A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century

Excerpted from Part II: People (footnotes omitted), from A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century, by Jerry White. Published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2012 Jerry White. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

‘London is Their North-Star’: Provincial Londoners

The greatest Londoner of the eighteenth century – like many great Londoners of any age – was raised in the English provinces. Samuel Johnson was from Lichfield, Staffordshire, born in 1709. His father was a bookseller of fluctuating fortunes who afforded his brilliant son a solid education but couldn’t sustain that support through Oxford, which Johnson left in shaming poverty in 1729. Deprived of a gentleman’s career in the church or the higher ranks of schoolteaching, he was thrust back on a bookselling life or the petty frustrations of a country schoolmaster. In both his value was undermined less by his stinted formal education than by an affliction of personal oddities and disabilities that only an indomitable will could put in their place. Unusually tall for his times at some six feet, large-framed and big-boned, he would be noticed in any crowd. Worse, his thick-lipped brooding face was scarred by the scrofula (tuberculosis of the skin) that also left him both short-sighted and hard of hearing. Far worse, Johnson suffered from ‘the palsy’, tics and involuntary movements of arms and legs that could make his shambling gait something close to that of a fairground monster, especially when he felt compelled to perform some wheeling antic ritual that, if tried in the street, would be sure to gather ‘a mob round him’. None of this was helped by a lifelong slovenliness in dress or by ravening table manners and a disregard for personal cleanliness: famously, he had no ‘passion’ for ‘clean linen’.

Johnson, then, was a misfit. And his unfittedness for daily intercourse was no aid in overcoming the poverty that dogged him for two-thirds of his life. Even when his wife Elizabeth’s dowry enabled him to start a school on his own account – where David Garrick, keen to advance his classical studies, was one of his few pupils – the venture quickly foundered, taking Elizabeth’s small nest egg with it.

In March 1737 Johnson decided to leave his ‘Tetty’ in Staffordshire and seek his fortune in London. Garrick did the same. They walked and rode the 150 miles or so together, sharing one horse between them. No one suspected it at the time, but the arrival of these two young men, Johnson twenty-eight and Garrick just twenty, would prove a momentous conjuncture in the cultural history of London.

Why did Johnson choose London to make his fresh start? Like many provincials of the middling sort, he had some connection with the metropolis. His father had been apprenticed there from Lichfield in 1673 for seven years, his master a stationer called Richard Sympson. Around 1712 the young Samuel made his own London link – and half a memory – when taken to be ‘touched’ by Queen Anne for the scrofula – the ‘king’s evil’, which many thought could be cured by the royal fingertips. And his uncle Andrew, a pugilist who taught the boy rudiments of self-defence that he would always treasure, had ‘kept the ring at Smithfield, appropriated to wrestlers and boxers’ and ‘was never thrown or conquered’.

Yet Johnson came to London not for the assistance of connection or friends but to pursue an enterprise that would be unimpeded by his physical eccentricities, one more easily pursued in London than anywhere else. He had first offered to write for Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine, published from St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, in 1734, and Johnson’s subsequent failures as a schoolmaster steered him finally in this direction. Literature needed no self-advertisement or silky manners, just a fluent pen. And Johnson’s outstanding ability to produce high-quality prose with unerring rapidity encouraged him to try the world’s greatest marketplace for print. James Boswell broadened London’s appeal for Johnson as ‘the great field of genius and exertion, where talents of every kind, have the fullest scope, and the highest encouragement’. In fact, and more helpfully, London uniquely offered Johnson chances that would be unhindered by his disabilities.

As things turned out, London at first was full of bitter disappointment for him. The poverty he suffered, and the disregard he met at every turn, found eloquent expression in London: A Poem, in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal, published in 1738. Here London is the site of corruption and false appearance, its vices emasculating the nation’s former proud standing in the world, a city of night-time terrors and daytime deceits:

This mournful Truth is ev’ry where confest,


Indeed, Johnson’s sojourn in London nearly came to a swift end just a year later. Rapidly, it seems, tiring of London, he vigorously sought a country schoolmaster’s position in Shropshire. It came to nothing because he had no MA degree and could not obtain one in the time needed. But we should not forget that Johnson, whose affection for London and London life was second to none in the eighteenth century, had tried to flee from it in desperation within two years of his arrival, and might conceivably have succeeded.

