‘This enormous Babel of a place’ – On learning of London before the Victorians

George Cruikshank 'London Going Out of Town' 1829

I have recently been looking into the history of London between 1810 and 1830 to add some context to my blog posts on the poet John Keats. It is a period in the history of the metropolis that I have in the past focused on simply in relation to Keats and his involvement in radical politics, limiting myself to the information contained in various biographies and literary criticism. I have an obsession with the Victorian city and its suburban sprawl but I realise now that I have been much too narrow in my approach.

Reading London: A Social History by Roy Porter has offered me a glimpse of all I have been missing. He includes a quote by Percy Bysshe Shelley from 1819 (often referred to as Keats’ ‘living year’ in that it was a period within which he wrote much of his most brilliant work). Shelley said:

Hell is a city much like London – A populous and a smoky city….

Modern London from Parliament Hill

Keats spent months away from that smoky city during 1819 – in Sussex, Shanklin and Winchester – but Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn and other great odes were written in Hampstead, an area that was essentially still rural but already feeling the influence of London urban sprawl. Smoking chimneys spewing filth from London factories were visible from Parliament Hill at the south and east end of the Heath and affluent families moved out of the inner suburbs to benefit from reputed ‘spa’ properties and clean air locally. However, by 1816 speculators had built tenement style properties around the London Road, poorly built and in far greater numbers than was required. Many remained empty, and a decade later numerous small houses had been built by individual speculators – bricklayers and joiners for example –  nearly half ‘rated’ at under £10. These tradesmen felt no urgency to find occupants until owners became liable for rates on them in 1827. The Belsize Estate to the south was already subject to rapid development and in subsequent decades Hampstead became annexed as an affluent suburb, home to bankers and professional men and their families.

So the first 30 years of the 19th century were key to the issues that would be faced by the Victorian city I enjoy studying so much. By 1824 Thomas Carlyle was describing to his brother a city in a state of disarray, unable to shed the rural or properly embrace the urban:

Of this enormous Babel of a place I can give you no account in writing, it is like the heart of all the universe; and the flood of human effort rolls out of it and into it with a violence that almost appals one’s very sense. Paris scarcely occupies a quarter of the ground, and does not seem to have the twentieth part of the business. O that our father sey (saw) Holborn in a fog! with the black vapour brooding over it, absolutely like fluid ink; and coaches and wains and sheep and oxen and wild people rushing on with bellowings and shrieks and thundering din, as if the earth in general were gone distracted…’

When I read this I was reminded of this stanza from Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

Carlyle is describing a scene all too physical and real to him, whereas Keats is musing on an imaginary scene and the limitations of art but the contrasts of the ‘shrieks and thundering’ with the silent heifer and empty streets seem striking.

Roy Porter later quotes the words of Victorian reformer James Hole, about whom I can find little information. However, in 1866 when my ancestors were moving out to the area he wrote of Kentish Town (not far from Hampstead):

‘The inhabitant whose memory can carry him back thirty years recalls pictures of rural beauty, suburban mansions and farmsteads, green fields, waving trees and clear streams where fish could live – where now can be seen only streets, factories and workshops, and a river or brook black as the ink which now runs from our pen describing it.’

This has cemented my desire to learn more about the early 19th century growth of London. Hole, like Carlyle, writes using the apposite image of ink, ‘fluid’ and ‘running’ to describe the effect of urbanisation on the environment – air and water – and both hark back to the imagery of Keats poems. He was alive and writing at a time of immense social change in the capital and I now long to know more.

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4 Responses to ‘This enormous Babel of a place’ – On learning of London before the Victorians

  1. Pingback: Best of Recent Blogs #20 « London Historians' Blog

  2. Lisbeth says:

    Fascinating stuff!

  3. I enjoyed this post, Suzie – it’s certainly a fascinating area to pursue. It’s so hard for us to imagine our modern cities when they were in a pre-industrial state or on the brink of transition. I read a lot of historical fiction set in the Tudor era and love the descriptions of London as it was then.

  4. Hi Suzie,

    Another great post.

    I lived in Winchester for a number of years and also visit Shanklin regularly and live on the Island it is located. I have photos of both Shanklin and Winchester in my free stock image site, which you might find useful: http://www.andrewemmett.co.uk/freestockimages/?jgall_dir=buildings+historic+web+ready%2F&jgall_page=3

    I will also try and remember to take a photo of the outside of the building he stayed at for the stock image site sometime.

    All the best

    Andrew

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