London in the 18th century by Jerry White

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London in the 18th century by Jerry White

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The last in a trilogy of histories of London surveying the last three hundred years.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 682 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780712600422

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White has already written accounts of London in the 19th and 20th centuries, and this is the last in a planned trilogy. In 1700, according to an unnamed contemporary source, it was one of the ‘most Spacious, Populous, Rich, Beautiful, Renowned and Noble Citys that we know of at this day in the World’. It was also the largest city in Europe. By the end of the century, it would double in extent and population, and become the largest in the universe. Carl Phillipp Moritz, a visitor from Germany in 1782, could climb St Paul's Cathedral and comment with amazement that he found it impossible to ascertain where London began or ended, ‘or where the circumjacent villages began; far as the eye could reach, it seemed to be all one continued chain’.

In 1700 London was in effect a relatively new place. The old Tudor city had been largely destroyed by the fire of 1666, with the result that the rather meagre timber buildings had nearly all been replaced by new flat-fronted stone and brick houses, as the medieval squalor gradually gave way to the confident modern city gradually unfolding.

Arranged both chronologically and thematically, in over 500 pages this book gives an overview of the city under five sections, namely city, people, work, culture and power, within thirteen chapters under these headings. Every chapter begins with the story of one particular person, not necessarily well-known, who was directly connected with an aspect of contemporary London; it is to the author’s credit that he maintains a skilful balance between the famous and the unsung heroes of the day. Those who are featured include the architects James Gibbs and Robert Adam, the writer and critic Samuel Johnson, ‘the greatest Londoner of the eighteenth century’, the ‘African Londoner’ Ignatius Sancho, born on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic, the opera singer Teresa Cornelys, Martha Stracey, a prostitute hanged at Tyburn for pickpocketing, and the radical politician John Wilkes. The chapter on Adams is the prelude to a survey of architecture, that on Johnson examines literature in detail, and that on Sancho the plight of coloured Londoners and also Europeans who came to seek a better life in the capital. It was, as it is today, a city of contrasts, where the lucky might make great fortunes and equally lose them again, and the unlucky could be hanged for something as petty as the theft of a handkerchief.

The well-to-do would amuse themselves enjoying the galleries and exhibitions, at a time when the ‘passion for pictures was an extraordinary feature of London life’. Even the theatre could on occasion provide ‘some extraordinary instances of social mobility, dramatic in all senses of the world’. This was never more true than in the case of Lavinia Fenton, the actress who played Polly Peachum in John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, the runaway stage success of the age. She was watched every night by the Duke of Bolton, who was many years older than her, until he made her his mistress and married her after the Duchess died.

Where the aristocracy moved, the living was good; but squalor and discomfort were never far away. Most of the raw sewage produced by the million inhabitants went straight into the river Thames, which at the same time was the source of their drinking water. It is hardly surprising that life expectancy in London was considerably lower than anywhere else in England, with many children dying young, quite often comprising up to 50% of all burials in the city. In the summer of 1708 there was a major plague of flies, with dead insects falling like snow in the streets.

London was also vulnerable to the mercy of the mob. In the Gordon Riots of 1780, ‘submerged in the throes of civil war’, ten times more property was destroyed in a week than was damaged in Paris during the whole of the French revolution.

At times the detail in these pages can seem a little overwhelming. This volume, so rich in facts and details, is not one for the faint-hearted. For all that it is superbly researched and written, and it brings out the full atmosphere of a city of contrasts, of the achievements of the rich and famous and the less well off.

If this book appeals then we think you might also enjoy London: The Concise Biography by Peter Ackroyd.

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Buy London in the 18th century by Jerry White at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy London in the 18th century by Jerry White at


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