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By Liza Picard
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Liza Picard
All rights reserved.
Facts and figures
England in 1660 was prosperous. Few people died of hunger, unlike the peasants on the continent. Waves of enclosures had swept away medieval hovels from English fields, and farming methods were slowly improving as Dutch technology spread. Wool was still the country's mainstay. In medieval times, it had been exported 'unwrought'; it now went through a series of labour-intensive processes, which resulted in lighter-weight, fashion-conscious fabrics ('the new draperies'). Textile finishing was largely concentrated in London. Newcastle sent coal down to London ('sea-coal') in fleets of collier ships, hundreds at a time. Lead was mined in Derbyshire, tin and copper in the West Country, iron in the Forest of Dean. They were all channelled to London.
The population of England was just over 5 million. In villages, solidly built houses clustered round the dual sources of refreshment, Church and Inn. A network of seven or eight hundred market towns provided for the business and social needs of their inhabitants, and of the country dwellers within a comfortable radius. The total population of the five major provincial cities, Norwich, Bristol, Newcastle, York and Exeter, was only 80,000.
Over 300,000 people, getting on for one in sixteen of the population, lived in London. In the known world, only Paris and Constantinople were bigger, and they were flagging. London's steady increase had by 1700 outstripped Paris, and by 1750, Constantinople.
'London' comprised: (1) the square mile within the Roman walls, and small areas to the west at Blackfriars, and to the south, across London Bridge, at Southwark. This was the City of London, administered in 26 wards by the Lord Mayor of London and the Common Council of Aldermen. Its population had declined by 20,000 between 1640 and 1660. (2) The 'suburbs'. The rich and fashionable were filling the space between the Roman city of Londinium and the Danish foundation at Westminster. The middle classes were moving west as well, and north towards Hackney. The poor, particularly the thousands dependent on the ship-building and carrying trades, migrated east along the river. The suburbs were booming.
The built-up area extended north to Clerkenwell, with ribbon development along the river and the approach roads. Before the Fire in 1666, the skyline was mainly flat, broken by the bulk of Westminster Abbey, the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, and St Paul's Cathedral and the Tower in the City. The square medieval church towers did not punctuate the skyline gracefully, as Wren's spires were to do.
The street layout had not changed since the Romans left. The traveller from Kent, or Europe, approached London by 'Kentish Street', through Southwark and across London Bridge. If he was heading north, a straight road led through the city and out by Bishopsgate, towards Hackney. The main east–west axis was Cheapside. From it, Fleet Street and the Strand led towards Westminster. To the east, through Aldgate, lay the open fields. Thames Street, along the river, was constantly blocked with commercial traffic to and from the wharves and warehouses and the Customs House.
There was still only one bridge across the Thames. In 1663 the Lord Mayor petitioned Charles II for leave to set up two ferries 'on account of the straitness [narrowness] and trouble of passing London Bridge'. The Royal Surveyor of Works supported the petition, 'as being the only expedient to ease the Bridge ... from the multitude of carts drays and drifts of cattle, since His Majesty would not admit of another bridge'. His Majesty promised to think about it; if he did, nothing came of it. In 1664 he was faced with a detailed plan for a bridge between Westminster and Lambeth, to be funded by a toll and a voluntary contribution from 'neighbouring gentry' – with the same result.
London was the principal manufacturing city of England. The development of industrial conurbations in the Midlands was still centuries away. The London needle-makers' monopoly, for instance, covered London and 10 miles round; outside that radius, the trade was shared with Worcester. The manufacture of cutlery was shared with Sheffield. But luxury trades were wholly concentrated in London; and far away the largest national source of income was the new trade of cloth finishing, almost wholly concentrated in London.
Financiers were evolving more sophisticated banking systems; their base was London. Lawyers were well placed in the Inns of Court, including the Temple, which they had taken over when the Order of Knights Templars was dissolved in the fourteenth century; fast boats took them to their commercial clients in the City, or upriver to the law courts at Westminster. The spiritual life of London was supervised from Lambeth, Westminster and St Paul's. The monarchy was established at the Palace of Whitehall, built by Cardinal Wolsey close to the Abbey, and acquired by Henry VIII on Wolsey's downfall. Lastly, London was England's major port, with a safe harbour for sea-going vessels, facilities for building, repairing and supplying ships, and thousands of experienced seamen.
The combination of all these functions in one city goes far to explain London's disproportionate size, compared to other English cities, and to European capitals, where the monarch or the merchants or the shippers might reside in separate places.
It produced a polyglot, colourful crowd. Young people up from the country to serve an apprenticeship or enter domestic service gaped at English grandees in velvet-lined coaches, and fine ladies in sedan chairs escorted by liveried servants and African slave boys. Street sellers and mountebanks rubbed shoulders with sailors and beggars. Foreign languages and Latin vied with the country accents of young gentlemen up from the provinces.