Thrown back on the metropolis, Johnson made his uneasy way there through a succession of temporary lodgings. If we count the rooms he was given by Mr and Mrs Thrale in their four London houses (including Streatham, just beyond the built-up area), Johnson had some twenty- three addresses in forty-seven years. They ranged fleetingly from Greenwich to the new north-western suburbs near Hanover and Cavendish Squares. But Johnson’s London was mostly a tightly circumscribed district about three-quarters of a mile long – from Durham Yard, Strand, to Shoe Lane, Fleet Street – and only half a mile wide. When he attended church it was St Clement Danes, just west of Temple Bar, in a crowded mixed parish which included two Pissing Alleys and some very poor property as well as many handsome new streets. Johnson’s London, at the meeting point of the two cities of London and Westminster, was the very centre of printing and publishing and a natural home for one who would become the leading literary man of his day.

Once immersed in the London swim, Johnson the misfit at last discovered just how congenial the city was to him. There – perhaps only there – he could be himself: ‘The freedom from remark and petty censure, with which life may be passed there, is a circumstance which a man who knows the teazing restraint of a narrow circle must relish highly.’ ‘No place cured a man’s vanity or arrogance so well as London’, he thought, because it gathered to it people whose talents and qualities were at least as good as his own. And for a literary man, involved in the production and dissemination of ideas, and for a curious man, interested in all the vagaries of life, London was ‘a heaven upon earth’.

Among those vagaries, London gave Johnson full opportunity to exercise that charity and humanity which even his detractors acknowledged and respected in him. It came not just from religious conviction but from a deep wellspring of egalitarianism. More than any other famous Londoner of his time, Johnson engaged sympathetically with London’s lowest depths. He encountered homelessness and probably night-cellars and common lodging houses with his friend Richard Savage, even more penniless than Johnson, in the late 1730s. In later and more prosperous years a friend recalled how ‘He frequently gave all the silver in his pocket to the poor who watched him, between the house and the tavern where he dined’, and he urged his friends to do the same. When returning home late at night he squeezed pennies into the hands of homeless children sleeping under shop bulks so they might wake up to a breakfast. Finding a hungry prostitute who had fainted in the street one night, he carried her home on his back, fed her and had his household look after her for some time. His friend Mrs Thrale summed up Johnson’s humanity: ‘He loved the poor as I never yet saw any one else do, with an earnest desire to make them happy.’

His affection found daily domestic expression in the ménage of misfits that he invited into his household whenever he rented a place stable enough to offer them a home. Frank Barber, the freed slave from Jamaica who became Johnson’s servant, we’ll meet again later. The other three long-standing residents were provincials: Anna Williams, a blind Welsh poet; Robert Levett, a drunken practitioner of physic, born near Hull; and the widowed Mrs Desmoulins, née Swynfen, from Lichfield, whom he took in as housekeeper on a generous allowance with her young daughter. There was also for some time another woman, Poll Carmichael, whose history is obscure. It was not a harmonious arrangement. Mrs Desmoulins hated Williams and Levett with a vengeance. Levett was the oddest of all, attending poor patients for whatever they could give him, often a nip of gin. He had married ‘a woman of the town, who had persuaded him (notwithstanding their place of congress was a small-coal shed in Fetter-lane) that she was nearly related to a man of fortune, but was injuriously kept by him out of large possessions’. The marriage failed, with heated recriminations on both sides. Johnson loved Levett for his charitable physicking of the poor and perhaps because he was even stranger and less of a lover of clean linen than Johnson himself: ‘his external appearance and behaviour were such, that he disgusted the rich, and terrified the poor.’

