Philobiblon: When did London become modern?

Monday, January 09, 2006

When did London become modern?

For Stephen Inwood, author of City of Cities: The Birth of Modern London, the answer to the question "when did London become modern?" is clearcut. He dates the change to about three decades, from the 1880s to the start of World War One. The men who marched off to France in 1914 were not, he says "leaving behind them a gas-lit, horse-drawn city.

It is true that London was still, in its worst parts, an impoverished world of slums, workhouses, sweatshops, prostitutes, dying infants, and men and women coughing with tuberculosis or bronchitis. But ... Mortality, including infant mortality, had fallen by over a third, and the deadly power of infectious diseases over the population was being broken at last. Almost the whole population had been through elementary education, and many had gone food. Basic food was much cheaper, and the level and variety of population had been much improved. Families were smaller, and women of all classes were starting to escape from the servitude of repeated and unlimited childbirth."

That passage illustrates roughly half of the concerns of City of Cities, which has an unusually strong focus on social issues. The other half of its detailed exploration of the city is of its physical and administrative infrastructure. Inwood gets down and dirty to the details of London life, from the swarm of rats which pour out of the demolished Gaiety Theatre into its restaurant before finding their way into the sewers, to the (possibly not entirely unrelated) rising rates of diarrhoea, dysentry and gastro-enteritis that the warmer weather of the 1880s brought, with consequent leaps in infant mortality.

Then he swoops to its social heights, to the hostess Lady Dorothy Nevill who in 1910 mused that: "Society, in the old sense of the term ... [came] to an end in the 'eighties of the last century. Birth today is of small account, whilst wealth wields unquestioned sway ... The conquest of the West End by the City has brought a complete change of tone." Virginia Woolf was equally unimpressed by her, a woman who "lived for 87 years and did nothing but put food in her mouth and slip gold through her fingers".

Inwood also tells many stories of the intellectual development of the city, such as the tale of how the Everyman books were born from the desire for self-education of a struggling East End bookbinder. Joseph Dent went to his first classes at Toynbee Hall - set up to provide near university-level education to the grossly under-developed area - in 1886, aged 37, was, he said "lifted into a heaven beyond my dreams". So he started producing cheap editions of Lamb, Shakespeare and Balzac, and later the Everyman's Library. At a less intellectual level, by about 1900 there were about 500 newspapers and periodicals, with the print workforce growing from 40,000 in 1891 to 47,000 in 1911. Surprisingly, given the later male dominance of the industry, most of the increase came from the employment of "semi-skilled" women printers.

The detailed research - from the vast production of documentation that the Victorians loved to produce - is both the strength and weakness of City of Cities. Sometimes the sea of detail - of facts and figures and anecdote - threaten to drown the reader. I was fascinated to learn that the London Hydraulic Power Company provided 150 miles of high-pressure water lines by 1910, primarily to operate lifts, that continued working until 1977, after which the network was sold to be used for communication cables. But then there are details about its growth by decade, lists of the institutions that used it, figures and more figures, dates and more dates.

Sometimes it all gets a bit much. Given City of Cities thematic structure, however, this is not a major problem. I just skipped over the engineering details when they got a bit much, and got back into the social life. (A different reader might be doing exactly the reverse.)

And Inwood does present a strong case for claiming the foundations of modern London in his period. He explains - as any property agent might - how the cheap "working men's fares" available on the trains that served Tottenham and Edmonton helped to shape their working class - now even underclass - character, while nearby Hornsey and Southgate were far more middle class. They had more expensive fares, far higher rates of church attendance and other "respectable" social indicators - and they still have the last two.

Many of the complaints of Londoners of the period also sound familiar today. London roads were no sooner paved than dug up, again and again. The Strand, one of the city's main streets, was a particular cause for complaint, being, said George R Sims, "a favourite field of operations for the private companies. If one part of it is down the other is up. When the up part is finished the down part is taken up again ..."

Inwood is entrancingly excited by the social revolution of the bicycle, on which I've already posted. He finds potential intellectual disaster in the occasion that saw George Bernard Shaw crash his wheeled steed into that of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had stopped his bike in the middle of the road to read a street sign. "Russell, fortunately, was not even scratched, but his knickerbockers were demolished," Shaw told a friend.

More serious, if unavoidably comic, was the incident in which two Latvian 'anarchist' refugees tried to rob at gunpoint the Schnurrman's rubber factory on Tottenham High Road, which was, for them, unfortunately near a police station. "When they were confronted by the police the robber decided to shoot their way out, killing a boy and PC Tyler. There followed ... a chase across Tottenham marshes, in which the killers used an electric tram, a milk cart, and a grocer's horse and cart with its brake on, and the police chased them for six miles on an advertising cart (until the Latvians shot the pony dead), on bicycles, and in a second tram going in reverse. Using their pistols without restraint, the two men fired over 400 rounds, injuring 27 people, including seven policemen. Finally the two were cornered, and use the last of their ammunition to shoot themselves."

I used to walk my dog over the same area - now largely abandoned to industry and reverting to the wild. It will never look the same to me again, so on this occasion, and many others in the book, I'll forgive Inwood his attention to detail.

Other views: the Guardian's, and Londonist's.

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