London Life in the XVIIIth Century

By M. Dorothy George | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
THE UNCERTAINTIES OF LIFE

"Here malice, rapine, accident, conspire,
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey;
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female atheist talks you dead."
JOHNSON, London ( 1738).

THE dominating impression of life in eighteenth - century London, from the standpoint of the individual, is one of uncertainty and insecurity. It was a time when trade was expanding more rapidly than population, yet the Londoner was threatened with casualties of various kinds. During the hundred and twenty years between 1695 and 1815 England was at war for 63 years, at peace for 57, and she repeatedly underwent dislocating transitions from peace to war, and war to peace. On the whole (subject to much occasional distress), trade boomed in time of war and peace brought a corresponding depression and much misery--the gaols and debtors, prisons were soon filled to overflowing. Walpole writes in January 1750: "You will hear little news from England but of robberies, the numbers of disbanded soldiers and sailors have taken to the road, or rather to the street."1

We have already seen how irregular was the work of the Spitalfields weaver. This was an extreme case, but irregularity was the rule in many London trades. Almost all were seasonal. Shipping, before the days of steam, besides its seasonal variations, was liable to sudden interruptions from contrary winds, sometimes the river was crowded, sometimes comparatively empty, and an enormous amount of labour, skilled and unskilled, was connected with shipping and the riverside. Even among customs officers, the lower grades were casual workers, "glutmen" being taken on, to deal with sudden rushes of work.2 This irregularity gave rise to much distress and much of what was then called depravity.

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