Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Shocking Even the French

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Shocking Even the French

Article excerpt

Byline: CLAIRE HARMAN

LONDON IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY: A GREAT AND MONSTROUS THING

by Jerry White (Bodley Head, [pounds sterling]25)

JERRY WHITE has been unpeeling the history of London in a trilogy of wonderful books that started with the 20th century and has now reached its final volume in the 18th century. It's the juiciest instalment so far in this page-turner biography of the capital, full of amazing facts and anecdotes, a book that anyone wanting food for thought about social history or human nature will treasure.

Eighteenth-century London was densely populated (20 times bigger than the second city, Bristol), but hadn't spread very far by today's standards. Islington was a distant village, Kensington a deer park and the fields behind what is now the British Museum a sequestered spot for duels. Sheep were driven to market along what is now Oxford Street, and the gallows at Tyburn that they would have passed (at latterday Marble Arch) were outside the city proper. As White says, "No Londoner, even one entombed in the dankest, darkest City alley, was more than a mile or two from something like open countryside."

You'd need the promise of fresh air with all the slops, dead cats and faeces in the street, or the plagues of flies that sometimes erupted (in 1708 so thick on the ground that people left footmarks in them). Every aspect of life was intensified in "The Great Wen": it acted like a magnet on ambitious provincials such as Samuel Johnson and David Garrick as well as the most astute criminals. Prostitutes were so numerous that even the French were shocked: "the whole town was one general stew".

Jerry White approaches each theme through individual characters, some famous, such as Johnson, John Wilkes and William Beckford; some obscure, such as Martha Stracey, an orphan who became a prostitute and thief in her early teens; Mary Young, ingenious head of a gang of cutpurses; and Ignatio Sanchez, a man born into slavery who managed to rise as far as any black man in London (which was only as far as being a shopkeeper). …

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