Bodley Head, £25, 682pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

London In The Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing, By Jerry White

 

The first problem in talking about London is deciding where it begins or ends. In 1907, Clarence Rook tried to walk across it, but gave up at nightfall in Wanstead Flats, where he could still see houses stretching "all the way to Romford". It was about 17 miles across at the time. A century earlier it spanned only five miles, but the fringes were such a no-man's land of rubbish, shanties, animal-traders, brick ovens and heaps of cinders and hop-husks that one could hardly say whether this was London or not.

Jerry White has compared this zone, in his study of the 19th-century city, to "necrotic tissue stealing remorselessly outwards from an unhealed wound." His new book traces the story back to the 18th century, where he finds the necrotic material so compacted into its origin that it permeates London's centre itself. As with his previous two volumes – he started with the 20th century – he shows us a terrible and magnificent metropolis, in a study both panoramic in scope and microscopic in detail.

As the 18th century opened, London was still picking up the pieces after the 1666 Great Fire. Construction was everywhere, so that one could hardly navigate the streets for scaffolding. London would increasingly become a grandiose, modern city, but it also continued to be a site of medieval squalor. One of the worst areas was around Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, where hovels crept up to the Abbey itself and slumped against its walls. Nicholas Hawksmoor complained in 1715 of the "Chaos of Dirty Rotten Sheds, always Tumbling or takeing fire, with winding Crooked passages (Scarse practicable) Lakes of Mud and Rills of Stinking Mire Running through them." Many roads either had no name at all, or were called things like Rotten Row, Dirty Lane, Foul Lane, Dark Entry and Pissing Alley.

In these dire streets, dire things happened. Muggings, assaults and burglaries were frequent, and punishments were severe at the hands of the mob as well as of authority. In the opening scene, we see a vengeful crowd drag the hated informant John Waller from a pillory almost before the manacles are fastened, choke him with soot, slash him with knives, and beat him to death with cauliflower stalks. For other offenders, London was a city of prisons: it had several dozen places of confinement for felons and debtors.

As White shows, it was a city of freedom as well as constraint. Journalism and the arts flourished, as did trade. By 1792 London had 62 private banks; its "stock-jobbers" and brokers struck visitors as "the most infamous sett of Gamblers [that] ever existed". You could make money from anything in London: coffee, ginger, wax, elephants' teeth, seal skins, tobacco, indigo, cork, linen, herrings.

Life was exciting but precarious, which White argues explains the century's distinctive focus on "friends". With traditional family and employment structures unravelling, you needed all the associations and social networks you could get.

London in the Eighteenth Century is arranged both chronologically and thematically, so that we advance steadily through the century as we dip into one topic after another: money, work, culture, sex. Each chapter takes its title from representative individual. "Robert Adam's London" opens into a survey of architecture and "Samuel Johnson's London" into one of literature, while less well-known figureheads include Francis Place, a leather-tailor who pioneered workers' rights, and Ignatius Sancho, an African writer and musician who was born on a slave-ship and grew up as one of London's five- to ten thousand black citizens.

The scale of White's research is triply impressive considering that he has now mastered three centuries of London life. In the acknowledgements, he admits that he has had much help from the internet, which is particularly rich in 18th-century material. In different hands, such a web trawl could have resulted in a soulless book, but White makes thoughtful connections, and looks for meaning and individuality in all his stories.

As his book unfolds, London gradually changes, so that by the end it has almost grown into 19th-century self: still a harsh mixture of imprisonment and freedom, but also a stouter, cleaner, better lit, more charitable place. By 1800, it had also acquired its boundary-less, immeasurable quality. It had been two and a half miles across in 1700, with a population of half a million, and any Londoner could have reached a bit of countryside in half an hour's walking.

As century's end approached, it had doubled in extent and population, and the 1782 German visitor Carl Phillipp Moritz could climb St Paul's and boggle at the sight: "with all my pains, I found it impossible to ascertain, either where it ended, or where the circumjacent villages began; far as the eye could reach, it seemed to be all one continued chain".

Sarah Bakewell's 'How to Live: a life of Montaigne in one question and 20 attempts at an answer' is published by Vintage

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