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November 2017

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Street Life. The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, Judith Flanders

flanderscity

For the past few days I’ve occasionally been leaving my quiet, rural retreat to join the crowds thronging the streets of Victorian London. I’ve been almost deafened by the continuous roar of noise around me, half choked and blinded by the sooty, smoky air. I’ve gawped at funerals, executions, fires, runaway horses and street accidents. I’ve eaten on the hoof, buying breakfast on the way to work and if I’m lucky getting a chop and a pint of ale for dinner. I’ve had to struggle to walk through the human traffic jams, dodged the wheeled traffic, avoided the eager traders and hawkers with their familiar cries. It’s been exhausting, smelly, dirty, overwhelming; but my goodness, it’s been living, in a city that never sleeps. Charles Lamb wrote, ‘I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much Life.’

Judith Flanders says that Dickens ‘invented London’. She means that what we think of as ‘Dickens’ London’, a place full of wildly eccentric people and improbable happenings, was in fact the real thing: ‘Much of what we take today to be the marvellous imaginings of a visionary novelist turn out on inspection to be the reportage of a great observer.’ Certainly, many of the incidents she records seem stranger than fiction. ‘In Dickens’ own time, the way that people lived was not Dickensian, merely life.’ The city was transforming itself at incredible speed. ‘Migration, particularly from Ireland during the Famine years towards the middle of the century, resulted in the eighteenth-century infrastructure of London being swamped by the huge mass of its nineteenth-century residents. Transport, sanitation, food distribution, housing: none could cope with the numbers pouring into the capital every day.’ No wonder that life was lived so much on the streets.

This book was cheap for the Kindle and as I’d enjoyed other books
by Judith Flanders, I snapped it up and got stuck in. I immediately came up against the problems arising when reading non-fiction in e-book form. You want to check a footnote and can’t, you’re stumped by ‘see illustration page 22’ and you can’t flip back and forth as you might want to. At this very moment I can’t access the chapter titles, in order to highlight some of the subjects covered. I wasn’t ready for the book to end, as according to the Kindle, I was 65% of the way through. The whole of the rest of the book is taken up with notes and an extensive bibliography. This gives you some idea of the reading and research involved here: novels (Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope), contemporary diaries, Mayhew, of course, newspaper reports plus any number of specialist research papers. Although so fact based, the book reads as easily as a novel. Just one point. Writing of street cries, Flanders says, ‘The seller’s cry for strawberries was, mysteriously, ‘Hoboys!’ and was a sign summer had arrived.’ Surely ‘Hoboys’ is a corruption of Hautboy, a variety of strawberry? Mrs Elton mentions it in Emma, when the party are picking strawberries at Donwell.

I was struck by how much of ‘Dickens’ London’ lingered on. If you read the Spitalfields Life blog regularly, you find that many old London traditions continued well into the 1960s and beyond. My mother (born 1923) remembered a muffin man from her childhood. I remember the cat’s meat man, pushing a bicycle with an enormous basket on the front. Ghosts, all around us. I loved this book and it’s sending me back to Sketches by Boz. Not that I need an excuse to re-read Dickens.

victorianthames

image from The Victorian Web

Comments

What an interesting book. Whilst researching my x 3 great grandparents who lived on the waterfront on the border of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe in abject poverty with many children between 1816 and 1845 (the death of them both) I discovered that Dickens would roam their streets during the time they lived there. He would go with the some of the early policemen and river police and get a first hand account of life in some of the worst slums. He researched his book Oliver Twist while they lived there and I like to think they saw him roaming the streets and having a pint in their local pub :) Dickens was conscious of the social injustices at the time.
Dickens was conscious of the social injustices at the time.
Absolutely! He wrote so much about the river. Flanders points out that three of his novels open with a river scene. Our Mutual Friend is the book which seems permeated with the waters, but the Thames is always important. Some of my ancestors were also amongst London's teeming poor; respectable people, in work, but still living in overcrowded conditions. I think our family done good, considering :-)
Yes! The river. My ancestors were watermen for several generations. I'm almost back to x6 great grandfather but need to be sure I'm looking at the right records. Evans is a very common name today but surprisingly few of them were river men back then. It helps that the sons were apprenticed to their fathers or uncles so it's not been too bad to track. They worked the river pretty much opposite Wapping with the tower of London in sight. There was no bridge there at the time of course. X3 and family lived in West Lane for several years until his death in 1845. His wife Maria passed away in 1840 after the birth of a second set of twins (both twins died within a year, the first set survived). When Samuel died he left three of his youngest children as orphans but thankfully the older married children took them in. My x2 great GF was only 12 when his mother died. He became a waterman after being apprenticed to his father and then another waterman after his father died. Respectable hardworking people like your ancestors. It was an honourable job (7 year apprenticeship). My x3 great GF eventually became a river postmen (job passed to his son after he died) and then finally when the railways came they began working for the railway company although a couple of sons of other family members stayed on the river until the mid 1900s, maybe some still are. Both our families definitely done good :) You might remember I walked in x3's footsteps three or 4 years ago; the church they were married, their closest pub, the church all the children were baptised (Rotherhithe St Mary opposite the first police 'station' which is really just a stone built shed which is still there with it's plaque. The police would watch the graveyard to catch grave robbers.) They are all buried in the churchyards at St Mary Magdalene, Bermondsey (3 children) and St James's Bermondsey (Samuel and Maria, Maria is buried with 7 of her infant children). The day's walk brought them to life and I could just imagine how it was from Dickens' vivid descriptions :)

Um, sorry, got carried away there. I'm such an ancestry geek ;)
You certainly know more about your ancestors than I do about mine! I only know what I found in the census reports, employment, where living etc.
A lot is putting two and two together and actually coming up with 4 :) Cross referencing census records and really looking at who was living where really helps. London ancestors are quite easy in some ways because all the BM&D records are online.

(Anonymous)

Wow, I was reading along without even looking at the actual book - completely caught up in the post when I saw the name Judith Flanders. I clicked on your label to see what else you had written about her and what other books she had written. But before I saw her name, I was going to leave you a comment saying I had just heard an author on the radio talking about the Victorians and murder, thinking it was a book you might like. And surprise, surprise that author is Judith Flanders. :<) The book she was talking about is The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime.
It seems one could spend a lot of interesting reading time within the pages of her books. I've had the Sisters book in my head for a long while, but haven't read it, and of course didn't remember it was written by JF.
Spooky! That certainly sounds like a book I would enjoy.

(Anonymous)

I'm not really Anonymous - Nan @ Letters from a Hill Farm. :<)
You're always welcome, Nan!
That sounds really interesting!

Still no e-books for me. They may come in useful sometimes, but I can't shake this aversion I have to them.
It is!

You are missing out, IMO, but each to their own. I like the security of being able to carry a lot of books around with me.
This sounds fascinating. Thanks so much for the recommendation.
If you like things Victorian, you'll like this!