Paperbacks: London Lights, by James Hamilton

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The Independent Culture

Around 1800, Richard Porson was regularly found under the table in the Cider Cellar, a subterranean drinking den in Covent Garden. The decline of this ragged, hopeless drunk would scarcely be worthy of mention if Porson wasn't also Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge and "an intellectual literary giant".

Packed with memorable figures ranging from the bustling Faraday to the grouchy Turner (Constable described him as "Lord over all"), Hamilton's account of London's transformation to "undisputed capital of the world" in the decades leading up to 1850 is an exceptional example of literary time travel. We're plunged into a city made filthy by 500,000 chimneys that produced, in Byron's phrase, "a sea-coal canopy" (the "tons of coal" in the cellars of the British Museum generated gases "perfectly composed to destroy the collections"), while the streets were jammed in familiar fashion. Someone counted 10,000 vehicles on Ludgate Hill in a single day in 1842. Hamilton takes us to rackety coaching inns (there were 135 departure points in the city), a vast flour mill "resembling a grand country house" at the southern end of Blackfriars that inspired Blake's "dark, satanic mills" when it burnt down in 1791 and, appropriately given the publisher of this book, the social breakfasts held by John Murray. Such parties often stretched into the afternoon, "an apparently endless path of fun"