Dan Hitchens

How the Georgians invented nightlife

Lavish light shows and firework displays allowed 18th century Londoners to conquer the night

An ingenious display of British engineering, costing around £2 million in today’s money: the 1814 Temple of Concord in Green Park, dazzlingly lit up and rotating on a mechanical stage. Credit: Collection of Melanie Doderer-Winkler

Modern nightlife was invented in London around 1700. So argued the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, who traced this revolution in city life to its origins in court culture. Medieval and Renaissance courts held their festivities while it was still light outside, but by the late 17th century, aristocrats preferred to party after dark. The trend was rapidly commercialised: a new kind of conspicuous consumer descended on pleasure gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh, to eat, drink, stroll and listen to music by the many-coloured light of thousands of oil lamps.

Before the 1700s, night was a fearful all-consuming presence, and the main challenge was to get through it

Or you can give King Louis XIV the credit: in 1667 he ordered that Paris be lit up by thousands of candle lanterns, and the idea spread through Europe’s metropolises. Before that, night was a fearful, all-consuming presence, and the main challenge was to get through it, ideally without falling off a bridge or being stabbed. Now that same fear was transmuted into a frisson of mystery and expectation.

Whatever the cause, 18th-century London delighted in illumination. In the 1780s foreign visitors reported admiringly that Oxford Street’s shops kept the lights blazing until 10 p.m. It was a mark of high status to go out in the evening, and people were soon vying to be fashionably late. ‘The present folly is late hours,’ Horace Walpole noted in 1777. ‘Everybody tries to be particular by being too late, and as everybody tries it, nobody is so. It is now the fashion to go to Ranelagh two hours after it is “over”.’

Eighteenth-century writers recorded the thrill of nocturnal adventure – sometimes illicit, sometimes innocent. In one of the most joyful scenes in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the great lexicographer is awoken at 3 a.m. by men banging on his door.

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