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Bear Baiting, 1821 At Charley's Theatre, Westminster Bear Baiting, 1821 At Charley's Theatre, Westminster

Bridget Galton
Thursday, October 11, 2012
11:30 AM

Chalk Farm author Judith Flanders has investigated how London changed in Dickens’ era

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In recent years, Judith Flanders has immersed herself in the life and mores of Victorian Britain – from the minutiae of the domestic sphere to favourite leisure and pleasure pursuits.

Last year’s The Invention Of Murder grippingly probed the 19th century mindset through the prism of the murder cases that seized the popular imagination.

This year, to complement Flanders’ acclaimed The Victorian House: Domestic Life From Childbirth To Deathbed (2003), she meticulously conjures the sights, smells and sounds of The Victorian City (Atlantic Books, £25).

“The Victorian House was about the texture of daily life and it seemed an obvious extension that after indoors I should do outdoors,” says the author, who lives in Chalk Farm.

“We think we know what happened on Victorian streets because they are essentially the streets we walk on now. But just as people used their houses differently than we do now that we have plumbing and electricity, I wanted to show how the streets were used very differently. To find the things that contemporary novelists didn’t put in their books because they were so ordinary.”

The book is subtitled Everyday Life In Dickens’ London and Flanders describes the Victorian novelist who defined the era as “the elephant in the room” for her previous books.

“I’ve been fighting all these years to keep him out of my books in case he takes over. Because he can always provide the perfect quote to illustrate anything, I had to say ‘down!’ but his dates – 1812 to 1870 – fitted very well with what I wanted to do: to chart the creation of the Victorian city.”

That city grew from a population of one million in 1800 to 6.5million by the end of the century. During that time, six million homes, roads, railways and sewers were constructed in a city that was a constant building site.

Flanders begins with the development of Trafalgar Square, Regent Street and Regent’s Park.

“Where did the transformation start from the medieval city into the Victorian one we know today? We begin the century with a city that is still 17th century in size. To build Trafalgar Square, they knocked down the Royal Mews which had stood since the 14th century. What we get then is the coming of the railway and the development of the modern world.”

Unlike the French, who laid out Paris under Baron Haussmann’s master plan, London’s development was more ad hoc, driven by the speculation of private landlords like the Duke of Bedford, Lord Grosvenor and the Crown, which owned Regent’s Park.

“These developments weren’t about making the city more wonderful but to increase the value of land owned by private landlords,” she says.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the streets were far more multi-functional than they are today and a “hive of activity”.

“Rather than being a place to pass through, they were where you found food, entertainment, work and sex.

“The poor lived in horrible houses and wanted to be outside. At a time when there were no fridges or supermarkets, it was easier and cheaper to buy your cup of tea or breakfast on the streets than to light a fire to make it yourself, so they ate out all the time.”

London was a 24-hour city with coffee stalls open all night to cater for the post-theatre crowd through to early morning farmers driving animals to market.

“Wherever you worked, you could send out a messenger to get food from a chop house or coffee house and offices had great trays of food coming in and out.”

Homeless, often orphan boys hung about on street corners hoping to earn a penny for holding a man’s horse while he went about his business.

Famously in Bleak House, Jo the crossing sweeper was a breed of impoverished youngster paid by pedestrians to sweep the manure out of their path.

“Dickens is constantly writing that so and so rode into London and got a boy to hold a horse and I wondered who were these boys who just hung around looking for a horse to hold?” says Flanders.

Not only were the streets filled with dung, but Dickens also indicates how noisy they were.

“Characters in carriages often have to pull off the main road so they can hear each other speak.”

As Flanders says in her introduction, Dickens’ London is “a perfect optic” through which to see the city’s transformation.

“It was a place of the mind, but it was also a real place. Much of what we take to be the marvellous imaginings of a visionary novelist turn out, on inspection, to be the reportage of a great observer.”

The Victorian City, Everyday life in Dickens’ London is published by Atlantic Books

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