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Dr. Johnson's LondonLife in London, 1740-1770
By Liza Picard
George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, Ltd.Copyright © 2000 Liza Picard
All right reserved.
Facts and Figures
The population of England in 1750 has been estimated at 6,140,000. No one knows exactly how many people lived in London. There had never been a census. A Bill 'for registering the number of the people', and also marriages, deaths and births, and even the number of welfare recipients, had been thrown out by the Commons in 1753 because, as Mr Pitt said, it would be too expensive and difficult to administer, and it might even be seen as a prelude to poll tax, which would be unthinkable. Contemporaries such as Malarchy Postlethwaite suggested 1,200,000 at least, a figure adopted by The Gentleman's Magazine in its 1766 Supplement. But informed opinion nowadays puts the figure at about 650,000, plus or minus 50,000: over 10 per cent of the population of England.
London had been growing at a fairly steady rate since 1500. By 1650 it had outstripped its European competitors such as Paris and Naples, and by 1750 had overtaken Constantinople, 'Pekin in China' and Cairo. It vastly exceeded other English cities. And as well as housing permanent inhabitants, it was the centre to which perhaps one in six of the total population of England had been drawn at some time in their lives, as tourists, or to 'do the season', or for work in domestic service or apprenticeship.
What was meant by 'London'? The area of one square mile within the walls first built by the Romans, with adjacent areas or 'dependencies' in Southwark and Blackfriars, administered by the Lord Mayor of London? Or all the parishes 'within the Bills of Mortality'? This last description, usually shortened to 'within the Bills', is a reference to the parishes which were bound to make weekly returns, or 'Bills', of the numbers of births and deaths, with the causes of deaths, within their boundaries. This system had begun in 1562, mainly to provide a warning for the well-to-do of the possibility of a plague epidemic, enabling them to leave London in time. The Bills were notoriously inaccurate, but nothing had been evolved to replace them. They covered the 97 parishes within the walls, the 16 dependencies outside the walls, and another thirty or so parishes in Middlesex, Surrey and Westminster -- the number of these fluctuated from time to time, as parishes were subdivided or created to keep pace with development.
By 'the City' I mean the city within the walls, and its dependencies: the area administered by the Lord Mayor. By 'London' I mean the built-up area from Chelsea to Deptford, Mayfair to Limehouse, Marylebone to Stepney -- in other words, the area shown in John Rocque's Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Borough of Southwark published in 1746, and generally corresponding to the area within the Bills. As the Encyclopedia Britannica put it, in 1773, 'the form of London including Westminster and Southwark comes pretty near an oblong square, 5 miles in length if measured in a direct line from Hyde Park to the end of Limehouse ... the greatest breadth is two and a half miles'.
Two City tours
The first-time visitor to New York should take a boat round Manhattan Island. Oxford is best seen from the top of an open bus. I suggest we have a quick look at Dr Johnson's London from virtual sedan chairs, in two trips, one into the City and one round the west end. I have taken mid-century, 1750, as a convenient date. I will signal where we are, from time to time, by putting in square brackets [...] a contemporary landmark, so that any tourist map will give you your bearings.
We shall begin at Temple Bar, built by Wren in 1672 at the western boundary of the City, where the Strand becomes Fleet Street [just east of the Law Courts; not the modern structure, but a narrow arch wide enough for one vehicle, with pedestrian passages on either side]. If he had designed it especially to create traffic jams, he could hardly have done better. The habit of impaling traitors' heads on approaches to the City has not quite died out: there are two still on the arch, looking the worse for wear. They have been there since 1746. This part of the City just escaped the Great Fire of 1666. Its medieval timber houses, wildly overdecorated for our pure Georgian taste, overhang the street and lean on each other for support. Dr Johnson lives in a back street tucked away on the left. Ahead of us, up Ludgate Hill, St Paul's Cathedral is already darkening from smoke pollution. Beyond it is Cheapside, a main shopping area. But we shall make a detour north, and find Smithfield -- easily done, by the noise and smell of the livestock market. Beside it is St Bartholomew's Hospital, a medieval foundation now in Georgian dress. Then back again past the notorious prison of Newgate [the Old Bailey, or Central Criminal Court, was built almost on its site].
