London in the 18th Century, By Jerry White

A century – and city – of duels, dung and gin cocktails

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The Independent Culture

After surveying the metropolis in the 20th and 19th centuries, Jerry White's mighty Tardis concludes its backwards journey with a vast, endlessly fascinating panorama of a city both familiar and alien.

The 18th century saw the start of modern London. Street lights illuminated the West End from 1709 while property prices rocketed – a small patch off Piccadilly bought as a barrel store for £30 sold for £2,500 a few years later.

The unbroken avenue of shops that extended from Charing Cross to Leadenhall Market was "the finest in Europe" according to a French visitor. The mercers (fabric shops) drew gasps from a German woman, "Such an abundance of choice as to almost make one greedy." She was also taken by "brilliantly lit" lamp shops, while "spirit booths" (gin merchants) were "particularly tempting".

The origins of the cocktail date from around 1720 when gin was "made more palatable through the addition of cordials and flavourings". The series of "moral panics" about gin are echoed by the increasingly strident prohibitionists of our own time. White notes that "the effects of gin on bishops, magistrates, moralists and reformers seem to have been more maddening than on any sot in Pissing Alley."

In other respects, Johnson's beloved city is deeply alien. Slaves were still sold ("a beautiful negro boy about eight years of age… to be dispos'd of") and duels fought – the land now occupied by the British Museum was a favourite spot. The swarms of rats on the riverbank and "hidden decrepitude" of old London come as no surprise, though White points out, "No Londoner… was more than a mile or two from open countryside." Later in the book, we learn this was not necessarily a peaceful retreat. Footpads and highwaymen infested "the fields around London".

"Street dung, dead dogs and cats, rotten fish and vegetables... were the staple ammunition of the London crowd" for those condemned to the pillory but a few of those pilloried attracted sympathy. Daniel Defoe was cheered while friends sold his books.