A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth by Jerry White

By Jerry White

London within the eighteenth century was once a brand new urban, risen from the ashes of the nice fireplace of 1666 that had destroyed part its houses and nice public constructions. The century that was once an period of lively enlargement and large-scale initiatives, of quickly altering tradition and trade, as large numbers of individuals arrived within the shining urban, drawn via its gigantic wealth and gear and its many diversions. Borrowing a word from Daniel Defoe, Jerry White calls London “this nice and large thing,” the grandeur of its new structures and the glitter of its excessive lifestyles shadowed by way of poverty and squalor.

A nice and large Thing bargains a street-level view of the town: its public gardens and prisons, its banks and brothels, its workshops and warehouses—and its bustling, jostling crowds. White introduces us to shopkeepers and prostitutes, women and men of favor and genius, street-robbers and thief-takers, as they play out the miraculous drama of lifestyles in eighteenth-century London. What emerges is an image of a society fractured by means of geography, politics, faith, history—and in particular via category, for the divide among wealthy and bad in London used to be by no means better or extra harmful within the glossy period than in those years.

regardless of this gulf, Jerry White exhibits us Londoners going approximately their enterprise as bankers or beggars, reveling in an enlarging international of public pleasures, indulging in crimes either nice and small—amidst the tightening sinews of energy and legislation, and the hesitant beginnings of London democracy.

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Besides the freeholders, it was these men who made most money from the suburbs. Their parcels would be subdivided in turn into sites for one, two or three houses, sometimes a few more. A small contractor would then purchase a building lease of these plots and undertake to put up a house of a certain type and size, detailed in a building agreement. Once finished, the builder retained the property, or disposed of it to a new lessee, for the term specified in the lease, commonly thirty-one, forty-two, sixty-nine or (in the very best class) ninety-nine years.

A filigree of new courts and alleys stretched out to Red Cross Street and some extensive building took place in the Mint. To the east in Bermondsey, the builders had begun to encroach on Snow’s Fields from various directions and a maze of courts and alleys stretched its tentacles east of Barnaby Street. Further east still, the long strand of Rotherhithe or Redriff had begun to sprout side streets at its London end, and had become more continuous as it approached Deptford. 24 It is generally stated by historians that London experienced a period of stagnation in the second quarter of the eighteenth century and into the 1760s.

The supply to everyone was intermittent, householders storing their water in lead cisterns, usually in the basement. And it was made worse by frequent breakages in the six-inch wooden mains beneath the streets and at the join with the leaden pipes supplying each house. 20 There is one further amenity worth dwelling on at this point. No Londoner, even one entombed in the dankest, darkest City alley, was more than a mile or two from something like open countryside. Further afield and the hills of Middlesex and Surrey and the pastures and forests of Essex presented beautiful unspoiled views and smoke-free, stench-free air.

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