Why in 1737 did Dr Johnson choose to leave his home in Lichfield in the Midlands and travel to London to make a fresh start as a writer, asks Jerry White in his encyclopaedic portrait of the 18th-century capital. It’s a good question. London was dangerous, it was dirty, you could die of ague in a matter of hours, be robbed, crushed to death by the mob, thrown into jail for unpaid debts, and, no matter whether you were rich, poor or of the middling sort, suffer the scourge of bed bugs through every waking hour. To live comfortably (without domestic cares) you needed to earn enough money to employ at least three manservants and four women, reckons White, which would have set you back some 75 guineas a year.
Writers were notoriously badly paid, and there were too many of them in the capital anyway. As the playwright Oliver Goldsmith moaned, ‘Perhaps of all mankind, an author in these times is used most hardly; we keep him poor and yet revile his poverty … we reproach him for living by his wit and yet allow him no other means to live.’ Johnson himself on two occasions was threatened with the sponging house (a kind of open prison where debtors could be put under house arrest until they had satisfied their creditors) and only rescued from imprisonment by his friends. Yet Johnson was tempted to the capital, not so much by the desire to make his fortune, argues White, but because of London’s ‘deep wellspring of egalitarianism’. For a man who had grown up among ‘the teasing restraint of a narrow circle’, the capital provided ‘freedom from remark and petty censure’. It was not just that in London there could be found all the conversation, company, amusement that life can afford. You could also escape the narrow circle, the prohibitions of provincial life.
Yet, as White suggests by the sub-title of his book, the capital was also a monstrous place, where children were maimed to improve their begging potential, young girls were sold into prostitution, death by hanging was a frequent and very popular public spectacle, and almost one-tenth of the population supported themselves by pursuits that were either criminal or immoral. London was beastly as well as magnificent. Its tourist attractions were known as ‘The Lions of London’, after the lions on show in the menagerie at the Tower, but also included Bedlam (or the Bethlehem Hospital) for ‘lunatics and the insane’, which since 1656 had been housed on the south side of Moorfields in the City. Visitors were encouraged because it was thought they brought ‘jollity and merriment’ to the inmates, as well as providing much-needed income (there was an admission charge of one penny a visit). But as a Russian traveller noted in July 1790, ‘Many of the men made us laugh. One imagines that he is a cannon and keeps firing charges through his mouth. Another grunts like a bear and walks on all fours.’ Spectacle, not humanity, was Bedlam’s chief selling point.
White tells his story not as a chronological narrative — the construction of Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, the South Sea Bubble, the Gordon Riots — but through a series of themes: city, people, work, culture, power. It’s an enterprising way to marshal such detailed and fact-filled research. It is, though, a little strange to discuss power through the life of the notorious John Wilkes, and to consider that culture is best illustrated through the characterful Theresa Cornelys of Carlisle House (famed for its masquerades), as also by drink, gaming, prostitution and crime.
White’s great thesis is that through the 18th century London grew into the city that we know today, losing the distinctions between the City and Westminster, Southwark and the West End, and between the merchants and manufacturers and those who bought their wares. In 1700 it was possible to walk across the capital from east to west in just three hours. A century later it would have taken much of the day to plod through the suburbs, as the capital stretched its tentacles out into Essex, Kent, Surrey and Middlesex. Yet this expansion, rather than dividing the capital, actually brought it closer together, as a vast trading, manufacturing and above all shopping centre.
None of this development would have been possible without the Thames and the remarkable success of London as a trading post, importing tea, porcelain, muslin and silk from the East Indies, sugar, rum and cocoa from the West Indies, fruit, wax and palm oil from Africa, whale oil, blubber and seal skins from Greenland, tobacco and rice from America, wine, cork and drugs from the Mediterranean, timber, hemp and tallow from Russia and the Baltic ports. In 1795 alone, the lists indicate that 14,800 ships entered the port of London, which at that time stretched from London Bridge down to Limehouse Reach on the west side of the Isle of Dogs. The Thames was the lifeblood of the city. It was the capital’s main transport artery, its breathing space (perhaps the greatest event of the century, claims White, was the Regatta of June 1775), and a valuable source of food through the fishermen who caught roach, salmon, lamprey, flounders, eels and whitebait.
The flood of migrants to the city, from overseas as well as the British counties, is encapsulated by White through the story of Ignatius Sancho, who arrived in the capital from the Spanish West Indies, aged just two. Three maiden sisters living in Greenwich fostered him and named him after Don
Quixote’s servant, after which he became butler to the Duchess of Montagu, who when she died left him an annuity of £30 (just enough to live on). He saved enough to buy and manage his own shop on Charles Street near Whitehall. He was painted by Gainsborough and Allan Ramsay, visited by the sculptor Nollekens and became acquainted with the great actor David Garrick. But we know of him chiefly through his letters in which he gives vivid accounts of the abuse he continually experienced as a black man in the city. London was an open society, it was possible to secure your independence through industry alone, but it was also cruel.
Sancho’s shop did not survive him. But other names who made their fortunes in these years, intriguingly, are still brand names in 2012: William Henry Smith, whose parents set up a business distributing newspapers, William Reeves, who sold pigments to artists, Luke Hansard, who turned to printing because he could not afford to become a lawyer, and a trio of bankers: Barclay, Coutts and Hoare.
The true story of the city, though, is one of continual ebb and flow, as fortunes were made and just as easily lost. The only way many of those who lived there, in cramped and often foul lodgings, could take advantage of all that this great and monstrous metropolis had to offer was to run into debt. How much, then, has changed?
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.