Authors: Patrick Dillon
Mostly of fascination. The reformer Jonas Hanway later reckoned that 5,000 people a year flocked into London from the country. They left behind them a world of certainties and limited opportunities, a world of fixed social classes dominated by an
of gentry and church. London was their magnet. What drew them to the capital was the chance of ‘betterment’. They were ‘weary of restraint,’ ‘weary of country business’; they had ‘an itching desire to see London.’
When the newcomers came over the hill at Highgate and caught their first glimpse of that ‘vast mass of buildings,’ they were staring down at a jungle of opportunities – and risks. Setting down from the coach in Holborn or tramping in across the last fields to the north of Clerkenwell, they found themselves in a place abounding in new possibilities.
London offered country people its own special alchemy. The country servant had hardly arrived, Daniel Defoe would lament, before ‘her neat leathern shoes are … transformed into laced ones with light heels; her yarn stockings are turned into fine woollen ones … and her high wooden pattens are kicked away for leather clogs. She must have a hoop, too, as well as her mistress; and her poor scanty linsey-woolsey petticoat is changed into a good silk one … In short, plain country Joan is … turned into a fine London Madam, can drink tea, take snuff, and carry herself as high
as the best.’
It was the old Dick Whittington fable, but in the heady decades after the Glorious Revolution it seemed more likely than ever to come true. London could transform nature; the philosopher’s stone was hidden somewhere in its streets and alleys. The city had itself become a kind of still, and from a wash of half a million poor and struggling people, farm labourers, country girls, it distilled ersatz gentlemen and preening madams, gentlemen of the road, women of the town.
It may have been fool’s gold but it kept tempting new arrivals to the metropolis. No one in the country could fake the estates and carriages that meant wealth. But in town, everyone could have aspirations. ‘[In London,] people … are generally honoured according to their clothes,’ affirmed the satirist Bernard Mandeville in the 1720s. ‘From the richness of them we judge their wealth … It is this which encourages every body, who is conscious of his little merit, if he is any ways able, to wear clothes above his rank.’
Clothes were easy enough to counterfeit; manners could be learnt. The important thing in London was to put on a show. And so one o’clock on a Saturday night saw ‘would-be gentlemen, naked in back-garrets, boiling water in earthen chamberpots … to wash their sham necks, ruffled sleeves, and worn-out roll-up stockings, that they may make a genteel appearance in the public streets and walks at noon.’
Dolled up in their new finery, shopkeepers and apprentices headed out on their day off to preen and strut along St James’s Park or the Mall. Satirists mocked the pretensions of the promenaders, spotting different kinds of gait: the ‘Ludgate Hill Hobble’, the ‘Cheapside Swing’, or the ‘City Jolt and Wriggle’. Baron Pollnitz, visiting in 1733, was shocked that ‘their Majesties … permit all persons without distinction of rank or character to walk there at the same time with them.’
‘The worthy gentlemen who chiefly frequent this sanctuary,’ remarked the
of the strollers on Duke Humphrey’s Walk, ‘would be very
angry should you refuse to honour them with the title of Captain, though they never so much as trailed a pike towards the deserving it.’
Class in the countryside was set in stone; in London it softened and blurred. Even the all-important title of gentleman lost value. ‘In our days,’ sighed Nathaniel Bailey’s
in 1730, ‘all are accounted Gentlemen that have money.’ Seeking a husband, Moll Flanders was ‘not averse to a tradesman, but then I would have a tradesman, forsooth, that was something of a gentleman too.’ Her target was ‘this amphibious creature, this land water thing, called a gentleman-tradesman.’
There was no chance of such metamorphoses in the country. When, in
, humble Molly Seagrim was seen in church in a cast-off lady’s gown, ‘such sneering, giggling, tittering, and laughing, ensued among the women, that Mr Allworthy was obliged to exert his authority to preserve any decency among them.’
