
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female Atheist talks you dead.*80

These, of course, were but some aspects of London, chosen to feed the rage of unplaced youth. Three years later Johnson described London as “a city famous for wealth and commerce and plenty, and for every other kind of civility and politeness, but which abounds with such heaps of filth as a savage would look on with amazement.”81 The civic authorities, at that time, left street cleaning to the citizen, who was commanded to keep in neat repair the pavement—or earth—before his house. In 1762 the Westminster Paving Acts arranged for municipal cleaning of streets, collection of rubbish, paving and repair of main thoroughfares, and establishment of an underground sewerage system; soon other sections of London followed suit. Elevated footpaths protected pedestrians, and gutters drained the streets. New streets were laid out in straight lines, houses were built more durably, and the venerable metropolis effused a more genteel odor.

There was no public fire department, but insurance companies maintained private hose brigades to limit their losses. Coal dust and fog sometimes collaborated to blanket the city with a pall so thick that one could not tell friend from foe. When the sky was visible certain streets were bright with colorful shops. On the Strand the largest and richest stores in Europe displayed behind their windows the products of half the world. Not far away were a thousand shops of a hundred crafts, and here and there were potteries, glass factories, smithies, breweries. The noises of artisans and tradesmen, of carriages and horses, of hawkers and street singers, contributed to the din and sense of life. If one wished a quieter scene and cleaner air he could saunter in St. James’s Park, or watch fascinating ladies swing their spreading skirts and show their silken shoes on the Mall. In the morning one could buy fresh milk from maids who milked cows on the park green. In the evening he might prowl, like Boswell, for a filie de joie , or wait for the night to cover a multitude of sins. Farther west one could ride or drive in Hyde Park. And there were the great amusement resorts: Vauxhall with its colorful crowds, its acres of gardens and arbored walks, and Ranelagh with its spacious tiered Rotunda, where Mozart performed when a child of eight.

The poor had alehouses, the middle and upper classes had clubs, and there were taverns for all. There was the Boar’s Head, and the Mitre, where the Great Cham supped, and the Globe, dear to Goldsmith, and the Devil’s Tavern, which had entertained famous figures from Jonson to Johnson. There were two Turk’s Heads—one a coffee shop on the Strand, the other a tavern in Gerrard Street, which became the home of The Club. Women as well as men came to taverns, and some were for sale. In clubs like White’s or Almack’s (which became Brooks’s) the well-to-do could drink and gamble in select privacy. And there were the theaters, with all the excitement of their competition and the radiance of their stars.

Near the theaters were brothels. Preachers complained that “to the said plays and interludes great numbers of mean, idle, and disorderly people do commonly resort, and after the performance is over from thence they go to bawdy houses.”82 Nearly all classes who could afford it patronized prostitutes, and agreed in condoning the habit as unavoidable in the current state of male development. There were some colored courtesans who drew customers even from the nobility; Boswell describes Lord Pembroke as exhausted after a night in “a black bawdy house.”83

Slums continued. In the lower orders it was not unusual for a family to live in one room of a tenement. The very poor lived in damp, unheated cellars, or in garrets with leaky roofs; some slept on bunks or in doorways or under booths. Johnson told Miss Reynolds that “as he returned to his lodgings about one or two o’clock in the morning he often saw poor children asleep on thresholds and stalls and that he used to put pennies into their hands to buy them a breakfast.”84 A magistrate informed Johnson that in any week over twenty Londoners died of starvation.85 Now and then epidemics ran through the city. Even so, its population rose from 674,000 in 1700 to 900,-000 in 1800,86 presumably due to immigration by landless peasants, and to the growth of commerce and industry.

The Thames and its docks were crowded with merchantmen and their cargoes. “The whole surface of the Thames,” wrote a contemporary, “is covered with small vessels, barges, boats, and wherries, passing to and fro, and, below the three bridges, such a forest of masts for miles together, that you would think all the ships of the universe were here assembled.”87 Two new bridges were added in this period: Blackfriars and Battersea. Canaletto, coming to London from Venice (1746, 1751), painted magnificent views of city and river; prints from these vedute enabled educated Europeans to realize how London had grown to be the chief port of the Christian world.

Never since ancient Rome (excepting Constantinople) had history known so vast and rich and complex a city. In St. James’s Palace the King and Queen and their attendants, the court and its ceremonies; in the churches fat prelates mumbling hypnotic formulas, and humble worshipers resting from reality and begging divine aid; in Parliament House the Lords and the Commons playing the game of politics with souls as their pawns; in Mansion House the Lord Mayor and his liveried aides laying down ordinances about chapels and brothels, and wondering how to control the next epidemic or mob; in the barracks soldiers gaming, wenching, and profaning the air; in the shops the tailors curving their spines, plumbers inhaling lead, jewelers, watchmakers, cobblers, hairdressers, vintners, hurrying to meet the demands of ladies and gentlemen; in Grub Street or Fleet Street the hack writers puffing up clients, tumbling ministries, challenging the King; in the prisons men and women dying of infection or graduating to greater crimes; in the tenements and cellars the hungry, the unfortunate, and the defeated multiplying their like eagerly and forever.

With all this both Johnson and his biographer loved London. Boswell admired “the liberty and the whims … and curious characters, the immense crowd and hurry and bustle of business and diversion, the great number of public places of entertainment, the noble churches and the superb buildings, … the satisfaction of pursuing whatever plan is most agreeable without being known or looked at”88—the protective, erosive anonymity of the crowd. And Johnson, relishing and deepening. “the full flow of London talk,” settled the matter with one authoritative line: “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life.”89

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