Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London / Edition 1

Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London / Edition 1

by Lynda Nead
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Yale University Press


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Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London / Edition 1

In this fascinating and innovative look at nineteenth-century London, Lynda Nead offers a new account of modernity and metropolitan life. She charts the relationship between London’s formation into a modern organized city in the 1860s and the emergence of new types of production and consumption of visual culture. She considers the role visual images played in the creation of a vibrant and diverse urban culture and how new kinds of publics were created for these representations. Shifting the focus of the history of modernity from Paris to London, Nead here argues for a different understanding of gender and public space in a society where women joined the everyday life of city streets and entered the debates concerning morality, spectacle, and adventure.
The book draws on texts and images of many kinds—including acts of Parliament, literature, newspaper reports, private letters, maps, paintings, advertisements, posters, and banned obscene publications. Taking a highly interdisciplinary approach, Nead explores such intriguing topics as the efforts of urban improvers to move water, air, traffic, goods, and people in the Victorian metropolis; the impact of gas lighting and glass on urban leisure; and the obscenity legislation that emerged in response to new forms of visual mass culture that were perceived as dangerous and pervasive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300107708
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 05/11/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lynda Nead teaches history of art at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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Chapter One

Maps and Sewers

Statistics poured forth but were hopelessly inadequate to convey the size and growth of Victorian London. The rate of change in the middle decades of the nineteenth century seemed to demand quantification; it called upon and drained all the numerical skills and literary imagination of writers, legislators and social investigators. Most of these strategies failed, however, to evoke the growth of the metropolis. To describe, in words or numbers, a point in the city's growth was momentarily to halt its expansion and it was the unstoppable nature of the development of London that seemed so distinctive to contemporaries.

    In bald numerical terms, London's population did grow significantly. The census returns of 1851 gave a population of 2,362,236; by 1861 the census reported an increase to 2,800,000; and by 1871 the population of London had reached 3,254,260. This expansion was the result of constant migrations. Never simply a product of steady growth, London was the centre for enormous and persistent movements of population. Books about London produced in this period are marked by their dependence on and transgression of the logic of statistical evidence. Pages, chapters and entire books were devoted to numerical information about the metropolis, and writers became increasingly inventive concerning what might count as useful quantifiable knowledge about the city; but it was never sufficient. Writing in the opening pages of The Criminal Prisons of London (1862), Henry Mayhew informed his readers of the city's square mileage, the number ofhouses it contained and its population. These statistics are then rounded off with a final exclamation mark to convey the remarkable nature of the figures. But Mayhew was disappointed by the information and admitted:

Surely the mind is no more enabled to realise the immensity of the largest city in the world by such information as this, than we are helped to comprehend the vastness of the sea by being told that the total area of all the ocean amounts to 145 millions of square miles, and that it contains altogether 6,441 billions of tons of common salt.

Rather than being containable by statistics, Mayhew suggests that London is sublime; that it has no beginning and no end and resists all attempts at demarcation. But Mayhew could not resist the compulsion to render the city statistically, and within a few pages he was presenting tables and increasingly inventive calculations to enumerate the scale of the city: 'If the entire people of the Capital were to be drawn up in marching order, two and two ... and, supposing them to move at the rate of three miles an hour, it would require more than nine days and nights for the aggregate population to pass by' (p. 16).

    For Mayhew and other writers in the 1860s, London was more than a city; it was a 'province covered with houses', a state, 'a Great World'. Where geopolitical comparisons stopped, more literary metaphors continued. London was like a colossal body consuming and producing vast quantities of goods and people. In the many editions of Murray's Handbook of London As It Is, a guidebook published throughout the nineteenth century, the size of London is conveyed in terms of the city's consumption of wheat, bullocks, sheep, pigs, ale and water. In addition, the guide refers to the city's 'arterial' system — its water supply — and its 'venous' system — its refuse and sewer system. Here, it is uncertain whether statistics are being used to convey the city as within or beyond comprehension. From edition to edition the figures remained the same and were not updated. Rather than offering any numerical truth about the city, therefore, these statistics evoked a poetic image of London as an immense openmouthed body, consuming everything that comes within its grasp.