In all this confusion, important announcements needed all the emphasis they could get. The Dutch Ambassador, Van Gogh, described the Proclamation announcing the declaration of war against his country, on 22 February 1664:
On Saturday last, the King's declaration was solemnly proclaimed. Two heralds in their coats of arms with four mace-bearers, nine trumpeters, and two troops of horses assembled at Westminster, where the trumpets sounded, and the declaration was read with great shouting and rejoicing of the people; thence they went to Temple Bar, where the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, in scarlet gowns on horseback, conducted them to Temple Gate where it was read with more acclamation than before, the Horse Guards drawing their swords and clattering them; then again in Cheapside and before the Royal Exchange.
Similar pomp had attended the Proclamation of Charles's return, on 8 May 1660. But then, the new regime's cupboard being so exceedingly bare, the herald had had to borrow a 'rich coat of arms' from Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, 'to perform the solemnity, which was returned the next day'. His own had been plundered in the recent war.
In 1658, while Oliver Cromwell was still on the throne, Richard Newcourt had published a map of London. Tactfully ignoring recent history, Newcourt invented a mythical history for London, beginning with Uranus and Saturn and ending with Brutus, 'anno mundi 2853' (2,853 years after the world was created). The London in his map was 'the most magnificent and renowned City of Europe, both for the antiquity of her foundation as also for Honour, Wealth and Beauty'. Mr Newcourt wanted to sell his product.
Three years later, John Evelyn presented to Charles II a very different picture, in his Fumifugium, or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated. Evelyn had spent the Interregnum on the continent, where he admired the elegance of modern towns. He deplored that London, 'this glorious and antient city should wrap her stately head in clouds of smoke and sulphur ... that the buildings should be composed of such a congestion of misshapen and extravagant houses: that the streets should be so narrow and incommodious in the very centre and busiest places of intercourse'.
'Narrow and incommodious' the streets certainly were. 'The common Highways leading unto and from the Cities of London and Westminster and the suburbs thereof ... are at present and for some years past have been so miry and foul as is not only very noisome, dangerous and inconvenient to the Inhabitants thereof but to all the King's liege people.' Some streets were paved. The market selling hay for London's thousands of horses and cows was. 'Piquadillo' was paved in 1662, and Holborn two years later. The owners of houses fronting on Pall Mall were obliged to contribute to the cost of paving it. Drury Lane, Hatton Garden, Lord Southampton's development at Bloomsbury, and parts of Bishopsgate were paved. So was the road north from St James's Palace; although it led through the fields, it was used by some eminent people. Streets were not necessarily level, even if they were paved. In 1667 a master paviour petitioned for an Act of Parliament to ensure that the 'accustomed manner' of paving the streets with 'unshapely flint stones, which break like glass, or soft rag stone which quickly moulders, or too small pebbles, and all these laid not on sand or fine gravel but on rough gravel soon carried away by the raker [street-cleaner]' should cease, and 'good stones 10–12 ins square and set 12 ins deep in good sand' – no doubt provided or laid by him – should be used. No such Act was passed.
Otherwise, the City streets were cobbled. The rare side- walks were reserved for pedestrians only by a line of posts. Sometimes the road surface sloped down to a central drain, blocked with rubbish and horse droppings. Sometimes there was no drain at all. When cobbles were clean, they provided a certain amount of drainage. When they were filthy and in poor repair – as all too often – they were lethal. Evelyn again: 'So many of the fair sex and their offspring [have] perished by mischance ... from the ruggedness of the uneven streets.'
Whether paved or cobbled, the pedestrian had a slightly better chance of avoiding the filth thrown from windows, the rain cascading from the roofs, and the litter on the road surface if he could walk along beside the houses, under their projecting upper storeys. But others might have the same idea; 'jostling for the wall' could lead to argument, even to fights and death.
Main streets were prone to traffic bottlenecks. Of all the modern causes of traffic jams, at least no London driver has had to face a drove of up to a thousand turkeys walking to their last home in London storehouses, from their birthplaces in Norfolk and Suffolk. Thames Street, the service road for the wharves and warehouses along the river, was only 11 feet wide in places. There was a major 'conduit' (public water supply) in a building in the middle of Cornhill, and another in Cheapside beside the church of St Michael le Querne, where water vendors and private citizens would congregate to draw water, and inevitably stand and gossip. These buildings were not just shelters for standpipes; they were about the size of, and rather resembled, Victorian gate-lodges. They had originally been sited so as to be handy to as many people as possible, before wheeled traffic came to be the curse that it has remained; they were bound to cause obstructions.
