"Georgian London Past"



[Product Image]Most educated people have felt twinges of nostalgia for Georgian England. They, like we, are tied to the Georgian past through artifacts that we would still like to use, given the chance. Town houses, squares, villas, gardens, paintings, silver and side tables seem to represent the “essence” of the eighteenth century. Since they present an uncommonly coherent image of elegance, nearly everybody in the eighteenth century looked forward to a continuation and an agreeable expansion of gracious fashions.




To “Nearly everybody” that, until quite recently, was the conventional picture. A passing reference to violence, dirt and gin, a nod in the direction of the scaffold, a highwayman or two, a drunken judge, and some whores for local colour. Modern squalor is squalid but Georgian squalor was an art form in itself.


Most Englishmen and women did not live under such roofs, sit on such chairs or eat with such forks. They did not read Johnson or Pope, for most of them could not read. Antiques say little about the English poor, that vast mass. The Georgian London a modern visitor could not imagine. There were two London's, their separation symbolised by the cleavage that took place as the rich moved their residences westward from Covent Garden between 1700 and 1750, as speculators ran up noble squares and crescents, creating an absolute gulf between the new West End and the old rotting, East End.

West London grew rationally, its streets and squares were planned, property was secured by long leases and enforced standards of building. East London did not, it was a warren of shacks, decaying tenements, and brand-new hovels run up on short leases by jerry builders restrained by no local laws. The East End “rookeries” of the poor formed a labyrinth speckled with picturesque names, Turnmill Street, Cow Cross, Chick Lane, Black Boy Alley, Saffron Hill, the Spittle.

West of the old City of London, the worst slum areas in the mid-eighteenth century lay around Covent Garden, St Giles, Holborn and the older parts of Westminster. To the East, they spread through Blackfriars and beyond the Tower, by the Lower Pool and Limehouse Reach, Wapping, Shadwell, Limehouse, Ratcliffe Highway, the Jewish ghettos of Stepney and Whitechapel on the north side of the Thames, the brick canyons of Southwark with its seven prisons on the south bank.

Their courts and alleys were dark, tangled, narrow and choked with offal. Because men had to live near their work, tenements stood cheek by jowl with slaughterhouses and tanneries. London was judged the greatest city in the world but also the worst smelling. Sewers still ran into drains, the largest of these, until it was finally covered in 1765, was the Fleet Ditch. Armies of rats rose from the tenement cellars to go foraging in daylight.

The living were so crowded that there was scarcely room to bury the dead. Around St. Martin’s, St. James’s and St. Giles-in-the-Fields, there were large open pits filled with rotting cadavers of paupers whose friends could get them no better burial, they were called “Poor’s Holes” and remained a London Commonplace until the 1790s.

Within the rookeries, distinctions of class, were seen. Their cellars were rented at 9d or 1s. a week to the most miserable tenants, rag pickers, bone gatherers or the swelling crowd of Irish casual labourers, driven across St.George’s Channel by famine. Up to thirty people might be found living in a cellar.

Before 1800 an artisan might expect to find a “cheap” room in London for 2s. 6d. a week, and most London workers lived in such places without any rights. Occupational diseases ran rampant, Sawyers went blind young, their conjunctival membranes destroyed by showers of sawdust, hence the difference of status between the “top-notcher” or the man on the top of the log in the sawpit, and his partner pulling down the saw below.

Metal founders who cast the slugs for Baskerville’s elegant type died paralysed with lead poisoning, and glass blowers’ lungs collapsed from silicosis. The fate of tailors remained unchanged until the invention of electric light. Children went to work after their sixth birthday.

Extracts from “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes.


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