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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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