In the Strand, opposite Somerset House near the hackney coach stand, there was a 'most prodigious' maypole. It had been demolished under Cromwell, but was re-erected in April 1661 with great popular excitement, by twelve sailors under the personal command of the King's brother, the Duke of York, in his capacity of Lord High Admiral of England – sailors being the only men who could handle such a tall mast. As it rose, 'little children did much rejoice, and ancient people did clap their hands saying, golden days began to appear'. It was the tallest maypole in London, but far from the only one. 'Maypoles which in the late hypocritical times 'twas forbidden to set up now were set up in every cross-way' (according to John Aubrey), even before Charles's state entry. May-day 1660 was celebrated with maypoles, for the first time since 1654. They gave great pleasure, but they hardly helped the traffic flow.
Side streets were punctuated by narrow alleys barely wide enough for two pedestrians to pass, leading to cramped courts and alleys presided over by an inn or 'tippling house', or to the mansion of some rich citizen; London was surprisingly mixed.
Streets were encumbered by sign boards, hanging from almost every house, nine feet off the ground – in theory – to give room for a man on a horse to pass underneath. They did not always mean that a trade was carried on there, and if it was, they did not always identify it. Sometimes an elaborate code conveyed their meaning. The sign might use part of the arms of the appropriate livery company; so, Cupid and a torch meant a glazier, a cradle meant a basket-maker, an elephant showed where combs of ivory and other materials could be bought, Adam and Eve offered apples and other fruit, and a green man, or Jack-in- the-green, meant a distiller. Over apothecaries' shops hung unicorns' horns and dragons, their fabulous nature extending to some of the remedies sold there. Signs were not always so subtle. A row of coffins meant that a carpenter there could oblige; a bag of nails, an ironmonger. (The nineteenth-century scholarly reading of 'Bag o' Nails' as a corruption of Bacchanals was not, regrettably, correct. Nor did the Goat and Compasses ever mean that God encompasseth us; it was merely a combination of a leather-man's (cordwainer's) goat and a carpenter's compasses). Nursery-men and seedsmen adopted artichokes and pineapples; stationers, a hand holding a Bible, or a pen-knife – a necessary implement for cutting quills into pens. Some private houses had signs, without any particular significance. Residents would direct their friends to the nearest sign, and hope they arrived in time for dinner. An advertisement in the London Gazette of 28 May 1668 recommended 'Egbertus Wills, healer of deformed bodies – to be found at Mr White's house at the Cock and Bottle in Aldersgate street.'
After the Fire, this fondness for signboards continued. Signs were not prohibited until 1762. Even then it took another ten years for Londoners to adopt the simple, dull expedient of giving each house a street number.
When the Grand Duke of Tuscany came to London in 1667, his secretary Magalotti was impressed by the fact that 'streets are lighted till a certain hour in the morning by large lanterns', and when they had gone out 'you may find boys at every step, who run before you with lighted torches'. He must have been lucky. Householders had a duty to hang out a candle or a lantern from dusk until nine o'clock, during the winter, but from the frequency with which this duty had been repeated in regulations since the fourteenth century, one can only suppose that it was not generally observed. Mostly, the City streets were ill-lit or dark.
In the suburbs between London and Westminster, developers were beginning to lay out wide paved streets 'elevated in the middle with channels for water at the sides', and elegant squares. Covent Garden Piazza had been built in 1631, on the site of Westminster Abbey's convent garden. Lincoln's Inn Fields were laid out between 1640 and 1660. The Earl of St Alban's (the contemporary spelling) was developing the area round St James's Square. In 1659 Abraham Arlidge, 'carpenter', had begun a comprehensive scheme in Hatton Garden, designed for merchants and others who wished to move out of the City, but not too far. The last of his 372 houses was completed in 1694.
A network of elm pipes was laid under the main streets. They were tolerably water-tight, except at the joints, and where small boys had created fountains from judiciously bored holes. Regulations provided that, in time of fire, pumps should be carefully inserted at predetermined points – the early fire hydrants. In the conflagration of 1666 this was forgotten and people tore up the streets and punctured the water pipes here, there and everywhere, reducing the pressure to nil.
In 1609 Hugh Middleton had completed the construction of his New River, bringing pure spring water 38 miles from rural Hertfordshire to a reservoir at Islington, and thence to 30,000 houses in the city. (The reservoir, called the Ducking Pond, attracted wildfowl. It was a pleasant country resort for shooting ducks, and fishing – not for ducking witches or scolds.) For a quarterly subscription of between 5s and 6s 8d, a householder could be connected to the mains by a lead 'quill' or pipe. By the 1660s the supply to him ran only two or three days a week, so he needed a storage tank in his cellar. Stagnant water run through elm and lead pipes must have had a certain bouquet. No wonder it was not usually drunk, the more so considering the offences that were – again – prohibited in 1669: not only 'the opening of pipes from the said river without permission', but also 'the defiling of it by drains, watering cattle, keeping geese, casting carrion'.
Excerpted from Restoration London by Liza Picard. Copyright © 2014 Liza Picard. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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