Authors: Patrick Dillon
Everything in London was on show. Everything was for sale. Passers-by hired spy-glasses for a halfpenny to see the heads of Jacobite traitors on Temple Bar. Hangman’s rope was sold for 6d. Theatres thrived. Gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh sold pleasure to anyone who could afford the shilling entrance ticket. By the 1720s, race-tracks had appeared at Belsize and Finchley, Hampstead, Highgate, Kentish Town, and Tothill Fields. Spas like Islington and Bagnigge Wells drew Londoners to strut and preen on Sundays, to gamble and drink, show off their clothes and pick up whores.
For sex was on sale, as well. It was another kind of temptation for Londoners, another kind of unsatisfied desire. ‘Women of the town … are more numerous than at Paris,’ Grosley noted, ‘and have more liberty and effrontery than at Rome itself. At nightfall they range themselves in a file in the footpaths of all the great streets, in companies of five or six … The low-taverns serve them as a retreat, to receive their gallants in.’ Sex had been commercialised like everything else. There was even a list, the
, ‘of those [prostitutes] who are in any way eminent … [which] points out their places of abode, and gives the most circumstantial and exact
detail of their features, their stations, and the several qualifications for which they are remarkable.’
The ‘Folie’ was a floating brothel moored in the river opposite Somerset House.
Prostitutes, known as ‘punks’, offered yet another instant high. But as with the gambling-table, as with the dram-shop, the price was to be paid next morning in shame and disgust, and the ever-present fear of venereal disease. For every high, there was a low. For every winner at the card-table, a loser staggered off into the dawn with his pockets empty. London’s temptations were matched by its dangers. It wasn’t just a city of opportunities; it was a city of risks. To start with, London devoured its own inhabitants. All through the years of the Gin Craze, more Londoners were buried than born in the city; if it wasn’t for the eager newcomers flocking in from the countryside, the town would have dwindled away to nothing. Servants may have been able to strut around the town in smart clothes, but their lives were chronically insecure. One footman, John MacDonald, worked for twenty-eight masters in thirty years.
Tradesmen lived with the constant fear of bankruptcy. To Defoe, a youngster borrowing to set up in business was ‘a man going into a house infected with the plague.’ And debt meant summary arrest followed by indefinite imprisonment. London had many dangers, few safety nets. The eighteenth-century welfare system broke down in the sprawling slums of Middlesex. Poor people could claim support within their own parish, but the thousands who flocked into London could claim no parish and found no support.
Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that London became not only a neurotic town, but a violent one as well. Violence was common in the streets, or at least was believed to be. In March 1712, rumours about random attacks by gangs of ‘Mohocks’ spread like wildfire. The gangs were said to drive sword-points randomly through sedan chairs, or give their victims ‘lions’ faces’ by breaking their noses and poking out their eyes. At Hockley-in-the-Hole, near Clerkenwell,
animals were set at each other, and bare-knuckle or sword fights staged between men and women. One advert promised ‘a mad bull to be dressed up with fireworks, and turned loose. A dog to be dressed up with fireworks all over, and turned loose with the bull. Also a bear to be turned loose, and a cat to be tied to the bull’s tail.’ Saussure watched two women sword-fighters set about each other. Journalist and MP Richard Steele described the outcome of a sword-fight where ‘the wound was exposed to the view of all who could delight in it, and sewed up on the stage.’
Huge crowds flocked to Tyburn to cheer as criminals were put to death in public.
And Londoners turned violence against themselves. Numerous tracts and enquiries, constant newspaper reports, testified to ‘the English malady’. ‘The list of suicides has been greatly swelled this last year,’ wrote the
early one December. ‘Every week furnishes us with fresh instances of that kind. Since our last, James Milner esq, a Member of Parliament for Minehead, a gentleman well known in the Portugal trade, shot himself through the head, and died the same day; as did also Mr Ward, a fellow of Oriel College in Oxford.’ ‘A terrible malady of the mind,’ Saussure agreed, ‘is very frequent in London.’
And for the gambler, suicide was often the final throw of the dice. ‘One day last week,’ noted Lord Egmont in his diary in the 1740s, ‘Mr Tryon, who married my Lady Mary Ferrers, cut both his arms below the elbows with design to bleed to death …. The cause is attributed to the inconveniences he had brought him under by gaming.’
Londoners lived on a see-saw between triumph and disaster, glittering display and hopeless despair. The newspapers, proliferating from 1695, told stories of sensational crime and violent death, of novelties, of transformations. Choices abounded in every direction. Londoners could strut along the Strand as gentlemen for a day.
They could be ruined in an evening at cards. In the tarot pack of early eighteenth-century London, the city’s emblematic figures were the gambler, the suicide and the self-made man, the foundling, the highwayman, the whore.
These were the years when the production of spirits rose from half a million gallons at the Glorious Revolution to two million gallons at the Peace of Utrecht. By 1720, on the eve of the South Sea crash, two and a half million gallons of proof spirit a year were being distilled in a city with a population of barely more than 600,000.
Madam Geneva had found London fertile ground on which to settle. Gin offered comfort and oblivion to a society which had yielded up certainties of identity for the new and heady terrors of an Age of Risk. Gin replicated the gambler’s cycle of boom and bust, euphoria and despair. It counterfeited for drinkers, cheaply and immediately, the kind of transformation with which London seemed all at once to have become pregnant.
