the London of Charles Dickens
Judith Flanders signing The Victorian City
A talk by Judith Flanders at The Electric Theatre, part of the Guildford Book Festival, scouring through the programme, one of the few events it looked worth going to.
And yes, it was well worth going to, a fascinating speaker, only a pity she did not have longer than an hour, and several minutes were taken up at the beginning with introductions.
I have never understood why I have to be told how eminent or erudite a speaker is, I can draw my own conclusions. And why do we have to have the ghastly TV format, let a speaker speak.
Judith Flanders started off by defining the period her book covered, 1812-1870, the life of Charles Dickens, this was pre-Victorian which meant she could show how the Victorian city had evolved, and the late Victorian was not so interesting.
Victorian London, was not just special to England, it was special to the world, it was the largest city the world had seen.
Cities, until then, we know their size, the walled city. There were various factors that controlled the size of the city, how to you get the food and goods in, how do you get the sewerage out?
Her starting point was a line by Dickens, the dead were elevated to waist height. She had read this many times, and it suddenly struck her, what did this mean?
Note: This is not an exact quote.
The cemeteries lacked room. This was solved in two ways. Dig the bodies up, break them up, and dispose of the bodies. This could be a short a period as four weeks had elapsed, before bodies were dug up and disposed of. The other, was to keep piling the bodies one atop the other. There were graveyards as tall as a one storey building. Hence the line the dead were elevated waste high. Readers of Charles Dickens would have known what was being spoken of, but it has become lost to us.
The city would awake in the morning. No alarm clocks, arrangements would be made, to be knocked up. No time for breakfast, cooking breakfast would have meant lighting a fire, too costly in time and fuel.
Public transport was available, stage coach which was expensive, and the omnibus, which was extortionately expensive, later had the tram, which was affordable, and special fares on the trains, which enabled people to commute. There was also steam ferries plying up and down the river.
Lacking any means of affordable transport, the only alternative was to walk. People came in waves, the workers, followed by the clerks, earlier were the drovers bringing the animals to Smithfield market.
The roads, or what passed as roads, were chaos, horse and carts, carriages, stagecoaches, all over the place. The walkers on the other hand were very disciplined, Dickens described them as a black line.
Having had no breakfast, this was picked up on the hoof as they walked to work.
Street sweepers, swept the streets clean.
As the clerks neared their place of work, shoe shine boys, who cleaned their shoes, brushed down their trousers.
Life was lived out on the street. Dickens was a journalist, he recorded what he saw on the street.
Trafalgar Square built, Regents Street. Regents Street was a destination, not a place to pass through.
A fire would be street theatre, everyone would come to watch. The firemen would call upon volunteers to man the pumps, the water was literally pumped. Very hard work, had to change manpower every ten minutes. The volunteers would be paid, and fed and watered.
One coffee stall, we know his shift, from his accounts. He would set up at nine o’clock at night to serve the theatre goers, then those worse for wear from a night out drinking, then the waves of different people coming in to work, the drovers, the workers, the managers. During the night, he would let the prostitutes huddle around his stall to keep warm. At nine o’clock in the morning, he would go home.
At night, the prostitutes would walk in for the night shift. We know where they lived from the Census. Houses where there were girls in their twenties, houses where there were no men.
A city of water shortages, water available for only a few hours, that is when it was available.
We can map when clean water and sewerage systems were connected as the rate of disease dropped. Before connected to mains water, the water had to be collected from standpipes in the street.
The Thames was much wider. The Embankment was built to house the sewers.
Women were on the streets, even those who stayed at home, interacted with the street, as there could be as many as twenty or more deliveries to a house, including the postman who managed a dozen deliveries in a day.
The rich lived almost cheek-by-jowl with the poor. The rich lived on the main street, the poor in the side streets.
The poor would live a whole family to a room, everyone would work, they earnt enough to sustain life, but nothing more. If one of the family fell ill, they would fall into destitution.
A city of people, not a city of buildings.
One Tree Books were running the bookstall. A pile of books. I did not think they would sell, neither did they. Only a couple were left. This must have had everything to do with the calibre of the speaker.
Book signings of The Victorian City.