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Review: City of Beasts by Thomas Almeroth-Williams. 

9781526126375A bit late on this one, sorry. But worth the wait, as you shall see. With glowing blurb quotes on the jacket by long-time LH members Lucy Inglis (“beautifully written, attentive and thoughtful”) and Tim Hitchcock (“this book will change how you see the pre-industrial world”), you realise early on that you’re in for a treat.

The topic of animals in London was wonderfully covered by Hannah Velten in her book Beastly London (2013). Hers was very much a broad approach both in scope and time and type (she included pets, zoo animals and animals in the wild for example).

City of Beasts, by contrast, focuses on the Georgian period – long as that was – and addresses the relationship between Londoners and owned animals, that’s to say working animals and farm animals. Historians have hitherto noted correctly that in the past, well into the industrial age, there were far more animals in our immediate environment than today and with them the attendant noise, smells, filth and so on; the industries they serviced – they pulled, pushed, carried, were eaten or provided the raw material for goods and clothes.

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Agasse: Old Smithfield Market. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

So far so good; but these are simply observations, which the author feels have led both to shortcomings in our understanding of the role and this is key – agency – of the beasts in our midst; worse, we have come to assume things which are either plain wrong or at least distorted. Some examples. Evidence such as Hogarth’s cruelty paintings (esp 2nd Stage) lead us perhaps to consider animal cruelty endemic. But here we are invited more closely to examine the evidence and also to consider that the general environment for all creatures – including humans – was pretty tough but importantly Georgian Londoners had a lot invested in all livestock: outright, widespread cruelty didn’t make economic sense.

Another. The physical growth of London in our period and earlier pushed urban farming further to the periphery. No. The author demonstrates why this was not so, or at least a lot later than we possibly imagined.

London’s use of mill horses demonstrates that we were behind the curve with industrialisation compared with the Midlands and North. Simply not so: mill horses were perfectly efficient in certain roles compared with steam power – literally horses for courses.

Almeroth-Williams’s approach to these counter arguments of his is both bold and confident: virtually every point he raises is backed by by two or three strong examples from a variety of source material – letters, diaries, bills of sale, court records and other archive items (there are some 60 pages of footnotes, 20% of the entire book). From this you may wonder whether this is a dry piece of work. The opposite is true.

The early part of the book concentrates on working horses. But what is distinctive about our period is the emergence of using horses as a pastime – ‘riding out’. Aristocrats and the middling-sort who wished to emulate them, began to ride for pleasure. A lot. This could be simply to be seen in public, or to be combined with other Georgian social habits such as visiting friends; both hunting and the turf became extremely popular; riding schools abounded and the satirists made hay.

Isaac Cruikshank_Sunday Equestrians or Hyde Park Candidates for Admiration_1797_The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Isaac Cruikshank, Sunday Equestrians or Hyde Park Candidates for Admiration, 1797. The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

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Anon., Kitty Coaxer Driving Lord Dupe Towards Rotten Row, 1779. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

By contrast, where only the wealthy could partake was the business of owning carriages, carriage horses, grooms, drivers, footmen and accommodation for the lot of them: the mews. Our period witnessed the proliferation of these buildings, still today a visible part of London’s urban landscape. The cost was astronomical. Special breeds of fully matching  horses had to be procured and cared for – it was all about status. Head  coachmen and senior grooms, although among the hardest working domestics in London, were highly valued and held much ‘soft power’. The chapter ‘Consuming Horses’ goes into much fascinating detail about the trade in horses and its tricks. And the crime.

Finally, Almeroth-Williams demonstrates the role of the Georgian watchdog in burglary prevention – far more prevalent than we may think. He notes that his online searches of, for example, Old Bailey Online, may if anything actually understate his argument.

The research which has gone into City of Beasts is absolutely prodigious; as mentioned the author has hundreds of tightly relevant references as his fingertips. You can only do this with a deep and wide trawl through a range of literature and archive material. Thousands of hours worth.

