Romping Around the Great Wen

Books Literature

In Tobias Smollett’s great, romping 18th-century novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, our hero Matthew Bramble, a country squire, leaves his adored estate Brambleton Hall and spends a season in London. Writing to his doctor, he asks what would possess a man to live in a city where “every corner teems with fresh objects of detestation and disgust”.

His lodgings are frowzy, the air putrefying. Disease and pestilence are only kept at bay by the acid clouds of sea-coal burnt in every hearth and furnace. The locals are ugly, sallow and languid compared to the ruddy swains of Brambleton country. 

Sleep is impossible as the watchmen bawl the time down the streets every hour and knock thunderously at every door. Unrested, he starts out of bed at five o’clock because some dreadful fellow is shouting “pease pudding” beneath his window. 

The water, dragged from open aqueducts and the Thames, is undrinkable, laced with putrefying animal carcasses and the scourings of wash-tubs, kennels and sewers. The bread is poison, the meat tastes of dung hills and the milk has been frothed with bruised snails. In short, he concludes, “From this wild uproar of knavery, folly and impertinence, I shall fly with double relish to the serenity of retirement . . . and protection of the rural gods.”

This is how we like to imagine London in the 18th century: dirty, dissipated and populated by rakes, harlots, hucksters and knaves, so depraved and lawless as to send country bumpkins running back to their shires. This is the London described in Vic Gatrell’s The First Bohemians and Lucy Inglis’s Georgian London: Into the Streets. Both relish the seediness and debauchery of the town — and the creativity that it fomented. 

Gatrell’s theatre is Covent Garden and its satellites: St Giles’s, Leicester Square, Drury Lane and their playhouses, bagnios, coffee shops, artists’ studios and gambling dens. His heroes are William Hogarth, Henry Fielding, Thomas Rowlandson, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.

Gatrell sets out his thesis in a rollicking introduction. “Covent Garden’s bohemian credentials,” he writes, “knock the later bohemian credentials of Chelsea, Hampstead and even Soho sideways, while they make those of the Left Bank, Montmartre or Greenwich Village look pallid.”

And with that we are off into the world of stews and bordellos, ulcerated cherry sellers, Gin Lane, drowned puppies, “lecherometers” and the exploits of Moll Hackabout and Fanny Hill.

He leads us on a raucous tour. By the 1740s one house in every five or six around Covent Garden sold gin or was a brothel and the parish of St Giles’s was said to furnish the American plantations with more convicts than the rest of the country put together. Prostitutes could be paid with a pint of wine and a shilling, and there were girls who made rods and birches their speciality and set about their clients in “Secret Work-Rooms of Iniquity”.

Sexual diseases were, of course, rife. Gainsborough, we learn, was so fond of indulging himself “to the hilt” that gonorrhoea nearly killed him. Can we bear to believe it? Charming Gainsborough of the Fotherington-Thomas landscapes and portraits of lapdogs and their ladies?

For those thus afflicted, Covent Garden market had its remedies. Not just watercress, nettles and hedge mustard, but more unorthodox cures such as snails, leeches and vipers. 

Gatrell talks of Hogarth’s “farts-and-bums” exuberance and he too delights in ribaldry. He tells us that a Jonathan Cockup was the victim of a man hanged in 1730 and that a Toss-off Dick was hanged in 1745. 

His aim is to have us reject “our sugared notions of polite 18th-century life” and, boy, does he do it. You’ll never look at a Gainsborough landscape the same way again. 

Lucy Inglis’s take on Georgian London is sedate by contrast. Gatrell, you imagine, would have been at home in the Rose Tavern scene of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress or tearing through the town with the “Mohocks”, an 18th-century Bullingdon Club whose number would get roaringly drunk, beat up watchmen and kidnap women before rolling them down Snow Hill in barrels. Inglis, you suspect, would give them all double detention. 

Her book, which began life as a popular blog GeorgianLondon.com, is briskly enjoyable. Inglis is the history teacher you would like to have had at school. Her canvas is wider than Gatrell’s Covent Garden and the book is divided into chapters by area: the City, Westminster and St James’s, Mayfair, Marylebone, Southwark and so on. 

She is particularly good on the changing shape of the city. Bethnal Green and Hackney, she reminds us, were meadows until developers got their hands on them and the University College London site was a farm run by two spinster sisters who used to seize the clothes of the boys who trespassed on their land to bathe. She takes pleasure in lost street names — Sodomite’s Walk, Perilous Pond — and the Puddle Dock and Oystergate wharves. (Gatrell has several Pissing Alleys and a street full of cookshops called “Porridge Island”.) 

Inglis is good on the gin craze and the mania for a strange Turkish drink sold on every street called coffee and another called “Tee”. If the book has a fault, it is occasionally a little breathless and gushing, but it is impossible to read her description of the well-upholstered, forty-something bawd Mrs Dodd, who will give you a night’s entertainment and a cup of tea in the morning for “one pound one”, and not smile. 

Just as charming is A London Year, a thumping compendium of diary entries on London, one or more for every day of the year. There are contributions from John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys, Fanny Burney, Virginia Woolf and Alan Bennett — more than 200 writers in all. 

On January 1, 1672, the philosopher Robert Hooke offers his new year hangover cure: hot tea and beetroot juice spiked with a clove of garlic. In an entry for January 8, 1608, the great letter writer John Chamberlain reports that the Thames has frozen over, that gallons of mulled wine can be bought on the ice and that an otherwise honest women had suddenly been taken with a great desire to have her husband get her pregnant on the river.

In January 1801, Charles Lamb was perturbed by the “bustle of wickedness round about Covent Garden” and longed to return to the Lake District. The fashion designer Ossie Clark wrote of his fondness for “nocturnal walks” on Hampstead Heath in 1990. 

The last word on London goes to the diarist Helen G. McKenny who wrote in 1887: “Went to Highgate to spend the evening. The suburbs! Oh, how dead they seem! We wonder, Jack and I, how we ever could have lived in them! Give us the City with its pulsating life, its need, its misery even, rather than the self-indulgent calm of suburban life!”