Book review: Georgian London: Into the Streets, By Lucy Inglis

From the zoo to the one-way system, the 18th-century capital might be strangely familiar to us

Rebecca Armstrong
Friday 11 October 2013 10:16 BST

There's something refreshing about Lucy Inglis. Her debut book is jam-packed with unusual insights and facts about Georgian London, but there's also her approach to herself and her work. This is a historian whose website reads "Lucy Inglis, as in Pringles" and whose historical survey of the capital's streets and their inhabitants between 1714 and 1830 started as a blog. As wonderful as Peter Ackroyd's writing is, it's hard to imagine him referring to himself as Peter Snackroyd.

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Inglis's (award-winning) blog-turned-book is impressive in scope. She doesn't just cover the 116- year period but outlines the four events that led up to it: "Restoration, Plague, Fire, Revolution". It has a humanity, thanks to the individuals she writes about, such as Ignatius Sancho, a valet-turned-grocer who corresponded with Laurence Sterne and was the first recorded black voter in Britain, or Hester Lacey, whose salons led to the term "blue-stocking" as shorthand for an educated woman, and who was described by one of her friends as "brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgement".

London changed almost unimaginably during this period. At the start, it still had areas medieval Londoners would recognise. By the end, its innovations in industry, medicine, charity and law paved the way for the Victorian age. And yet there are many things that are remarkably familiar to the modern reader. One-way systems were in place by around 1720. People visited London's zoo (known as the Menagerie and housed in the Tower of London).

Now it costs an arm and a leg. Then "dead cats and dogs were used to supplement the feed of the big cats, and free entry could be had for anyone [who brought] one of either". There were same-sex relationships, for "the Georgian period saw the development of modern gay sexuality", financial scandals (the South Sea Bubble) and everyone was obsessed with the weather.

Inglis knows the city and its inhabitants well. Sometimes this can make her a little overfamiliar - the Prince of Wales was known, she writes, "affectionately-ish" as Prinny. Likewise, those without a solid grasp of the geography of Georgian London might find the way the book is divided - by areas – confusing.

Because of this, sections can leap from subject to subject - in one case from marriage to drinking to Lord Byron's weight-loss techniques - in a couple of breathless paragraphs. But what subjects! I had no idea that Spitalfields's now much sought-after weavers' houses were so mean in their layout, nor that middle-class drapers might have a pet lemur. This is a great read from a talented new historian.

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