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‘Great Wen’ or capital of culture? In the context of this question explore different attitudes towards nineteenth century London. Illustrate your essay with specific examples.

London, as with other capital cities holds a unique place in the lives of many and its influence reaches far beyond the boundaries of its boroughs.  The locus of power was regarded to have moved after the eighteenth century so that "by the second half of the nineteenth century this center of influence had shifted to London" (Abrams 2000, p1043).  It is not surprising, considering the influence and reach of this city that the feelings evoked can be contradictory.  As with many instances, that which stimulates the most discussion produces diametrically opposing views and London; known by some as the 'Great Wen', meaning a tumour or growth, particularly so.  This complexity and diversity is exemplified in the many views held about London as its growth in population and changes in working patterns produced a "uniquely complex social, economic and spatial configuration of the capital" (Luckin 2004, p51). 

As suggested above, the nineteenth century saw a rapid increase in population as a variety of people moved to the city to be close to opportunities for work.  For farm labourers, "rural depopulation and agrarian decline" (Wohl 1977, p242) forced the move whilst for others, the pressures ranged through political and religious intolerances to crop failures and famine.  London was not necessarily an improvement for such migrants, fear and condemnation of ethnic minorities incited harsh opinions to be expressed.  Overcrowding and rent rises where blamed on incoming groups, "many would look for an immediate whipping boy… in the East End the Jews provided the scapegoat" (ibid, p305).  Similarly Irish immigrants where condemned and dehumanised, "an easily identified group as newcomers at a time of widespread anti-Catholicism, the Irish… attracted far more than their fair share of attention" (ibid, p10).  Generally, the cause of poor living conditions was not closely questioned in public debates, the increasingly overcrowded slums where simply regarded as the outcome of lax morals and an absence of civilisation. 

The supply of goods from abroad increased during the nineteenth century ranging from raw materials such as cotton to the more frivolous commodities seen in department stores, "the Victorians loved to consume foreign goods of all kinds, luxuries and necessities" (More 1997, p129).  However, the importing of cheap goods from Britain's Empire was not necessarily a cost saving exercise.  It is suggested that the expenditures of administrating so many foreign interests cost the country; "the consensus view… seems to be that the Empire did bring some economic gains… but [they] were probably not very great" (ibid, pp133-4).  One possible explanation for this is that as Britain captured "markets all over the globe… the profits gained from trade led also to extensive capital investments in all continents" (Abrams 2000, p1044).  Nonetheless, Britain's role in financial affairs was hugely influential, with London cast as "the world's banker" (ibid, p1044).  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the spread of Empire and increasing conflicts among many of its lands, confidence waned and power shifted away from both London and Britain to other countries.  The beckoning "modern world which heralded so much for Britain's hegemony, would, in fact, be its undoing" (Binns 2002, p23), a crisis of confidence, always lurking under the surface was looming closer.  Financial growth, the myriad inventions of the nineteenth century and a spreading Empire were about to be replaced at the end of the era with crushing power struggles and the shattering of former peace. 

London as a capital city still, of course, exists and holds a notable place in the public's awareness and identity, although, as suggested above, the rapid changes it saw and wrought during the nineteenth century are peculiar to it.  Much as the city was loved and admired for its colour and life, so too it was condemned due to the extremes of squalor and privilege living so close together.  So many commentators made London their source of study that other cities with appalling conditions were not always examined as publicly.  Contrary to the gloomy picture some portrayed, others argue that London, as a result of improvements, developed into a "relatively healthy city" (Luckin 2004, p52) towards the end of the century.  The profusion of views expressed by social commentators reflects the city's vast influence and also the rise of social commentary itself as a critical and some times productive process.  London's continued, though tempered, importance as a world city suggests that though its successes have waxed and waned, the foundations laid before and through the nineteenth century have secured its continued place both economically and intellectually.

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