A guest post by London Historians member Anne Carwardine.
A few weeks ago, on a sunny but chilly Sunday, I went on a walking tour of Soho’s pubs (mostly viewed from the outside!) led by London Historians member Joanna Moncrieff. Pubs, which have long been a significant feature in London life, made a good subject for a tour. However, I was also interested in the walk for its own sake and in the way guided walks today hark back to a nineteenth century literary tradition.
In Victorian Babylon (London, 2000) Linda Nead identified a genre of metropolitan travel writing which took the form of a vicarious tour through the city streets, tracing its popularity back to Pierce Egan’s 1821 account of ‘Jerry Hawthorne, Esq and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis’. These ‘metropolitan perambulations’ appeared throughout the 19th century in many guises, including travel guides, diaries, fiction and magazine articles.
On our 21st century walk Joanna entertained us with a good mixture of anecdotes and information, giving us an enticing hint of what was coming next at the end of each stop. In earlier times a wide variety of writers entertained their readers by leading them through London’s streets on paper. Some accounts were fictional…. In 1842 the Preston Chronicle carried an account entitled ‘My Three days Trip to London by Timothy Twinge, gentleman’. On the train home, after a series of adventures, the country visitor reflected on London, ‘the Emporium of the World…enriched with so much splendour…busy with so much traffic, and peopled with such a vast concourse of human beings’. Other accounts described the writer’s own real-life experience……In English Notebooks American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne gave an account of his visit to London in the 1850s. ‘Yesterday forenoon I went out alone, and plunged headlong into London, and wandered about all day, without any particular object in view, but only to lose myself for the sake of finding myself unexpectedly among things that I had always read and dreamed about’.
Joanna’s audience was varied, including a Canadian tourist, a real ale enthusiast and a trainee guide who was there to observe her in action. Nineteenth century writers wrote for a similar variety of audiences. The anonymous author of the 1842 travel guide A week In London. Or how to View the Metropolis in Seven Days wanted to inform, and even warn, visitors unfamiliar with the city. ‘Supposing a stranger to arrive in London for the first time…. he must be vigilant and circumspect in his conduct, less he become the prey of some of the swarms of knaves, swindlers, and thieves, who are constantly on the lookout for the unwary’. When Frenchwoman Flora Tristan described her experiences in her London Journal, it was to challenge evils such as prostitution.
Many of the literary London walks included encounters with colourful characters. An article headed ‘Tableau Vivants’ in the Metropolitan Magazine of 1842 followed a money lender through the streets ‘he with the blue coat and bright buttons, pepper-and-salt trousers, buff waistcoat, hat of the true city cut, thick soles, square toes, umbrella, and a white bolster by way of a cravat……..See! He hurries on, planting his umbrella firmly but carefully at every step, because he has a bottle hidden in its folds, which any imprudence might destroy’. On our walk the only encounter was with a rather dishevelled local resident who stood by Joanna’s shoulder at the first stopping point, wanting to hear what she was going to say about the street where he had lived for the last forty years. (It turned out that the pub theme did not interest him and he soon wandered off).
The Soho we walked through had traces of its distant and more recent past – from the pub named after the blue posts which indicated sedan chairs for hire in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the collection of vinyl records in the window of ‘Sounds of the Universe”. But generally it was cleaner and neater than the version walkers experienced in the 19th century (or indeed in most of the 20th century). In Household Words Charles Dickens (who walked in and wrote about London’s streets more than anyone) described ‘dingy houses teaming with that sallow cabbage-stalk and fried fish sort of population indigenous to back slums’.
A walk such as the one Joanna led presents a longitudinal view of history. She told us about Soho’s residents at various points in history, from the landlord of the Intrepid Fox in the 18th century offering free drinks to anyone who promised to vote for Whig politician Charles Fox, through to Jeffrey Barnard propping up the bar in the Coach and Horses on Greek Street in the 20th century. In my writing I have taken a more latitudinal approach, focussing on a specific year (1842) when four of my ancestors were living in the heart of London. To supplement a series of non-fiction narratives from that year, I have tried to replicate the literary format of metropolitan perambulations by following each ancestor on an imaginary walk through the streets. This has allowed me to focus on the detail of what they would have seen, heard, and even smelt, at that particular point in time – experimental wooden paving, elaborate gas-lit displays behind plate glass shop windows, an elderly Madame Tussaud taking money at the entrance to her waxworks. Both types of walk draw us back into London of the past.
Joanna Moncrieff is running this particular walk – A Soho Sunday Pub Themed Stroll – again on 7 July.
Editor’s Note: Joanna Moncrieff is one of several dozen guides who are Members of London Historians. Some of them are listed here, and most will offer a discount to LH Members. We commend all of them to you.