But London was different. In ‘large and populous cities,’ as Bernard Mandeville put it, ‘obscure men may hourly meet with fifty strangers to one acquaintance, and consequently have the pleasure of being esteemed by a vast majority, not as what they are, but what they appear to be.’ London became a town of transformations, and its spas and parks, its theatres and coffee-houses, offered any number of opportunities for such alchemy to take effect. Its pleasure gardens were ‘great scenes of rendezvous, where the nobleman and his tailor, the lady of quality and her tirewoman, meet together and form one common assembly.’
In Ranelagh, Horace Walpole reported that ‘the company is universal … from his Grace the Duke of Grafton down to children out of the Foundling Hospital – from my Lady Townshend to the kitten.’
A city of transformations was a city of insecurities, and insecurity was reason enough for any Londoner to turn to a new drug. But gin suited the mood of early eighteenth-century London in an even closer way. It offered an instant, heady transformation
of its own. For a penny a dram, the poor man could fill his head with his own dreams; the market-woman could blank out the wet corner she sat on and fancy herself well-dressed, dry, and feasting at Vauxhall pleasure gardens.
Not all of London’s transformations were illusory. There was real gold to go along with the dreams. Storms of change were not only raging across the surface; the very foundations of the city were being shaken as well.
A wave of speculative booms accompanied the Glorious Revolution. London, as Defoe put it, was gripped by a ‘projecting humour’. Dozens of new patents were registered. In the traditional view of things, wealth was supposed to be inherited or earned by honest toil. But fortunes were soon being made in the City that dwarfed the estates of country squires, and which couldn’t have been earned in a lifetime of hard work. Londoners of all ranks flocked to Exchange Alley. ‘People have been drawn in and abused,’ moaned one conservative after the crash of 1695, ‘of all qualities, gentle and simple, wise and otherwise … being allured with the hopes of gaining vast riches by this means.’
Speculation turned the dream of social metamorphosis into a reality, and traditionalists, of course, were appalled. ‘We have seen a great part of the nation’s money,’ complained Jonathan Swift, ‘got into the hands of those, who by their birth, education and merit, could pretend no higher than to wear our liveries.’
But the new age was making new men who had no interest in wearing livery. ‘’Tis the principle of us Modern Whigs to get what we can, no matter how,’ bragged Tom Double, Charles Davenant’s ‘got-rich-quick’ satirical monster of the 1690s. ‘Thanks to my industry I am now worth fifty thousand pound, and 14 years ago I had not shoes to my feet … I can name fifty of our friends who have got much better fortunes since the Revolution, and from
as poor beginnings … I have my country-house, where I keep my whore as fine as an Empress … I have my French cook and wax-candles; I drink nothing but Hermitage, Champagne and Burgundy; Cahors wine has hardly admittance to my side-board; my very footmen scorn French claret.’
What was worse for traditionalists, the new government seemed intent on dragging England even further into the stormy seas of risk and uncertainty. Spiralling government debt was financed by City loans. The South Sea Bubble would originate in an attempt to convert £31m of public debt into South Sea stock. The government introduced public lotteries as well; a lottery office was built next to the Banqueting House, at the heart of Whitehall. A lottery win in 1712 gave £20,000 to a St Bride’s widow who previously might have reckoned herself comfortable on a couple of hundred a year.
‘Stock-jobbing is play,’ Daniel Defoe warned. ‘A box and dice may be less dangerous, the nature of them are alike, a hazard.’ But in the decades after the Glorious Revolution, London threw itself into a new age of risk. The mathematics of risk were newly discovered, and the language of risk was everywhere – at Lloyd’s coffee-house, in the new insurance offices, even in the pulpit, where Isaac Barrow preached that through charity ‘We … lend our money to God, who repays with vast usury; an hundred to one is the rate he allows us at present, and about a hundred million to one he will render hereafter.’
And risk had its sharpest edge of all at the gambling-table, where there were still more dangerous transformations to be made. The passion for gambling came from France after the Restoration, and it spread like wildfire. White’s club opened in 1698; it wasn’t long before Harley was dubbing it ‘the bane of half the English nobility.’ At Brooks’s club, Horace Walpole would report, ‘a thousand meadows and cornfields are staked at every throw, and
as many villages lost as in the earthquakes that overwhelmed Herculaneum and Pompeii.’