Johnson’s ‘nests’ of provincial Londoners at Gough Square, Johnson’s Court and Bolt Court would not have been uncommon in a city of migrants. For migration was one of the great facts of London life in the eighteenth century. Demographers estimate that 8,000 migrants a year were coming to London in the first half of the century, and certain it is that at any point in time a high proportion of Londoners were born outside the metropolis. Just how high is less certain. In 1781 Dr Richard Bland surveyed some 1,600 married couples who were assisted through childbirth by the Westminster General Dispensary. He found that just one in four individuals was born in London, over half were born elsewhere in England and Wales (including rural Middlesex), 8.6 per cent were Irish, 6.5 per cent Scottish and fifty-three or 1.6 per cent were ‘foreigners’. Of the migrants, 53 per cent were men.

We should not extrapolate too far from this small sample of the lower-middling classes and the ‘poorer sort’ who would have made use of the dispensary’s services. But there is much circumstantial evidence of large numbers of the provincial-born in eighteenth-century London. Of a sample of 153 beggars arrested in the City between 1738 and 1742, just over half had no ‘legal settlement in the metropolitan London area’. A similar survey in 1796–7 of 1,226 English beggars in London, nine out of ten of them women, found 31 per cent had settlements further than ten miles from the metropolis. These need not all have come to London as beggars, of course, for provincials arrived from every rank: in the early years of the century one in four of London apprentices claimed to come from country ‘gentry’ stock. And although we might reasonably assume that most migrants to London came from those nearby counties most powerfully affected by its draw, and despite the difficulties of long-distance travel, contemporaries noted how ‘The numbers of persons, who with their families, find their way to the Metropolis, from the most remote quarters of Great Britain and Ireland, is inconceivable.’

We might instance the truth of that from the poor law records of Samuel Johnson’s adopted parish of St Clement Danes. Truly metropolitan, in the heart of ancient London though it was, Londoners down on their luck who sought relief at St Clement’s workhouse door had come there from all over England and Wales. A sample of 100 applicants for relief in 1752–3 reveals twenty-seven with clear provincial links or connections to places further afield. We hear of an agricultural labourer from Tiverton, Devon, a stableman from ‘Morvan [Malvern] under the hill in Gloucestershire’, a deserted wife from Worcester, a widow from Lincoln, a farm labourer from Skeffling, Yorkshire, men and women from Liverpool to Alverstoke in Hampshire – and poor Lucy Holland, just eight years old and alone in London, born at Shrewsbury (Shropshire) ‘as she hath been informed both by her Mother and Godfather’. Indeed, this pattern of provincial migration to London is visible everywhere. Even on the gallows, a single execution at Tyburn in August 1746 dispatched highway robbers born in Dorset, Wales, Newry (Armagh), Leicester Fields (London) and two from rural Surrey. In 1841 four out of ten Londoners were born outside the metropolis, the proportion falling somewhat by the end of the nineteenth century. There are no reliable figures for the earlier period but it seems reasonable to assume that around a half of all Londoners and possibly more were born outside the metropolis during much of the eighteenth century.

What brought so many to London? Its magnetic attraction was embedded in those factors we have already noted as influencing metropolitan growth: the increasing fashionableness of a London home for the country gentry, lured there as the seat of sophistication; the ever-expanding luxury that accompanied them, drawing in its wake craftsmen, painters, musicians and actors who otherwise had only constricted provincial opportunities to support themselves; the growth of trade that needed investors, bankers, clerks, accountants, solicitors, warehousemen and shopmen to keep cash and credit in circulation; and the attractions – even the fatal attractions – of London life, made known to every Briton through newspapers and magazines, through novels and plays, and through prints that brought to life the fashions and foibles of the giant metropolis.

London never loomed larger in the life of the nation – and that is saying much – than it did in the eighteenth century. Its appetite for labour of all kinds, but most of all for the ablest in every calling, was unquenchable. Throughout the century it was a truism, engraved into the national consciousness, that London was the true object of talent: ‘in most families of England, if there be any son or daughter that excels the rest in beauty or wit, or perhaps courage, or industry, or any other rare quality; London is their north-star, and they are never at rest till they point directly thither.’ It was said that London to the English was ‘as the Mahometans consider the Paradise promised them by their prophet’.

Photo (partial) by © Alexandra White

Jerry White is Visiting Professor in History at Birkbeck, University of London