Venturesome statisticians estimate the population of Europe at some 100 millions in 1650, some 140 millions in 1750. Voltaire in 1750 reckoned the population of France at twenty millions, of Germany and Austria at twenty-two, of Great Britain and Ireland at ten, of European Russia at ten, of Spain and Portugal at eight, of Poland at six, and he allotted three millions each to European Turkey, Sweden, Denmark (plus Norway), and the United Provinces.35 A German jurist thought that the increase in northern Europe was largely due to the transfer of monks and nuns from celibacy to parentage by the Protestant Reformation, and urged that “a statue be erected to Luther as the preserver of the species”;36 but we must not exaggerate the continence of medieval monks. The increase in population was probably due to improvements in agriculture and transport augmenting the supply and distribution of food, and advances in sanitation and medical treatment reducing the death rate in infants and adults. England and Wales, which may have had no more than three millions population in 1500, appear to have had four millions in 1600, six in 1700, nine in 1800.37 Nearly all the increase went to the towns, nourishing and nourished by industry and trade. By 1740 London prided itself on some 725,000 inhabitants; it was now the most populous city on the globe; Defoe in 1722 condemned it as “overgrown.”38 Paris came next with 675,000 in 1750; then Amsterdam, Vienna, Naples, Palermo, Rome. London was ten times more populous than Bristol, which was the second-largest English city, and eighteen times more than Norwich, the third-largest. Metropolitan centers were gathering the controls of the nation’s economic life, and were turning the labor and products of fields and mines and shops into the subtle profits of finance.

London was well situated to grow with English commerce and colonies. Oceangoing vessels could sail up the Thames, and though (till 1794) the docks could not berth them, an army of profane longshoremen, using a swarm of three hundred lighters, was available to transfer goods from ship to shore or other ships; so London became an animated entrepôt for the re-export, to the Continent, of imports from overseas. The riverside was not as tidy as we find it now; it was alive with lusty longshoremen, sex-starved sailors, and women loose in dress and code, foul in person and speech, living in hovels and taverns, and rivaling the seamen in drunkenness and violence.39 The river itself was picturesque with a motley of vessels ranging from fishing smacks to massive men-of-war, while little ferries plied the stream. The King, the Lord Mayor, and some notables maintained elaborate barges, and used them to go up the river to Windsor or other palaces. Till 1750 London Bridge remained the only way of crossing on foot from the northern to the southern side of the city, but in that year Westminster Bridge was completed, and in 1757 London Bridge was freed from its burden of houses and stores. Antonio Canaletto, the Venetian painter who visited London in 1746 and 1751, was impressed by the scenes of vitality on the water, and left some famous pictures to show us the Thames as Pope and Johnson knew and loved it.

Johnson probably loved the streets of London even more, though they were as yet ill-lighted, ill-paved, and cleaned chiefly by the rains. In 1684 a system of street lighting had been established by setting up a candle lantern at every tenth house, but they were lit only on moonless nights, only till midnight, and only from Michaelmas (September 29) to Lady Day (March 25). In 1736 the city authorities voted to install fifteen thousand oil lamps throughout London, and to keep them lit from the setting to the rising of the sun; this was a gala event in the life of the capital, greatly improving the nocturnal safety of its streets.

Pavements, since the Great Fire of 1666, were mostly of small, round stones; this remained standard till the nineteenth century. In the middle of each street ran a gutter that received much refuse and sluiced off the rain. There were no curbs, but a line of posts railed off a six-foot pathway for pedestrians. The streets were noisy with carts, pack horses, hackney coaches, and private carriages, all drawn by horses with hoofs clattering against the paving stones; there were also peddlers—many of them women-hawking a hundred kinds of food or clothing; traveling artisans offering repairs, drivers disputing, dogs barking, beggars soliciting, street singers bawling ballads, organs bouncing their melodies from wall to wall. The people complained of but loved these noises, which were the vital medium of their lives. Only the pickpockets and the prostitutes worked silently.

Houses began to receive street numbers in 1708. By 1750 most of them had running water. Sanitation was improving. Every householder was required by law to keep the street walk clean before his property, and every ward had a scavenger who organized the collection of waste. Toilets were usually outhouses placed and screened off in the garden or yard. Some localities had sewers, but London had no general sewage system till 1865. Chimneys were cleaned by chimneysweeps who climbed them by pressing elbows and knees against the inner walls of brick or stone; this merciless deformation of children continued till 1817.

A considerable part of the population was packed into slums filthy with garbage and offal, breeding a hundred diseases.40 In the Wapping and Lime-house sections of London nearly every second inhabitant lived from hand to mouth, depending on charity, theft, or prostitution to secure lodging and food. Children ran barefoot, unwashed, and unkempt in the streets, clothed in rags and schooled only in crime. In these slums men and women seldom bothered to marry; sexual relations were a passing incident, a commodity marketable without ceremony or law. There were hardly any churches there, but beer shops and taverns abounded. Here too were the lairs of thieves, pickpockets, highwaymen, and professional murderers. Many of the criminals were organized in gangs. Watchmen who interfered with them had their noses slit. One group, the “Mohocks,” was wont to sally drunk into the streets, prick passers-by with swords, make women stand on their heads, and gouge out the eyes of unaccommodating victims. Less ferocious gangsters contented themselves with breaking the windows of shops and homes. “Thieves and robbers,” Smollett reported in 1730, “were now become more desperate and savage than they had ever appeared since mankind were civilized.”41 In 1744 the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London drew up an address to the King in which they stated that “divers confederacies of great numbers of evil-disposed persons, armed with bludgeons, pistols, cutlasses, and other dangerous weapons, infest not only the private lanes and passages, but likewise the public streets and places of usual concourse, and commit the most dangerous outrages upon the persons of your Majesty’s subjects.”42 Said Horace Walpole in 1752: “One is forced to travel even at noon as if one were going to battle.”43

The great metropolis, of course, was much more than this pullulation of poverty and crime. It was also the city of Parliament and royal palaces, of a thousand lawyers, merchants, journalists, poets, novelists, artists, musicians, educators, clergymen, courtiers. As we proceed we must add to our vision of eighteenth-century London the mansions, morals, and manners of the literate classes, the worshipers in the churches, the skeptics, scientists, and philosophers, the wits and belles and beaux of “society,” the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh, the promenaders in the parks and on the Mall, the regattas and festivals and barges on the Thames, the conversations in coffeehouses and clubs, the shops of craftsmen, clothiers, jewelers, the amusements of the home and the sports of the field, the crowds at cockfights, prize fights, puppet shows, theaters, and opera: only then will our perspective of London life be fair and reasonably complete, and allow us to feel history in all its phases pouring through the bodies and souls of two generations and 700,000 men.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!