Georgian London: Into the Streets

Tracy Borman applauds an ambitious exploration of everyday life in London during the 18th and 19th centuries

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Author: Lucy Inglis
Publisher: Viking
Price (RRP): £20

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In this, her first book, Lucy Inglis takes the reader on a meandering stroll through the streets of Georgian London – and she doesn’t put a foot wrong. The work was spawned from Inglis’s popular blog, established some years ago, in which she shared the fascinating morsels of 18th-century life in the capital gleaned from her work and research. The resulting book is an ambitious undertaking: touring the entire capital, Inglis leaves no stone unturned, no coffeehouse unvisited and no dark alley unexplored. From Soho to Spitalfields, Hampstead to Hackney, the reader needs a sturdy pair of boots – and, at times, a sturdy stomach – to keep up.

There have been other studies of Georgian London recently and the period will no doubt become even more popular next year with the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian accession. But where Inglis claims to differ is in focusing upon the life of ordinary people. Monarchs, politicians and aristocrats have no room in her narrative, which is given over to an eclectic, bizarre and colourful cast of characters, including tradesmen, thieves, artists, murderers, rent boys and hot-air balloonists. It is the minutiae of life that holds a particular fascination for the author – and, thereby, the reader. Thus we learn about everything from the price of a pair of breeches to the ingredients of Georgian toothpaste.

Such details never become trivial. Indeed, they are woven together so skilfully that, as the book progresses, a dazzling tapestry of 18th-century London life emerges. This is partly due to the fact that Inglis sets the context so effectively: she opens on a city that has experienced plague, fire, the Restoration, and Glorious Revolution, all of which paved the way for the Georgian era. The period that it goes on to cover, 1714 until 1830, saw London transformed from a medieval to a modern city – “polluted, populous, vibrant and bursting at the seams”.

Inglis writes in a lively, engaging style, and has a good eye for the fascinating and the humorous – the lecherous baboon and the alcoholic zebra of the Tower of London menagerie being particularly memorable episodes. But the narrative also moves deftly from comedy to tragedy. The story of the teenage Mary Clifford, beaten to death by her sadistic employers, is both shocking and heartbreaking. Violence, crime, squalor and disease were commonplace among the poorest members of society. The seedy side of London life, with its gin addicts, corruption and slavery, contrasts with refined neighbourhoods such as St James’s and Mayfair, where “persons of quality” could be found alongside tea parties, pleasure gardens and periwigs.

Those who know London today can marvel at how neighbourhoods have changed, from the “unglamorous gravel pits” of Notting Hill to the “country village” that was Kentish Town. Even the Thames has changed beyond recognition. The annual frost fairs, when the river froze over completely, became a thing of the past with the new bridges and Embankment of the post-Georgian era.

And yet the overarching theme of the book is how little London has changed since the 18th century. Not only do the most iconic Georgian streets, buildings and monuments still dominate the city, but now – as then – it is studded with coffee shops and Indian restaurants, as well as the problems of gangs, drugs and riots. Perhaps, as Inglis concludes, if we listen carefully enough, the voices of Georgian London can still be heard too.

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Tracy Borman is the author of Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction (Jonathan Cape, 2013)