There is much that makes this book an absolute pleasure to read. A big contributor is the author’s style, which is very easy-going. He throws out bold challenges, but is never preachy. He is deeply empathetic with his subjects without drifting into mawkish sentimentality.

The Notes (in particular), Bibliography and Index are detailed and exemplary, not surprisingly given this author’s eye for detail.

My sole point of criticism of City of Beasts is that the publisher has let its author down, I feel, with the reproduction quality of the illustrations, which are all black and white and printed directly to page rather than in their own colour section, very much required in a work such as this, in my view. Some – not all –  also tend to be squeezed in somewhat, so some detail is lost. This is important, of course, when reproducing the likes of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Rocque. The author himself is blameless in all of this.

Leaving that quibble aside, City of Beasts is deservedly and easily London Historians Book of the Year for 2019.

City of Beasts – How animals shaped Georgian London (309pp) is published by Manchester University Press with a cover price of £25, but available for a bit less.

** Note ** General stock of this hardback edition are running low, we hear. City of Beasts can now also be pre-ordered in paperback for £13.99 (to arrive April 2020). Here’s the link.

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Last November, outdoor advertising giant JCDecaux applied to Hounslow Council to change the famous Lucozade sign next to the M4 flyover in Brentford. They wished to switch the animated neon sign for a modern technology giant LCD screen, the type which has become commonplace on major trunk roads in recent years. The content was to remain Lucozade.

Locals (including me) got wind of this very late and there was outrage that the beloved sign was in danger. But on 31 January, the council turned down the application to sighs of relief all round. I announced this on Twitter which evinced a huge and positive response, and not just from Brentfordians. The sign is widely loved, it seems. Read more here. Not very good film clip by me on YouTube, here.

The current sign is, in fact, a 2010 replica of the original 1954 version which was on a building about 250 yards east of the current site. The first sign is stored in Gunnersbury Park Museum (worth visiting). Lucozade was a locally manufactured product along with other household names such as Mcleans toothpaste and Brylcreem. That remained the situation despite various mergers and takeovers over the late 20th century resulting finally in the pharmaceutical giant GSK. GSK offloaded the Lucozade brand to Japanese company Suntory last year, giving rise to the current Lucozade sign brouhaha.

I think this affair raises a lot of questions. First, if the owners of Lucozade decided they no longer wanted to pay for advertising, would it be okay for them to get free publicity on the massively busy M4 flyover? Furthermore, who would then pay for the electricity and maintenance of the sign? JC Decaux? Hounslow Council? English Heritage? I don’t think so.

There is a precedent, of sorts. Back in sixties, Ferodo – makers of brakes and related accessories – decided that their medium of choice was to be railway bridges and the deal was done, presumably with British Rail at that time. Of course, when the deal came to an end, clever Ferodo got many years of free advertising. Last year, the one on the Caledonian Road got painted over but I saw another one still proudly with us in Bow. There must be others.

Ferodo advert

Caledonian Road. Half done. “Ferally”

Ferodo Advert

Bow Road.

Of course, there are key differences. Ferodo brake pads are less personal products than Lucozade and crucially, the Ferodo signs are ubiquitous whereas the Lucozade sign is a one-off and has strong local connections. For the moment.

But what else is going on here? This is pure speculation on my part. Suntory have picked up Lucozade, and with it the Brentford sign, which like it or not, they’re obliged to keep going. What to do? Change the sign for a modern one while committing to keeping the advertisement exclusively Lucozade as a sop to local and motorway traveler sentiment while fulfilling the heritage brief. Then, it’s the easiest thing in the world to change to other advertisers later because with a modern sign, the heritage argument has actually been lethally undermined.

