A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century

A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century

by Jerry White


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674073173
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 02/28/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 692,624
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.10(d)

About the Author

Jerry White is Visiting Professor in History at Birkbeck, University of London.

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.

Table of Contents

Illustrations xv

List of Maps xvii

Preface xix

Introduction: London 1700-1708 1

Part 1 City

I James Gibbs's London, 1708-54 17

The Architect Most in Vogue: James Gibbs 17

?A Kind of Monster': Growing London, 1720-54 17

Obstructions and Inconveniences: Changing London, 1700-54 36

II Robert Adam's London, 1754-99 49

'A Kind of Revolution': Robert Adam 49

'We Have Done Great Things': Improving London, 1754-99 58

The Mad Spirit of Building: London Growing, 1754-99 68

'An Epitome of a Great Nation': London, 1799 76

Part 2 People

III Samuel Johnson's London - Britons 85

'London is Their North-Star': Provincial Londoners 85

'Men Very Fit for Business': North Britons 94

'Within the Sound of Bow Bell': Cockneys and Citizens 99

'A Very Neat First Floor': Living and Dying 106

'Take or Give the Wall': Getting on Together 116

IV Ignatius Sancho's London - Citizens of the World 125

'Our Unfortunate Colour': Black Londoners 125

'Foreign Varlets': Europeans and Some Others 137

'Offscourings of Humanity': Jewish Londoners 145

'Get Up, You Irish Papist Bitch': Irish Londoners 152

Part 3 Work

V William Beckford's London - Commerce 165

'That Which Makes London to be London': Trade 165

'Most Infamous Sett of Gamblers': Money Matters 177

'They Swim into the Shops by Shoals': Retail 186

'Clean Your Honour's Shoes': Streets 196

VI Francis Place's London - Industry and Labour 207

'Minute Movement and Miraculous Weight': Made in London 207

Fellowship Porters, Lumpers and Snuffle-Hunters: Moving Things Around 220

High Life Below Stairs: Domestic Service 226

'At the Eve of a Civil War': Masters and Men 234

VII Eliza Haywood's London - Print, Pictures and the Professions 249

'Purse-Proud Title-Page Mongers': The Business of Words 249

'Overburdened with Practitioners': Print and the Professions 269

'Painting from Beggars': The Business of Pictures 277

Part 4 Culture

VIII Teresa Cornelys's London - Public Pleasures 293

'High Lords, Deep Statesmen, Dutchesses and Whores': Carlisle House 293

'Down on Your Knees': The Stage 302

'Sights and Monsters': The Lions of London 313

No Equal in Europe: Pleasure Gardens 319

'Too Busy with Madam Geneva': Drinking and Socialising327

'This Extravagant Itch of Gaming 335

IX Martha Stracey's London - Prostitution 345

'How Do You Do Brother Waterman?: Prostitutes 345

'The Whoring Rage Came Upon Me': Men and Prostitution 364

'Damn Your Twenty Pound Note': Fashion and Vice 375

X Mary Young's London - Crime and Violence 383

The Republic of Thieves: Plebeian Crime 383

Virtue Overborn by Temptation: Genteel Crime 405

'Save Me Woody': Violence 411

Part 5 Power

XI The Fieldings' London - Police, Prison and

Punishment 425

Mr Fielding's Men: Thief-Takers 425

'Pluck Off Your Hat Before the Constable': The Parish Police 437

'Hell in Epitome': Prison 446

'Low Lived, Blackguard Merry-Making': Public Punishments 456

XII Jonas Hanway's London - Religion and Charity 467

Fear of God and Proper Subjection: Charity 467

Nurseries of Religion, Virtue and Industry: Governing the Poor 481

'To Resest ye World ye Flesh and ye Devell': Religion 487

'No Hanoverian, No Presbyterian': Religion and Politics, 1700-59 502

XIII John Wilkes's London - Politics and Government 511

'Wilkes and Liberty!' 1760-68 511

'Life-Blood of the State': City versus Court, 1768-79 520

Not a Prison Standing: The Gordon Riots, 1780 532

'I Would Have No King': Revolution and Democracy,1780-99 543

Afterword 553

Acknowledgements 557

Notes 561

Bibliography 607

Index 649

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