We want to make for the river. The golden fireball on top of the Monument to the Great Fire of 1666 guides us part of the way, then we can home in on the unmistakable smell of Billingsgate, London's principal fish market [demolished and redeveloped now -- the smell of old fish lingered for years]. We ignore the boatmen who are shouting for our custom and walk up the muddy steps onto London Bridge. With luck you may hear the lions roaring in the Tower of London. Looking through a gap in the houses on the bridge, you can see the merchant ships and lighters packed together waiting to unload at the Custom House [still there, on the north bank of the river]. Upstream of the bridge the river is covered by small passenger craft, with the occasional royal or plutocratic private barge, like a Rolls-Royce among minis. Near the south bank are two more hospitals, St Thomas's [it has moved since 1750], and a new one founded by a millionaire [Guy's Hospital is still there, just off the Borough High Street]. Then we go to the nearest 'stairs' down to the river again, and take a boat back to the Strand.
Despite the burgeoning prosperity of the west end, it was the City that still represented power. No wonder the monarch had to stop at Temple Bar and symbolically ask the Lord Mayor for permission to enter the City.
The west end
We begin where the muddy road to the hamlet of Tottenham Court heads north, through the fields [Tottenham Court Road tube station]. Looking up it, past the 'pound' or enclosure for stray dogs in the middle of the road, you should see on the left Mr Goodge's brick-drying yards. As we turn west along Oxford Street, the chair-men hurry past the first buildings on the right. They may not be in the same parish as the slums behind us in St Giles's parish, but they have the same reputation as 'the lurking-place of cut-throats'. By the time we get to Rathbone Place we can slow down. This was the first street to be built on the north side of Oxford Street, and it has attracted fashionable residents, who can stroll up to the woods and the windmill at the end of their street. Across Oxford Street from Rathbone Place, Soho Square is lined with elegant houses from the previous century, much favoured still by foreign ambassadors.
As we continue along Oxford Street, look to your right through the gaps between the houses and you'll see open country. Berners Street leads across a patch of waste ground to Green Lane and then through fields, where the Middlesex Hospital stands. About half way along Oxford Street on our right there is a thriving market for fish and meat [Market Place]. A little further along on the left, Swallow Street [replaced by Regent Street] dives straight to Piccadilly. Then Cavendish Square on our right has some sumptuous houses in it, but there are still some vacant sites. It was planned to out-do any other square -- quite a few of these squares had such ambitions, when they first came into existence -- which meant that buyers were slow to commit themselves. Balancing Cavendish Square, to the south of Oxford Street, Hanover Square was completely built by 1750, of imposing contiguous four-storey houses, complete with church.
Marylebone Lane, originally a winding country track, and Wigmore Row [Street] mark the end of the built-up area north of Oxford Street. Beyond them is farming country. The only sign of city life is Marylebone Gardens, two fields north of Wigmore Row. On the south side of Oxford Street, the houses come to a stop at North Audley Street. After that there are fields on both sides of the road -- it has become a road again now, Tiburn Road -- as far as the turnpike gate. You won't want to go on further. You can see from the gate the three connected posts where criminals are hanged, and the gallery erected for the greater comfort of spectators [Marble Arch is very near it].
So let us turn south, down Tiburn Lane [Park Lane]. If you look to your left along Upper Brook Street or Upper Grosvenor Street, you should just see Grosvenor Square, the grandest square yet. Hyde Park stretches away to the countryside for miles, on your right. We shall make for the turnpike gate at its south-east corner [Hyde Park corner]. If we headed west, through the hamlet of Knightsbridge, we would get to the village of Kensington, but there is little else to see there except the palace. We will strike south, leaving St George's Hospital [a hotel is now on the site, which from the outside looks much as the pictures of the hospital looked] on our right. We can see another hospital far away in the fields [Chester Street/Grosvenor Place], the Lock Hospital for venereal diseases.
Excerpted from Dr. Johnson's London by Liza Picard Copyright © 2000 by Liza Picard. Excerpted by permission.
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