Friday, August 22, 2014

The posh mess of eighteenth-century London

I took the day off today and spent much of it engrossed in Jerry White's giant London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing (2012). If his London in the Twentieth Century and London in the Nineteenth Century are as good--as full of detail, anecdote, and apposite quotation--then I'll gladly follow him all the way back to the (necessarily slimmer) Londinium in the First Century, should he decide the journey's worth it.

The opening section traces London's physical growth, and the buildings thereof, through the careers of two Scottish architects, James Gibbs and Robert Adam. As the eighteenth century opened, the London we know was still nearly all open land and fields, but by the time Gibbs died at midcentury, the open spaces around Hyde Park were starting to fill in with handsome terraced houses, and the city's inexorable march was truly underway.

White's description of the creation of Grosvener Square--now one of the poshest (and stateliest) locales in London--highlights the differences between building schemes then and now. This "grandest planned development of London's eighteenth century," which would convert the Grosvenor estate, was planned not as a set of buildings, or even a neighborhood, but as a whole town.
It is worth stressing just how socially mixed this most aristocratic of London estates was at its beginning. It was built not as a suburb but as a self-contained new town, complete with markets, churches or chapels, and even quartering and stabling for the 2nd Troop of the Life Guards, helpful in keeping the peace. Grosvenor Square, built from 1728, would immediately become home to the richest men and women in England, with a distinctively aristocratic tone, and so would Upper Grosvenor Street, Upper Brook Street, and, for a time, North and South Audley Streets. The first tenants of Grosvenor Square included the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Coventry, the Bishop of Durham, Viscount Weymouth, the Earl of Albermarle and numerous titled widows. Other smart developments in Mount Street became the homes of fashionable tradesmen, "upholders" or interior designers and the like, all living and working conveniently close to their clients. But behind these frontages, Palladian and palatial, let mews and blind-end courts for ostlers and coachmen and laundresses. Dung heaps peppered the stable yards in sniffing distance of drawing-room windows. And to the north of Grosvenor Square was a much more plebeian district, at George Street, Hart Street, Chandlers Street and so on, built at the same time as the square but home to building tradesmen, blacksmiths, butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers with businesses in St George's and Grosvenor Markets in the north-east corner of the estate.
Today's wealthy are much, much better at separating themselves from the other classes whose labor they require.

Even the squares themselves, intended as beautiful open spaces, could be quite noisome. White uses St James Square, "still easily London's smartest in 1726," as an example:
The Square's great open space was like "a common Dunghill." It contained many "loads of Soil and Rubbish" on which "the Inhabitants have, for many Years past, thrown their Dirt and Ashes, and . . . Cats and Dogs have likewise been cast, on the same." There were also encroachments, "particularly by a Coachmaker, who has erected a Shed, about Thirty Feet in the Square, in which he puts Heaps of Wood, and other Things."
That description calls to mind two great books by Emily Cockayne: Hubbub, about filth and mess in early modern England, and Cheek by Jowl, which traces the history of neighbors--the people who are most often responsible for dumping the horrible rubbish in the first place. Here she is, from Cheek by Jowl, on dunghills:
Dunghills were heaped up wherever they could be contained, sometimes against the neighbour's house. Rain saturated these stinking piles, encouraging damp to penetrate indoors and creating the potential for flooding. A London inkeeper heaped dung against his neighbour's wall in 1677 and the moisture from it soaked through the wall "to the great damage and the Annoyance of her house."
But those were times when both the law and moral suasion had less force, where the boundaries between public and private, both in terms of behavior and space, were less clear and less rigorously enforced. It was, quite simply, less clear what one could and couldn't do in a public square, or who had the authority to check your behavior if it crossed that ill-defined line.

Which is just one of many reasons why I'm glad to be able to enjoy this summer night reading in my library with the windows open, while suffering neither noxious odors nor any more street noise than that provided by the cicadas and the occasional hum of a passing bicycle. Some days, in some it's easier to spot--and remember to be thankful for--progress.


  1. Anonymous2:53 AM

    "Posh?" said Templer. "Sweetie, what an awful word. Please never use it in my presence again."
    --Acceptance World

  2. We have our winner for today's comments! You can pick up your prize at the Savoy bar/