    If the city was a body, it might also sicken or become aberrant. For one columnist in the Illustrated London News, London had gorged itself and become obese:

The overgrowth of London may be compared with that of the occasional human body. Walk round, and you see how it has spread. The active piece of humanity of some few years since has become puffy, bloated: coated with a light swollen matter which has doubled the size of his waist and cheeks. So London has got puffy with 'new neighbourhoods' all around her ... Nobody likes to be told of a superabundance of oleaginous matter. It is unpleasant, because nobody knows how far it really has gone or to what it may not lead. For instance, the stout man, who looks the picture of health, may be carried off in a moment of excitement, and the post mortem proves that he suffered from fatty degeneration of the heart. The fact is, it is not always possible to become fat without, without becoming fat within; and London is a case in point.

The city's growth is not robustly corpulent but unhealthily swollen; its main arteries are coated and becoming choked and it risks an urban cardiac arrest. The rational city of the urban planner is represented as a social body whose organs and functions are productive and efficient. Motion and circulation in the urban body are read as signs of health and morality.

    In his book Flesh and Stone, Richard Sennett has traced the projection of Harvey's understanding of circulation in the body on to eighteenth-century attempts to circulate people in cities. By the nineteenth century the virtues of respiration and circulation shaped attitudes to urban reform and modernisation. The metaphor of circulation enabled health reformers to conceive of the city's water supply, drains and sewers as its arteries and veins. This constant motion should continue without cessation in the streets of the city as well as in its water supply. Any blockage or accumulated refuse could result in a crisis of circulation in the social body and consequent breakdown — stroke or heart attack. The principle of circulatory movement was central to debates concerning the design of urban space in the mid-nineteenth century.

    The streets of the city were the most visible signs of its progress or degeneration. They were sites of passage, communication and transaction of business, and to many of those involved in the debates about the condition of London its streets were its major defect. They were indirect, narrow and obstructed. Rather than facilitating the flow of movement, they constituted an aneurism in the most vital parts of the metropolitan body. In a series of articles on 'Streets of the World', published in Temple Bar in the mid-1860s, particular streets are taken as symptomatic of the cities in which they are located. In the article devoted to Paris and the Passage des Panoramas, the journalist and author George Augustus Sala began with an invective of several pages against the rotting buildings, blind alleys and labyrinthine streets of London. For Sala, these were the legacy of self-interested, feudal land rights, which had been defended for centuries through the law courts and parliament. These claims to individual ownership and birthright had lamed the city; they had resulted in 'the perpetuation of hundreds of miserable little skeins of foot-pavement running, or rather limping, between rows of decayed and fever-haunted houses'. Although the houses sheltered disease, the streets: 'these varicose veins in the limbs of a fair city', could prove just as fatal to the future progress of London. Sala acknowledged that Paris was built after much the same fashion as London and used to have as many filthy lanes and houses; but the French Revolution put an end to the property rights of the nobility and now Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were transforming Paris into the noblest, cleanest and most handsome city in the world. Where carrefours, impasses, ruelles and culs-de-sac once stood, there was now one single, spacious and sumptuous boulevard. For Sala, the glazed arcades of Second Empire Paris were the perfect reconciliation of the old thoroughfares of Paris and the functions of the modern city street: passage, communication and exchange. Rather than demolishing the old it had been rebuilt; lined with handsome shops, uniformly paved, covered in with a glazed roof and transformed into a wonder such as the Passage des Panoramas, an emblem of la vie parisienne.

    Sala blamed London's urban decay on the perpetuation of outmoded private property rights. Clearly, there were radical political implications in this argument, but they were not developed by Sala, who abandoned them early in his article. Nevertheless, the view that London's planning had remained for too long in the hands of independent civic authorities such as the Corporation of the City of London, with its arcane guilds and businesses, gathered increasing support during the early 1850s. A rational, planned city needed a unified, metropolitan government, rather than the motley collection of parishes, vestries and boroughs that was currently responsible for the running and governing of the city.

    Throughout the 1850s the editorial pages and columns of the Illustrated London News waged a campaign against the Corporation of London and demanded a rational form of metropolitan government, with overall responsibility for all aspects of London's government. On the front page of the issue for 30 September 1854, beneath its familiar masthead illustration of the panorama of the Thames, with St Paul's Cathedral and the surrounding city, it carried the editorial subtitle 'The Wants of London'. The column rehearsed the litany of urban problems facing the metropolis; it was unwholesome, pestiferous and inconvenient. Although wealthy and commercially successful, it was neglected and impaired. The editorial classified the most urgent wants of London: first, the want of municipal unity; secondly, the want of a system of drainage and sewerage; thirdly, the want of bridges across the Thames; and fourthly, the want of a sufficient number of main arterial streets. These four headings provided the focus for the journal's subsequent campaign for a new London government and set the agenda for the paper's monitoring of the city's improvements through the 1860s. London could no longer be treated as a series of disconnected, separate parts; it had to be governed as a whole. The ancient autonomy of the square mile of the City of London had created a wealthy, independent citadel in the heart of the metropolis. With separate provisions for policing, lighting, paving and water, the City symbolised the resistance to unified metropolitan government. For advocates of reform, such as the Illustrated London News, these ancient authorities must be done away with, for there could be no independent states within a modern metropolis. Drawing on the city/body metaphor, the editorial imagines the City as the 'belly' of London: 'The "Belly" must be taught that its interests are identical with those of the "Members". The great civic "Body" must be one in Government, as it is in fact.'