Suntory and JC Decaux will be back. In the end, I think they will win. For some of the above reasons, I believe we must reluctantly accept that the sign will eventually go, there are much more deserving things to fight for around London. Equally as worthy in my opinion, but I didn’t hear anyone complaining (except me!) when we lost the lovely Christmas trees on the old Beecham building after Barratt Homes took it over.

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london's industrial heritage, geoff marshall

I’m so pleased about this book which has very recently been published, and I know of many others will be too. It covers a vast topic which as far as I know hasn’t properly been addressed as a popular history. I know already that this review won’t do it justice.

One is often inclined to relate the word “industrial” with regions far-flung from London, particularly the Midlands and “oop-North”.  One can also find it difficult to uncouple the word from “industrial revolution”, the idea that industry, even heavy industry didn’t exist before the late 18th Century. For these reasons alone, London’s Industrial Heritage is most welcome.

As you might expect, the book is organised by industry starting with emerging public utilities such as gas and electricity but including older ones like the postal service and fresh water.  Yes, we’re inclined to think of these last two as largely Victorian endeavours, Bazalgette, Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope and all that. But we discover that these gentlemen were more improvers and innovators of industries which were already technologically rather mature. The New River story (1613, 400 years old next month), was an astounding feat of pre-industrial engineering. Similarly, early plastics – typically used in combs, buttons etc. – were developed in London a good century before we think of their 20C ubiquity.

The drivers of industrial growth were need and opportunity. As London’s influence and wealth grew, so did its population which needed to be clothed, fed, housed, kept warm. Simultaneously, the rapidly developing  port and merchant marine made London ideally situated for goods in and out both domestically and on a global scale, leading to factories, chemicals, engineering and so on. These by dint of geography and prevailing westerly wind saw the East London in particular transformed into a steaming, stinking, noisy manufacturing global powerhouse.

Before modern concepts of branding, hundreds of enterprises sprang up with wonderful names of the type which have now all but disappeared: The Impermeable Collar and Cuff Company; The India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works Company; and so on. This last was based in Silvertown, named after industrialist Stephen Winkworth Silver. The area became the world capital of cable insulation at a time when the telegraph system was burgeoning around the globe with transatlantic and trans-Pacific cable being laid. At the same time, the post-Faraday generation of chemists were opening factories for dyes, acids, finishing agents and much besides. Again in Silvertown was the Brunner, Mond chemical works. Not a household name, for sure, but when it was converted to TNT manufacture during WWI, the perhaps inevitable result was the Silvertown Disaster of 19 January 1917, an explosion which killed 73 people and destroyed nearly a thousand homes.

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Brunner and Mond, archetypical late Victorian industrialists.

The coverage of industry in this absorbing book is comprehensive indeed: utilities, industrial chemicals as we have seen; transport; shoes and clothes; clockmaking; glass; pottery; print; shipyards; arms and munitions; silk, rope, brushes, matches, lighting, luxury goods, construction, textiles, leather goods, food; beer and spirits. The list is almost endless.

Among all of this, there are common themes. Rise and fall; mergers, acquisitions and unfortunately in most cases, extinction.  The companies with the exotic and evocative names, as noted. But of course, history is all about people, and where this book really scores for me is that the author has taken great care to weave into the narrative the stories of the businessmen and women, inventors, entrepreneurs, carpetbaggers, go-getters, chancers and visionaries who made London such a vibrant hub of commerce and manufacture. Many were Londoners, many more were attracted from elsewhere – even abroad – so compelling were the challenges and rewards of what had become the world’s largest city.

In fact, there is an astounding amount of close detail that the author has managed to cram into 250-odd pages, which include several dozen excellent photographs and illustrations, including a colour section in the middle. It’s a work of great detail without at any time being overbearing.

In summary, well-researched, well-written and well-overdue. Highly recommended.

London’s Industrial Heritage, 255pp, is published by the History Press with a cover price of £16.99.
Special Offer: London Historians members can purchase signed copies direct from the author for £10 + £2 shipping (UK residents). Details in August Members’ Newsletter!

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