Smells and Bells, Halls and Hells: ‘The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London’

The mud, rain, smoke, fog, and excrement that abounded meant whatever one's rank, the weather and the smells took their toll on one's health, one's clothing, and one's nerves.

London epitomizes the Victorian city. It doubled in population between 1800 and 1850, and this growth spurt was witnessed by its most famous author, who moved there at the age of ten, in 1821. Gleaning the most informative or entertaining evidence from the author’s many books, Judith Flanders combines Dickens’ life and works with archives as a “perfect optic through which to see the city’s transformation” during the reign of Queen Victoria and Dickens’ life span. While these do not align perfectly, as the queen reigned between 1837 and 1901 while Dickens died in 1870, the general fit proves neat enough here.

This is thick, and therefore a congenial match for Dickens’ own sometimes voluble texts. Well illustrated with period lithographs and engravings, prefaced by helpful maps reminding us how much that capital does and does not match the layout of the ever-congested megapolis today, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London keeps to the streets themselves rather than the interiors and domestic duty. These streets prove noisy, as horses clop and cabs rattle. Sellers shout, carts crash, horses neigh and cattle bellow, from what seems before dawn until midnight, daily.

Flanders opens with a look at how early many had to wake up. By two or three in the morning, some had left home miles away, even in the countryside, to hike in to the markets and to set up stalls in near-blackness. Many returned home in the same lack of light, through dim, dangerous, and unpaved streets, after 12- or 14-hour days. Saturdays some might leave work at 10PM. They were condemned by Sabbatarians who chided those who dared to shop on Sundays for their scanty provisions. Lives lived in the open meant that few of the poorer classes kept food at home, where storage was lacking and vermin abounded. Instead, people ate on the go, many trudging everywhere.

The ratio of black cabs today to people in London is over 1:400. Then, 160 years ago, there was about one horse-drawn cab for every person. The traffic had to, at Temple Bar which divided the City from the West End, narrow to a space 20 yards wide, and coaches and livery jammed into what was likely a perpetual bottleneck. Such situations multiplied over the city, as the poor had to live near their jobs and the rich sought to travel if possible by more amenable transport than on foot. But these rides could be harrowing, and the mud, rain, smoke, fog, and excrement that abounded meant whatever one’s rank, the weather and the smells took their toll on one’s health, one’s clothing, and one’s nerves.

Some sights jolt us by familiarity. Traffic clogged, even as a lunchroom promised free delivery within a ten-mile radius. Grand illuminations lit up London with huge displays, even if this same city could be so dark before streetlights that firemen tried to put out a blaze they kept glimpsing beyond, which turned out to be the Northern Lights.

Other features remind us of distinctions. Waiters had to pay for their laundry, supplies, and a place at the chophouses where they then had to count on tips for their wage. Oysters were craved as then as now, but back then, they were a cheap source of food for the poor.

What differs is the diminution of animals from these dense streets today. The horrors of Smithfield Market with its braying of terrified livestock sent to slaughter, the din of those goading them with whips, the escape of maddened bulls, the press of cattle and sheep in the small pens, the stench: this created a scene that as the animals were herded through the streets few could fully escape, or forget.

However narrow, streets certainly have widened in the never-ending construction which marks London for two centuries and more now. This also led to slum clearances, as either well-intended or speculative interests sought to raze medieval warrens and tiny alleys where filth emanated, among humans and beasts and factories. Yet, this pushed the poor, who still had to walk to their work–often on the streets themselves–into nearby neighborhoods, accelerating their decline even as the inner city (then as now) soared in desirability. Even the Tube followed this pattern; Flanders reminds us that unlike Paris, London’s planners kept many underground lines out of the innermost ring of London (or at least diverted from regal proximity). The Underground in turn sparked more sprawl, more crowds.

It can surprise us how frequently Queen Victoria survived no less than seven assassination attempts, given the proximity of herself to these very crowds. She, perhaps appropriately, rarely appears in these pages, although other royals do, often at clubs separated from the pubs where lowlier folks flock. While Flanders’ survey suffers from a shortcoming of not entering as many interiors, beyond the public gaze, as a reader eager to discover Victorian minutiae might anticipate, she examines in a frisky chapter the veracity of claims for prostitution by a considerable number of women on London’s streets. She avers that although such a profession was attributed to milliners, that occupation’s required hours of 14 or 16 hour shifts meant that even if those women still had the energy after work to pursue liaisons for profit or pleasure (the two could blur), they likely had not the time.

The challenge no matter the labor most Londoners had to eke out was how to stay healthy, dry, shod, and fed. Until nearly 1850, Westminster and surrounding areas were supplied with drinking water from sewers. Cholera spread, and infection grew. Dregs from the glasses rinsed in a pub were sold again to the poor. Scraps similarly were fed to the same. Indeed, the conditions under which Londoners breathed, dined, and drank prove the dismal nature of the fog-bound and soot-showered streets.

On these streets, everyone appears to have plied a trade, licit or otherwise. Watercress-girls, cats’ meat vendors with chunks of horse meat on skewers cut to order, dog-carts (alas no canine-power), touts for dolly shops (unlicensed pawnbrokers), crossing-sweepers, costermongers with strawberries sold in paper cones, match-sellers, hot-potato vendors, chum-masters in charge of who was jailed with whom for debt or for crime, and pimps consorted in the mews or shoved each other at Covent Garden or on the Strand.

The circle of who sold what comprised its tidy if ironically drawn economy. After stewing tea leaves were rinsed, dried, and sprinkled on carpets to draw up dust before sweeping. “Once this had been done, some charwomen sold the leaves to unscrupulous dealers who mixed them with new tea leaves, selling the tea at bargain prices. It was these very women and their kind who were most likely to purchase the lowest-priced tea, and who were drinking what they had lately swept up.”

Flanders sprinkles such observations throughout. She sets up one theme per chapter and moves within from topic to topic carefully. Occupations or their lack, health or its lack, entertainment for all, and nighttime temptations and dangers create the four foundations upon which her solid scholarship rests, in brisk, clear prose. She opens each chapter with a dramatic vignette from an elaborate hoax, a fire on the Thames, a skating disaster at Regent’s Park, and the funeral of the Duke of Wellington to conjure a fitting mood.

I was left pondering a few questions I had expected to be answered by the conclusion. What about the cultural impact of the Great Exhibition, and of the museums and galleries which already had begun to be built? What did the fabled Leadenhall Market look like? In an era torn between reason and faith, surely these debates of the Victorian era must have generated friction on the street among preachers and debaters, and left their mark on passersby.

While some of the amassed data may overwhelm a casual reader, Flanders admirably avoids jargon and keeps this always pitched at a general reader. A hundred of the just over 500 pages are notes, a bibliography, and an index, assuring its value as a reference as well as a narrative. The Victorian City is a solid guide to a half-lost city.

RATING 8 / 10