A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Centuryby Jerry White
London in the eighteenth century was a new city, risen from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1666 that had destroyed half its homes and great public buildings. The century that followed was an era of vigorous expansion and large-scale projects, of rapidly changing culture and commerce, as huge numbers of people arrived in the shining city, drawn by its immense wealth
London in the eighteenth century was a new city, risen from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1666 that had destroyed half its homes and great public buildings. The century that followed was an era of vigorous expansion and large-scale projects, of rapidly changing culture and commerce, as huge numbers of people arrived in the shining city, drawn by its immense wealth and power and its many diversions. Borrowing a phrase from Daniel Defoe, Jerry White calls London “this great and monstrous thing,” the grandeur of its new buildings and the glitter of its high life shadowed by poverty and squalor.
A Great and Monstrous Thing offers a street-level view of the city: its public gardens and prisons, its banks and brothels, its workshops and warehouses—and its bustling, jostling crowds. White introduces us to shopkeepers and prostitutes, men and women of fashion and genius, street-robbers and thief-takers, as they play out the astonishing drama of life in eighteenth-century London. What emerges is a picture of a society fractured by geography, politics, religion, history—and especially by class, for the divide between rich and poor in London was never greater or more destructive in the modern era than in these years.
Despite this gulf, Jerry White shows us Londoners going about their business as bankers or beggars, reveling in an enlarging world of public pleasures, indulging in crimes both great and small—amidst the tightening sinews of power and regulation, and the hesitant beginnings of London democracy.
Together with Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, White is one of our great chroniclers of London and this beautifully written, impeccably researched and incredibly generous book is a necessity for those of us who are not yet tired of life.
[A] magisterial history of London… The book hums with vitality…a gripping story.
With this volume, White completes an extraordinary trilogy begun with London in the Nineteenth Century (2007) and London in the Twentieth Century (2001). As in the earlier books, he addresses five broad topics: city, people, work, culture, and power. Differently here, he uses brief biographies of 14 representative figures--such as architect James
Woods, impresario Teresa Cornelys, philanthropist Jonas Hanway, and radical John Wilkes--to begin thematic essays involving scores of Londoners. The variety is striking: from the desperate poor in alley and workhouse to the rich and often well-born patrons of Exchange, gaming table, and brothel; from the many victims of Tyburn to the 'hanging classes' of magistrate's bench and beyond; from Wilkite pressure for political justice to sectarian madness in the Gordon Riots...The narrative is superb and richly informed, incisively and sympathetically evoking the city Defoe had thought a 'great and monstrous thing.'
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Read an Excerpt
From Part Two: People
Samuel Johnson’s London
Once immersed in the London swim, Johnson the misfit at last discovered just how congenial the city was to him. There – perhaps only there – he could be himself: ‘The freedom from remark and petty censure, with which life may be passed there, is a circumstance which a man who knows the teasing restraint of a narrow circle must relish highly.’ ‘No place cured a man’s vanity or arrogance so well as London’, he thought, because it gathered to it people whose talents and qualities were at least as good as his own. And for a literary man, involved in the production and dissemination of ideas, and for a curious man, interested in all the vagaries of life, London was ‘a heaven upon earth’.
Among those vagaries, London gave Johnson full opportunity to exercise that charity and humanity which even his detractors acknowledged and respected in him. It came not just from religious conviction but from a deep wellspring of egalitarianism. More than any other famous Londoner of his time, Johnson engaged sympathetically with London’s lowest depths. He encountered homelessness and probably night-cellars and common lodging houses with his friend Richard Savage, even more penniless than Johnson, in the late 1730s. In later and more prosperous years a friend recalled how ‘He frequently gave all the silver in his pocket to the poor who watched him, between the house and the tavern where he dined’, and he urged his friends to do the same. When returning home late at night he squeezed pennies into the hands of homeless children sleeping under shop bulks so they might wake up to a breakfast. Finding a hungry prostitute who had fainted in the street one night, he carried her home on his back, fed her and had his household look after her for some time. His friend Mrs. Thrale summed up Johnson’s humanity: ‘He loved the poor as I never yet saw any one else do, with an earnest desire to make them happy.’
His affection found daily domestic expression in the ménage of misfits that he invited into his household whenever he rented a place stable enough to offer them a home. Frank Barber, the freed slave from Jamaica who became Johnson’s servant, we’ll meet again later. The other three long-standing residents were provincials: Anna Williams, a blind Welsh poet; Robert Levett, a drunken practitioner of physic, born near Hull; and the widowed Mrs Desmoulins, née Swynfen, from Lichfield, whom he took in as housekeeper on a generous allowance with her young daughter. There was also for some time another woman, Poll Carmichael, whose history is obscure. It was not a harmonious arrangement. Mrs Desmoulins hated Williams and Levett with a vengeance. Levett was the oddest of all, attending poor patients for whatever they could give him, often a nip of gin. He had married ‘a woman of the town, who had persuaded him (notwithstanding their place of congress was a small-coal shed in Fetter-lane) that she was nearly related to a man of fortune, but was injuriously kept by him out of large possessions’. The marriage failed, with heated recriminations on both sides. Johnson loved Levett for his charitable physicking of the poor and perhaps because he was even stranger and less of a lover of clean linen than Johnson himself: ‘his external appearance and behavior were such, that he disgusted the rich, and terrified the poor.’
Johnson’s ‘nests’ of provincial Londoners at Gough Square, Johnson’s Court and Bolt Court would not have been uncommon in a city of migrants. For migration was one of the great facts of London life in the eighteenth century. Demographers estimate that 8,000 migrants a year were coming to London in the first half of the century, and certain it is that at any point in time a high proportion of Londoners were born outside the metropolis. Just how high is less certain. In 1781 Dr Richard Bland surveyed some 1,600 married couples who were assisted through childbirth by the Westminster General Dispensary. He found that just one in four individuals was born in London, over half were born elsewhere in England and Wales (including rural Middlesex), 8.6 per cent were Irish, 6.5 per cent Scottish and fifty-three or 1.6 per cent were ‘foreigners’. Of the migrants, 53 per cent were men.
Meet the Author
Jerry White is Visiting Professor in History at Birkbeck, University of London.
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