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.
Some of the occupants of the slums where seen as having weak and defective traits which rendered them incapable and unwilling to live in polite society. “They cannot stand the regularity and dullness of civilized existence” (Fried & Elman 1969, p14), these views were further reinforced by fears of degeneration fuelled by Darwin’s theories.
The work of Charles Darwin had a huge impact on society; it was believed that evolution, a theory of constant change after the permanence of Creationist thought rendered degeneration a real threat to civilised society. “Within such a reality… bodies are without integrity or stability; they are instead composite and changeful” (Hurley 1996, p9). Possibly, the extremes of propriety and genteel social practices at the time aimed to hold at bay the forces of degeneration and its carriers; “an unchecked source of contamination, the degenerate could destroy a family, a race, a nation” (ibid, p79).
Many reformers took a blanket view of those in the most need, considering them to be lesser human beings, capable of extreme and wanton behaviour in opposition to the urban elite’s desire for improvement.
“Darwinistic theories predicting biological collapse among ‘residual’ sectors of London’s working class became part of the lingua franca of the metropolitan intellectual elite”. (Luckin 2004, p52)
Although Charles Booth, in his extensive survey of London’s poor, sought to achieve an understanding of slum conditions, he too expressed concern at those in poverty. He believed that some existing in the direst conditions “degrade whatever they touch, and as individuals are perhaps incapable of improvement” (Fried & Elman 1969, p11).
Social commentators and reformers, such as Booth, who sought to depict and publicise the plight of the poor in London created a growing awareness of the need for vast, infrastructural improvements. Many small boards had been in charge of sections of the city, and a laissez-faire approach “dictated by an ideology… that intervention was likely to be harmful” (More 1997, p198) to economic growth meant there was a need for a more cohesive form of governance and financial input. This was especially so when the need for a new sewage system became crucial to improving the health of Londoners. Designed and overseen by Joseph Bazalgette the new system saw resistance from those who “viewed the process of sanitary reform as an interference with personal freedom and, particularly, with property” (Halliday 1999, p62). Despite the threat of cholera and the range of “compelling evidence, the connection between good sanitation… and good health was long overlooked or denied by many… reformers” (ibid, p124). Bazalgette not only reformed sanitary conditions but also sought to improve the transit of people and traffic through the city, creating some sense of integration in the fragmented urban sprawl.
Whilst Bazalgette restricted himself to improving the physical health and well being of the city’s occupants, others sought to instil a sense of inner cleansing and self-improvement. Octavia Hill “wanted to help the poor by rehabilitating the individual” (Meller 2004, p243),herobservations of poverty and the slums are documented in Homes of the London Poor where she shows an understanding of the need for material improvements rather than moral instruction alone. There is, however, a tendency to instruct from a privileged and lofty position based on the assumption that Hill’s ministrations will be needed “among the lowest classes, till they have learnt to be other than they are” (Humphreys 1970, p10). This bore some compassion, however, compared to the more general view amongst the middle classes who, despite often living only short distances from slum areas considered them “the haunts of the morally depraved… and the inevitable consequence of grave personal failings” (Wohl 1977, p8). Octavia Hill’s work was a small effort in the face of huge social problems and Andrew Mearns, whose own observations on poverty caught the attention of the public, noted that, “without State interference nothing effectual can be accomplished upon any large scale (Mearns 1970, p69). Their efforts did, however, raise public consciousness to the issues of the poor and their living conditions, but “the official response… was to try and adopt something from all the proposals without fully supporting any of them” (Yelling 1986, p33).
At a time when home as a place of sanctity held special significance in popular imagination, the slum was its antithesis, a symbol of ungodliness and danger. The middle class ideal of home “represented the front line in the crusade against… crime and deviance” (Hepworth 1999, p22). Lord Shaftesbury who advocated the reform of housing provision reiterated this belief; “there can be no security to society, no honour… unless the strength of the people rests upon the purity… of the domestic system” (quoted in Wohl 1977, p50). By contrast, the slums where seen as places outside of this purified sanctity; “the low parts of London are the sink into which the filthy and abominable from all parts of the country seem to flow” (Mearns 1970, p61). Despite middle class attempts to distance themselves from this ‘depravity’, Gothic literature depicted the proximity of evil and transgression to even the most sainted of the middle and upper classes. As a genre, Gothic literature coincided with the expansion of London’s population and power and the industrialisation of labour. Shelley’s Frankenstein expresses unease at the mechanisation of labour and the usurping of God by man himself. Jekyll and Hyde, written later in the century, deals with the duality of human nature and the ability to be both a member of society whilst also a monster, suggesting, as with degenerative theory, that “the fixed boundary between man and animal” (Hurley 1996, p56) has been loosened. Not only are the men and women of gothic novels capable of evil, but the city itself becomes a menacing beast where economic, social and moral flux lead to uncertainty and fragmentation. Not surprisingly, against these fears of change and fluid morals, the home was elevated to a place of refuge and purity.
The woman’s place within the private sphere of the home was taken for granted, the burden was on her to “carry out the emotional and moral labour necessary to create and maintain the ideal home” (Hepworth 1999, p23). One of the tasks for such a home-maker was the purchase of goods for the house and this job was made easier by the establishment of department stores. With the rise of industrialisation, and the import of goods from Britain’s colonial outposts, middle and upper class women, were also able to shop for less pressing items, “there was a new leisure activity… shopping for non-essential goods” (More 1997, p179). The department store established itself as a “quintessential institution of bourgeois consumerism” (Ableson 1992, p47) replete with enticing displays of goods, and this was an acceptable social space in which genteel women could be seen unaccompanied.
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.