Histories of Victorian London now come two a penny. They are the left-wing historian’s answer to biographies of Good Queen Bess. What is there new to say? We start with fog and smells and move on to disease and the working classes. We meet Charles Booth and Henry Mayhew. We chastise the rich and welcome the shift from charity to democracy. Over the Great Wen hovers the great messiah, Improvement. It brings gas, drains, electricity, Peabody homes and rights for women. The millennium arrives with Selfridges and the Underground. Then the Great War spoils everything.
Stephen Inwood is a master of the genre. He has already written an excellent potted history of the capital and now turns his attention to what he calls ‘the birth of modern London’, the three decades after 1880. These were years when London became the greatest metropolis on earth, truly the hub of empire. Just about everything went right. It was the London of Pygmalion, department stores, Gilbert and Sullivan, the architecture of ‘sweetness and light’, rich Americans and deserving poor. By the 1880s Bradshaw was keeping Sherlock Holmes on schedule. Streets were brightly lit. Suburbs were giving every home a garden and corrupt vestries were becoming boroughs and the London County Council.
Timing the birth of modern London is an inexact science. I would award the palm to the earlier Victorians, to the innovatory zeal of 1840-70, spurred by the coming of the railway and free trade. Urban historians are good at social history but less so at economic geography. It was the inrush of imperial capital that fuelled the great expansion of mid-Victorian London and instilled the confidence of the Great Exhibition and Bazalgette’s Embankments and outfall sewers. It was the genius of the 99-year repairing lease that encouraged artistocratic landowners to plot the long-term value of their estate developments, giving London a comfort and a style that had to await Haussmann in Paris.
London by the 1880s was more smug and conservative. It was assured of its European pre-eminence, a monument to mercantilism as sensational as had been 15th-century Tuscany or 17th-century Amsterdam. Nor did it last long, meeting its nemesis in the foreign policy failures that preceded the Great War. This linkage of national and local history is sorely neglected by London historians. Even as storm clouds were gathering the City’s grandees were pleading with ministers to exclude them from wartime restrictions on European finance. Small wonder the whole magnificent parade ground to a halt in August 1914.
Yet Inwood is right in one respect. A well-heeled Londoner at the turn of the 20th century would have awakened in a centrally heated house, received his post over breakfast, answered the telephone, paid his cleaning lady, summoned a petrol-driven taxi, taken the Underground to an office served by electronic cables. He would have read a daily paper, shopped in a department store and enjoyed a wide choice of West End shows. He would do much the same today, while all were inconceivable a century earlier.
Inwood leaves no stone unturned. I could not fault him from Bedford Park to the boom in piano-making. He is good on the Jews of the East End and the Suffragettes of Westminster. He does Hither Green as well as Hampstead Garden Suburb. His sources are compendious and his range impressive. My only complaint is that so crowded with facts are his chapters that London never quites lifts off the page and comes to life. I thus missed a sad absentee from these pages, to whom I would always turn to encapsulate the spirit of this particular age. It is the all-experiencing, ever-exasperated, great-and-good nobody, Mr Pooter. How could Inwood forget him?
Simon Jenkins’s books include England’s Thousand Best Churches.