Many of us enjoy and admire Lucy Inglis’s blog, Georgian London. Now: the book. Subtitled Into the Streets. The reason for this, I’m guessing, is not because it focuses on street urchins, noises, smells and the like – although there are sufficient of those – but that it is organised by geographical area rather than by theme.
London was a hugely different city in 1830 from that of 1714. Through this geographic approach – chapter by chapter – the author shows us almost literally how the streetscapes, buildings and houses developed through the decades, who made them, who lived in them, who worked in them.
So we start in the City, specifically new St Paul’s which was completed at the very dawn of our period; Westminster follows, then Bloomsbury, Mayfair, Soho, spiralling outwards to the burgeoning suburbs and especially towards the end of the era the industrial explosion in the East along with the docks and wharves of the world’s number one trading capital.
On this framework are draped stories of the most fascinating people, great and small. Historians of London may know some of them: the Fieldings, Jonas Hanway, Mary Wortley Montagu (my heroine!), and so on. And while the big celebrities of the age – Hogarth, Johnson, Reynolds etc – are nodded at in passing, the writer has rightly glossed over them to serve up the lesser-known but no less absorbing. So we learn, rather, of carving entrepreneur Mary Coade; Peter the Wild Boy; the French gingerbread maker, Tiddy Doll; the Hackney justice Henry Norris; possibly my favourite – James Brydges, Duke of Chandos – who was rubbish at business but a fabulous patron of music and art, a gentleman collector with taste who once invited his losing opponent in a duel to join him for dinner; and dozens of others. Do we have their equivalents today? Perhaps it’s because I don’t often read the Daily Mail, but I really don’t think so.
While her dramatis personae entertain us, Inglis mixes in sundry Georgian miscellanea. Did you know that blind musicians were engaged to play at orgies in Covent Garden? Or that corpses for dissections were priced on complicated sliding scale, where dead infants were costed by the inch? That the sedan chair business was monopolised by Irishmen, acknowledged by visitors to be the best in Europe?
While all of this may make us smile, darker, weightier and more serious themes are not neglected. Gang violence, poverty and philanthropy, immigrants, pornography, lunacy, slums, prisons, brothels. Also public leisure, East End non-conformism and the emergence of radicalism, hospitals, public health. It’s all there.
Inglis has a good ear for the outlandish, the farcical, the bizarre and the macabre. This gives the book an anecdotal and gossipy timbre without diminishing in any way its authority. She has succeeded in balancing tones, themes, facts and stories in a package which delivers a wonderful popular history of Hanoverian London.
It’s a recipe which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read and I’m thinking we may expect more of this writing style as talented bloggers are increasingly identified for recognition in print.
The book is generously illustrated with contemporary illustrations and maps, early in the period by Roque (1745) , very late in the era by John Greenwood (1829).
Georgian London: Into the Streets (400pp) is published by Viking (Penguin) today (5 September) with a cover price of £20.00, but is available for less.