    The call for a centralised metropolitan government threatened various forms of existing local interests, such as the City of London, the vestries, water companies and paving commissions, which managed the fabric of London in the first half of the nineteenth century. London's administrative government in this period was a confusion of jurisdictions; in one part of central London, within an area of one hundred yards, four separate authorities were responsible for different aspects of the upkeep of the streets. The drainage of the city was the responsibility of seven independent Commissions of Sewers, with the City of London providing its own independent Commission. In the early years of the 1850s reformers demanding a unified metropolitan government battled with those who defended local rights, or who called for government through the national parliament. At the heart of this messy political debate was the question of London's identity. Was it a single entity, or a conglomeration of many? Did it have sufficient common interests for it to be governed as a whole? What did London mean in the middle of the nineteenth century? These issues were pulled backwards and forwards between advocates of localism and supporters of centralisation.

    The history of London's government in the nineteenth century is one of confusion and compromise. It is not necessary to rehearse all the details of its chequered creation and subsequent reforms; the important point to emphasise is this: London's municipal government emerged out of a fog of local hostility and resistance. Driven by the exigencies of sanitary reform, it was attended by an incomplete conceptual image of the city. If the formation of a municipal government failed to define London's identity, then it fell to the city itself, to the visual culture that it produced and to the images that were made of it, to put together the conceptual distinctiveness of Victorian London.

    The debates of the 1850s were temporarily resolved by a crisis in health and sanitation. The division of London into a number of separate Commissions for Sewers meant that there was no single, overall responsibility for the capital's water supply. The water companies were also centrally unregulated and, as a result, appalling levels of pollution were allowed to accumulate within the city and find their way back into the water supply. Traditionally, London's waste had been disposed of in cesspools, which had been emptied by nightsoil men; a system that ensured that none of the waste contaminated the Thames or other sources of drinking water. But by the 1820s house drains and overflow pipes from cesspools were being connected to the common sewers, which then discharged directly into the River Thames at precisely the same spots from which the water companies drew their supplies. Widespread pollution of London's water supply was the inevitable consequence of this chaotic, unregulated system. Edwin Chadwick led the call for the single, centralised management for the supply of water and drainage in London. Chadwick is a central figure in the history of sanitary reform in the nineteenth century. Through his reports on the health of towns and his roles as Chief Executive Officer of the Poor Law Commission and Commissioner of the Board of Health, Chadwick tirelessly, obsessively, advocated the causes of social hygiene and sanitary engineering in England, its capital and its colonies. Chadwick proposed a single Crown-appointed commission to provide and regulate drainage, street cleaning and water supply in the metropolis. Hostility to his proposal came from the obvious sources: the vestries, water companies and paving commissions who wanted to defend their local interests, and, of course, from the Corporation of the City of London. Setting the shape for things to come, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, which was established in 1847, was an unsuccessful compromise between reform and local interest. The City of London was excluded from its overall responsibility and kept control of its own drainage system.

    Chadwick is the critical link between maps and sewers. Chadwick envisaged the building of a new system of main drainage, but insisted that this could not be done until the city had been exhaustively mapped and every gradient plotted by the Ordnance Survey. While Chadwick seemed to prevaricate, cholera hit London in 1849; some 14,000 died, and Chadwick was removed from the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers and utterly discredited.

    In 1854 there was another catastrophic outbreak of cholera, which forced a radical review of the management of London's water supply. The view that a board of works be created for the entire metropolitan area became more generally accepted and in 1855 the Metropolis Local Management Act was passed, establishing London's first municipal government, the Metropolitan Board of Works. Given its pre-history, it is, perhaps, not surprising that the Board of Works began its existence with limited powers. The new system was a form of partnership between the new Board and the older vestries and district boards. Each of these residual groupings could send one or two representative members to the Metropolitan Board of Works, which was not, therefore, a popularly elected body. In spite of the existence of the Board of Works, therefore, many of the traditional powers of local self-government were left intact.