And it was on the poor, of course, that the town’s risks weighed most heavily; for them its opportunities seemed all the more remote. When newcomers tramped the last few miles into London, they often found not wealth and fortune, but poverty, disease and hardship. They had left families far behind. Often they knew no one. George Burrington, looking at London’s population in 1757, reckoned it ‘very probable that two thirds of the grown persons at any time in London come from distant parts.’
A modern study has calculated that one in six of the British population spent at least part of their lives in the capital.
Within the walls of the City, an older population, long-established, lived under a web of parish regulations, trades and guilds. But newcomers settled in the suburban sprawl of Middlesex, where labyrinthine courts and alleys mushroomed between the great squares of the West End. Where once there had been
country parishes outside the walls, there now sprawled huge slums like Holborn or St Giles-in-the-Fields, where tenements and dosshouses were crowded with a fast-moving, anonymous population. ‘Whoever … considers the cities of London and Westminster,’ Henry Fielding would later write, ‘with the late vast addition of their suburbs, the great irregularity of their buildings, the immense number of lanes, alleys, courts, and bye-places; must think, that, had they been intended for the very purpose of concealment, they could scarce have been better contrived. Upon such a view the whole appears as a vast wood or forest, in which a thief may harbour with as much security as wild beasts do in the deserts of Africa or Arabia.’
In this urban jungle Londoners lived anonymously, with no stable network of friends and family. They often drifted from one room to another, renting by the night. And to them, suddenly, a new and powerful drug was made available at a penny a dram. The novelty of spirits was part of their attraction, but also part of their danger. Madam Geneva was a new temptress. She beckoned to men and women living in a new world.
She beckoned to Robert Stafford one night in September 1720. He had already been ‘merry-making’. In Chick Lane he saw a prostitute in a doorway and stopped. He pretended to ask the girl for directions; she got him into a brandy-shop nearby. Brandy, of course, still meant spirits of all kinds. According to Robert Stafford, that was where the girl stole his wallet. The prostitute, Elizabeth Ferrom, told the Old Bailey jury a different story. She faced death if they didn’t believe her. She said Robert Stafford ‘shoved her headlong into a brandy-shop, called for a quartern of brandy, then a bottle of china ale, then more brandy, and ale for 3 or 4 times one after another.’ When another whore came in, the excitement proved all too much for him. That, she told the Old Bailey, who by this time were surely laughing at him, was when ‘he called for a
quartern of usquebaugh, let down his breeches, pulled up his shirt, and bid them see what he had got.’
That was London in September 1720, the month when the South Sea Bubble finally burst. It was a city of temptations (the girl in the doorway, the drams sunk frantically, one after another); a city of risks (of disease, theft or worse). It was an anonymous place where no one who knew Robert Stafford was likely to see him or tell the tale. It offered both the crazy high which made Robert Stafford down a glass of spirits and pull his trousers down, and the hangover which awaited him next morning, when he woke up seven pounds the poorer and none the wiser. Robert Stafford’s evening of highs and lows was a miniature version of what Londoners lived through again and again in the early decades of the eighteenth century, when life’s possibilities and its risks both seemed to be expanding at the same dizzying rate.
This was the city where signboards outside dram-shops read ‘Drunk for a Penny. Dead drunk for twopence. Straw for nothing.’ The straw was for gin-drinkers to pass out on when they had taken their fill. It was the town where Anne Williams, a twelve-year-old prostitute, ‘used to lie out o’ nights frequently in Drury Lane and Covent Garden and … gentlemen used to give her sixpence and a dram.’
Until 1720, hardly anyone had noticed what was happening in London’s slums. The authorities had only seemed interested in counting the lighters of corn unloading at Bear Key market, and watching the distilling industry steadily expanding. All that was about to change. For 1720 was the year London’s crazy merry-go-round finally took a spin too far. 1720 was the year the bubble burst.
y the second day of September, when Robert Stafford had his adventure in Chick Lane, South Sea stock was in freefall. In late June it had been trading at over £1,000; by the end of August it was down past £750 and sinking. The Bubble that had sucked London into a frenzy of speculation had only weeks to run. The Sword Blade Company, bankers to the South Sea Company, would crash on 24 September. By mid-November Parliament would be demanding inquiries, and Robert Knight, the man who kept a green notebook of all the politicians he had bribed with South Sea Stock, would have fled abroad.
The wise had sold up in June, but not many in London had been wise. Even Alexander Pope, waspish critic of the new money men, had been seduced into speculation. ‘Not to venture,’ he had written to his stockbroker back in February, would be ‘ignominious in this Age of Hope and Golden Mountains.’
London was in the grip of gambling mania. ‘The great doses of opium that are swallowed by the stock-jobbers,’ wrote Edward Harley to his father, who had established the South Sea Company in 1711, ‘have
intoxicated the whole town … There are few in London that mind anything but the rising and falling of stocks.’ ‘The demon stock-jobbing is the genius of this place,’ he would add a few months later. ‘[It] fills all hearts, tongues, and thoughts, and nothing is so like Bedlam as the present humour which has seized all parties … No one is satisfied with even exorbitant gains, but every one thirsts for more, and all this is founded upon a machine of paper credit supported only by imagination.’
It wasn’t only the wealthy who thirsted for more. Even Billingsgate market-women had taken ‘to a merry way of buying and selling South-Sea over a refreshing cup of Gin.’
There was a new name for gin: South Sea Mountain. A
South Sea Ballad
, one of many satires to be published that summer, mocked the motley crowd forging its way to the City in search of riches:
Young Harlots too, from Drury Lane,