Victorian London, by Liza Picard

Double-standard city
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The Independent Culture

In 1861 Viscount Frankfort de Montmorency, Old Etonian and Guardsman, was on trial for publishing an indecent communication. He had written to wives and daughters of the gentry offering to arrange trysts with their lovers, while their husbands or fathers would be drugged or otherwise neutralised. Before giving his evidence the Viscount, clearly a man of sensibility, asked that ladies should be ordered from court. The judge declined, suggesting merely that they should not listen.

The Victorians did not invent hypocrisy but they did get it down to a fine art. Liza Picard keeps stumbling across it as she constructs her vivid panorama of London between 1840 and 1870. There was a prudish moral code that effectively barred divorce yet tolerated rampant prostitution; the exploitation of child labour; devout churchgoers who insisted on segregating the working class and were then scandalised when they failed to turn up for worship. The result was a fractured society only partially healed by "a dizzying proliferation of good causes".

Peter Ackroyd has said that Victorian London was the birthplace of the modern international city, with its electrifying buzz and accompanying ills. Picard's account confirms it. The arrival of the railway, just before the start of her chosen three decades, was the most powerful engine of change. It provided thousands of jobs and gave middle-class Londoners their first chance to escape the city and commute. Yet acres of slum housing had to be pulled down to make way for the intrusive viaducts. It could be argued the city was better off without these sinks of disease and depravity; but many thousands had to squueze into the already overcrowded tenements that remained, sleeping sometimes six to a bed.

In a century and a half, the preoccupations of Londoners have scarcely altered. Crime, as always, tops the list. Then there was health, with cholera epidemics, infant deaths and incurable venereal diseases; education, not a state responsibility until the last year of Picard's timeframe; the weather; and traffic jams, made worse by the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle driven to and from the Smithfield livestock market. Although the era had its moments - the Great Exhibition of 1851 was an out-and-out triumph - Londoners should be glad to be living now rather than then.

And what became of Viscount Frankfort and his selfless scheme to ease the path to sin? He was sent to prison for a year, but excused the chore of picking oakum in return for paying five shillings a week for keep. Victorian justice may have been blind, but it was still subject to the inexorable laws of economics.

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