    The Metropolitan Board of Works was essentially a committee for the administration of civil engineering projects. It was given responsibility for paving, lighting and constructing and naming streets in the London region, but its main role was to oversee the construction of a metropolitan sewer system. Minutes of meetings of the Board and the pages of London-based papers and journals convey a strong sense of the visions and realities of the Board in its early years. They testify to meetings abandoned, delayed or postponed and decisions deferred and reversed. Having championed its creation, the Illustrated London News kept a particularly close watch on the Board, recording and censuring each of its failures, commending any sign of success. Within months of its constitution, the paper nicknamed the Board 'The Senate of Sewers', a parliament created and primarily devoted to the movement of waste.

    In its first years, the Board of Works had only partial control over the capital's sewers. The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers shared jurisdiction with the Board until 1858, when the Board took sole responsibility for constructing the London sewer system. Chadwick had been right; a technically measured plan showing land and watershed levels was needed before an underground sewer system could be built. As early as 1848 the Commission of Sewers, under the leadership of Chadwick, had proposed that the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners should draw up the London plan. Again, modernisers were challenged by older vested interests; private mapmakers proposed putting together a composite of previously existing maps of the area, while military professionals argued for a new survey of the whole region, drawn up with technical accuracy.

    The military won and the Board of Ordnance was given the task of making a new, clear and accurate map of the capital. The Honourable Board of Ordnance dates back to the mid-fifteenth century, when its function was to arrange and carry through public orders or 'ordnances'. Its military connections date from the eighteenth century, when it was given responsibility for ordnance supplies to the Army and Navy, and in 1791 it took over the administration of the National Trigonometrical Survey of Britain, later called the Ordnance Survey.

    The Ordnance Survey of London was to cover an area of twelve miles' radius from St Paul's Cathedral, surveyed at a scale of twelve inches to a mile. It was to be a skeletal map, reproducing only main streets and waterways. The Skeleton Ordnance Map for London was completed in three years and was on sale to the public in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition (fig. 1). The Ordnance Survey was a new way of cartographically imaging London. Abandoning the ornamental and decorative elements that characterised most privately produced, large-scale maps in this period, it was a stylised, abstract tool, which emphasised the connecting structural links of London, rather than its aesthetic or historical landmarks. Chadwick had been quite clear in his instructions to the military professionals; he wanted a block plan with a clear and thorough indication of levels, 'not a minutely detailed plan showing every house and garden and post'. In other words, London was to be represented as potential process, as a geography of flow and movement. For this purpose, individual notation and ornament were in excess. Simplicity, clarity and professionalism were the principles of modern mapping.

    Maps can be seen to be embedded in the attempt to modernise London in the mid-nineteenth century. The Skeleton Ordnance Survey marked the transition from an older, static view of the city to its conception as changing and progressive. The surveyor and the capitalist were the two creative forces of the modern map. The accurate, large-scale plan was the means by which tunnels could be excavated and pipes laid. It was the primary tool for entrepreneurial capital expansion; for the destruction and construction associated with the building of London's sewers and railways. The map enabled London to get moving.

    In the Ordnance Survey of London, the rules of measurement and the rules of society are mutually reinforcing. Decisions concerning what is shown and what is not shown tell us much about the priorities of official London in the mid-nineteenth century. A comparison with another map of London published in the same year as the Skeleton Ordnance Survey makes this point clearly. John Henry Banks's A Baloon [sic] View of London shows an aerial view, taken from the north towards the south, of the central parts of London (fig. 2). Its contemporaneity is evidenced in the Great Exhibition, which is shown to be taking place in Hyde Park, and yet, in many respects, this panoramic aerial view represents an older and different tradition of cartography. Banks's city prospect offers the viewer the exhilarating experience of viewing the whole of the centre of the city at once, as though from a balloon, above the north of the city. The view is less a functional map than a form of visual entertainment. It gives detailed, individual notation of houses, squares and streets, but it is unscaled. No engineering projects can be planned from this map. Its driving forces are aesthetics and narrative rather than the pragmatism and accuracy of the Ordnance Survey.

