This is a non fiction book about London and its people at the beginning of the
eighteenth century. In those days London was a stinking,
unhealthy place to be, with fumes from the river and markets where animals were
slaughtered in public view. Hanging was
a public entertainment and visits to prisons a family outing.The heaving city was always awake, a place where life was
cheap and the rich were gods in their magnificent houses running down to the
river. The Thames was a vital artery to
the city, teeming with pleasure craft and barges, not to forget the ‘oars’ and
‘scullers’ who would row you across to the other bank for tuppence. The braver passengers risking the torrents
under London Bridge, the river’s only dry crossing crowded
with an entire street of shops, above which the tradesmen lived in two and three story houses looming precariously over the river.
London was also a hard working port where the world’s vessels
unloaded rich cargoes for a demanding population whose veracity for foreign goods was increasing yearly. The city still showed evidence of the Great Fire
of 1666, with empty lots and new buildings going up
everywhere. New stone houses were being
constructed on land leased by the leading families who had their names
attributed to the railed garden squares around which they were arranged.
Jermyn Street, Berkeley Square and Bedford Square
Sir Christopher Wren’s prolific building of churches with
his pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor, is clearly evident as new ones appear in characteristic
Palladian style in every street, sometimes more than one a year from. His magnificent cathedral of St Paul's is still unfinished, its early years plagued by funding cuts whenever King Charles
II fell out with his bishops and ministers
The author handles everything from the dangerous process of
childbirth and its surrounding rituals, to marriage, crime, medicine, funerals,
working lives, servants, prostitution and childhood. She explains the setting up of the first fire brigade and
even how Londoners arranged their city homes and furniture. There is ‘The Fleet’ where the marriage
houses are lined up side by side with their clocks set permanently at 'canonical hours', and where a wedding can be legal or not, depending upon how much you pay
the registrar to keep it out of the official record.
Each chapter covers a different aspect of life and the
people who make up the city, all of them treated with respect and a mastery of
the fine details. She takes you right
into the narrow streets with the filthy kennels running down the centre where household rubbish is thrown, and you can hear the calls of the pedlars as they encourage passers by to buy their
wares. The sedan carriers who weave in and out of the coaches and carts, and right into the cluttered shops to spread the hand made goods in front of you to
explore and examine.
Twenty years before, the city began to flood with Huguenots,
fleeing the unyielding regime of Louis XIV, bringing their skills into
Spitalfields and Whitechapel to avoid the city guilds, much to the Guilds
annoyance. The silk weavers, apothercaries,
drapers, mantua makers, milliners, cobblers and wig makers set up shop,
undercutting their English counterparts and appealing to the wives of the
prosperous city merchants who loved to spend their new found wealth.
This book is so rich in detail it can be read and re-read,
with new aspects being discovered constantly.
It is an excellent research tool too as each subject is handled
separately, thus are easy to locate and complete in themselves, no moving back
and forth to pull threads of a theme together.
It’s fascinating subject matter for anyone interested in London as it used to be,
before the industrial age and the railways changed its face for ever. Even if you aren’t a history fan, this book
is filled with all sorts of fascinating anecdotes and tales of a legendary city
and it’s people, which 1700 was considered the most magnificent in the world.