By 1722, Covent Garden, centre of London’s nightlife, had thirty gaming-houses, employing ‘puffs’ to draw in the innocent. Within them, wrote Henry Fielding, who had himself often enough ‘fallen into the jaws of rattle-snakes’, ‘it would be tedious to relate all the freaks which fortune, or rather the dice, played in this her temple. Mountains of gold were in a few moments reduced to nothing at one part of the table, and rose as suddenly in another. The rich grew in a moment poor, and the poor as suddenly grew rich.’
That was exactly what conservatives feared. Once again, Londoners were transforming themselves. And gambling spread through the whole town, from the Faro tables at White’s to Holborn street corners where barrow-boys ran dice games on their counters, and shoeshines laid bets with their customers. The cards had no respect for rank. At the tables, Henry Fielding complained, ‘sharpers of the lowest kind have frequently found there admission to their superiors, upon no other pretence or merit than that of a laced coat, and with no other stock than assurance.’
Gaming appealed to aristocrats because of its profligacy, its bravado, its carelessness of risk. Now any chancer with enough braggadocio could become a temporary aristocrat. Smollett’s Roderick Random was assured by his friend Banter that ‘there were a thousand ways of living in town without fortune, he himself having subsisted many years entirely by his wit.’ He looked ‘upon the gaming-table as a certain resource for a gentleman in want.’
But the gambler was launched on a path of highs and lows which could only end in his own destruction. For Charles Cotton, author of
The Compleat Gamester
published in 1674, gambling was a kind of addiction, ‘an itching disease … a paralytical distemper which drives the gamester’s countenance, always in extremes, always in a storm, so that it threatens destruction to itself and others, and,
as he is transported with joy when he wins, so, losing, is he tossed upon the billows of a high swelling passion, till he hath lost sight of both sense and reason.’ Tom Brown described a gambler who ‘had played away even his shirt and cravat, and all his clothes but his breeches. [He] stood shivering in a corner of the room … And then fell a ranting, as if hell had broken loose that very moment.’
The gambler was as self-destructive as the drinker, as random, as dangerous. Like any of Madam Geneva’s devotees, he was intoxicated by possibilities, monomaniacal and carefree. He destabilised everything he touched. London was addicted to risk, hooked on the boom and bust of Exchange Alley, the highs and lows of the gaming-table. Some Londoners chased their dreams and nightmares at cards or the Exchange, or maybe in the arms of the Drury Lane prostitutes. Madam Geneva, with her instant kick and crushing hangover, offered her devotees the same cycle of dizzy euphoria and black despair.
London had become a city of risks, of glittering show masking uncertainty, a neurotic place. ‘Is it to be wondered at,’ the Bishop of London would ask, ‘that [the people] should be indisposed to attend to anything serious, or that they grow sick of religion, which has no comforts for them; that they fly from the church and crowd to the playhouse. That they are tired of themselves, and their own thoughts, and want to lose themselves in company from morning to night? It is this unhappy, unsettled state of mind that has introduced a kind of general idleness among the people.’
‘The town of London is a kind of large forest of wild beasts,’ growled another Londoner, ‘where most of us range about at a venture, and are equally savage, and mutually destructive one of another. Observe the shops, and you’ll see an universal discontent, and melancholy hanging in the faces of their respective occupiers.’
It was a city of temptation and unsatisfied desire. Few could
afford to buy the luxuries that filled the shops, but everyone could rub his nose against the glass. ‘The four streets – The Strand, Fleet Street, Cheapside and Cornhill – are, I imagine, the finest in Europe,’
gasped Saussure in 1725. As with Londoners themselves, it was display which mattered as much as what was hidden inside. ‘It is a modern custom,’ Daniel Defoe complained, ‘and wholly unknown to our ancestors to have tradesmen lay out two-thirds of their fortune in fitting up their shops … I do not mean furnishing their shops with wares and goods to sell; but in painting and gilding, fine shelves, shutters, boxes, glass doors, sashes and the like, in which, they tell us now, ’tis a small matter to lay out two or three hundred pounds.’