    In Utopics, a fascinating, complex account of spatial power, Louis Marin examines two forms of mapping: the panoramic and the geometric. These two categories help to explain the differences between Banks's map of London and the Ordnance Survey and to understand the significance of the visual codes of the Survey. According to Marin, the panoramic image fixes the viewer in a single spot from which the appearance of the city slowly unfolds in a kind of narrative circuit. Rooftops, steeples, streets and squares have a hidden, potential narrative, waiting to be discovered. But when represented geometrically, the city is given in its entirety, simultaneously. In the geometric map, the city is abstracted into free space and constructed space. The city loses its three-dimensionality and becomes nothing more than surface, marked and unmarked. There is no specific viewpoint; for the view is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The representation is no longer the mimesis of a particular place, but is an analogic schema created through line and metric rule. Marin concludes: 'There is no staging; simply a map' (p. 208). The Skeleton Ordnance Survey takes the properties of the geometric representation of the city to their extreme forms. Stripped of all outward signs of narration and decorative ornament, it uncompromisingly declares its utilitarian purpose, its cartographic function. And yet, there is still a narrative unfolding on the austere sheets of the Ordnance Survey; a narrative of progress and improvement. The skeletal notations of streets, land and water levels are the resonant signs of modernity. They speak of the city's commitment to professional modernisation and its determination to build a new social order. It is entirely accurate and utterly unrecognisable. It renders the structure of the city on which the culture of modernity can be based.

    In the sheets of the Skeleton Ordnance Survey of London, we begin to uncover a new aesthetic, which emerges through the pragmatics of sewerage. The provision of a clean water supply and the safe extraction of the city's waste had a profound effect on the look and experience of London in the period. On the surface of the street, the Board of Works, local authorities and a private, philanthropic association undertook a large-scale project to provide drinking fountains throughout the capital. These were occasionally designed by estabilished academic artists and were unveiled like monuments and with great ceremony (fig. 3). But the construction of a sewerage system also drove home the image of the city below ground and of immense engineering designs creating an uninterrupted flow of water under London. The design for London's drainage system was the work of Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Bazalgette's plan was for a series of intercepting sewers that would remove the sewage before it reached the Thames and take it beyond the currents of London. Three large new sewers were to be built on the north side of the Thames and two on the south side. Crossing London from west to east, they would intercept the old sewers on their way to the Thames. The contents of the new intercepting sewers had to be lifted at intervals by huge pumps, so that gravity could continue the ceaseless movement of muck towards the east. Finally, the waste reached its destination at a huge outfall works below London. The aims of Bazalgette's system were to purify the stinking River Thames and to create an uninterrupted flow of matter in the sewers; putrefaction led to infection, movement in the sewers was essential. The Illustrated London News reported every stage in the plan's realisation. The construction of the tunnels gave their artists an opportunity to celebrate a new form of heroic, manly labour and a reworking of classical symmetry in the architecture of the vast tunnels (fig. 4). The paper illustrated draughtsmen's diagrams of the pumping machinery, and Abbey Mills Pumping Station, built between 1865 and 1868 in the Venetian Gothic style, was regarded as one of the most splendid examples of industrial architecture in the country. Engines, buildings, diagrams and illustrative compositions were all elements in the visual culture of drains produced in the 1860s.

    Nowhere is the principle of continuous circulation and the aesthetics of sewerage more clearly brought together than in the account by the journalist John Hollingshead of his journey down a sewer in 1862. The account appears in a chapter entitled 'A Day Below', in a collection of essays by Hollingshead on the theme of Underground London. Hollingshead was a knowing, prolific, professional writer. His choice of subject shows him to be responsive to the new conditions of the city and also confident of reasonable public interest and sales. In the sewer chapter he explained that he wished to inspect a main sewer from its source to its point of discharge. Jibing at the current tourist literature on London, of which he was himself an author, he comments that he might have called this piece 'A Saunter Through the West End'. But this saunter is below the West End, and Hollingshead guides his readers down into the sewer as he embarks on his subterranean trip. The noise in the tunnel and unfamiliar sources of light disorientate his sense of time and place. Shafts of light through ventilator gratings look like rays of moonlight, and the sound of a boy whistling in the street above makes the journalist feel like an escaped convict. Followers above the ground trace the journey below and shout down their location in the city through manholes. At one point Hollingshead is told he is below Buckingham Palace and he sings the national anthem standing in effluvia.

    Finally, Hollingshead reaches the River Thames and the end of his journey, having mapped a disturbing, alternative route through the city. Underground space is dislocating; it disorientates the senses and routes can only be plotted and comprehended through the interpolation of place names from the world above. This subterranean city is an impossible place for the moderniser. The rational city is a legible city, in which it is always possible to plot positions and to imagine the relationship of parts to the whole. The modern map performs this function. It compartmentalises, classifies and explains the logics of the metropolis; it lays out its boundaries and priorities.


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