Paperbacks: London in the 19th Century, By Jerry White
Friday 25 January 2008
The pullulating detail of this hugely enjoyable history is reminiscent of a crowded panorama by the Victorian artist WP Frith. In many respects, the 19th-century capital is not so far from the London of 2008. We learn, for example, that rail commuters in the 1850s were plagued by passengers "traversing with luggage a great portion of a crowded Metropolis". London's department stores were a Victorian invention, though we now seem to be returning to the bazaars that preceded them, such as John Trotter's Soho Bazaar, which provided counter space for 160 female shopkeepers from 1816 to the 1890s. Londoners are still dependent on Victorian sewers, a vital innovation in an era when defective drainage even afflicted Buckingham Palace ("its precincts are reeking with pestilential odours"). Two events of 1877, when a collision cost 600 lives on a Thames pleasure craft and a scandal among freemason detectives "destroyed public confidence in the police", have been mirrored recently. Though the factories that employed half a million, including 2,000 in Crosse & Blackwell's pickle works, have pretty much disappeared, along with the army of prostitutes that catered for a city described by White as "a monster of desire", this wonderful book will transport any modern Londoner to a strangely familiar place.
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