London: A Social History Paperback – 5 Oct 2000
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About the Author
ROY PORTER is Professor in the Social History of Medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London. He is most recently the author of THE GREATEST BENEFIT TO MANKIND (HarperCollins, 1998) and the forthcoming (10/00) Allen Lane title ENLIGHTENMENT: BRITAIN AND THE CREATION OF THE MODERN WORLD.
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In his preface, after relating to us details of his childhood in postwar New Cross and the differences (and continuities) he noted with the area in the 1990s, Porter provokes thought from the beginning of his tale: “London”, he says “is not the eternal city; it had its hour upon the stage. Between the two Elizabeths, between 1570 and 1986 to be more precise, it was to become the world’s greatest city” – that is, between the founding of the Royal Exchange and the abolition of the GLC. Is he right? (He was writing before the inauguration of the office of Mayor of London and the London Assembly in 2000.)
Porter also sees London’s rise and fall as a mirror of that of the British Empire. The empire might have gone, but has London itself fallen? He proposes that “urban pathology lies not in growth but in collapse, emigration, impoverishment, idleness. It is these symptoms that are evident today. Writing in 2017, I might take these one by one and argue: for example, Porter might quote population statistics to support decline, but fails to remark that the whole of southeast England is now in essence London.
“I have tried to make the city itself my hero,” he says, “focussing on the interaction of its people its economy and its physical fabric … Consigning princes and palaces to the background, I have sought to probe the play of built environment with inhabitants … working from street level, building a jigsaw out of lots of localities.”
His focus is on the later centuries, for as the title of chapter two suggests – ‘Formation to Reformation’ – we whizz from Rome to the mid-sixteenth century in short time. He begins with Wyngaerde’s bird’s-eye view of 1544. Whilst we can lament the inexcusable lack of a reproduction of this document, Porter’s apt descriptions do at least provide some compensation: the Hansa’s steelyard “was a little Hong Kong”, whilst St Paul’s cathedral “had become sacred to commerce, harbinger of the shopping mall.” From its inception, London was built for commerce.
This focus saturates the world of Reformation London, for “We remember the churches and cloisters within the walls; we tend to forget that pre-Reformation London was encircled by church estates … [Thus] By shaking up the property world, the Reformation realised dramatic economic possibilities. This landlords’ bonanza went hand in hand with demographic and economic growth.” Porter goes on to provide the detail.
That detail is however often generalised and this review often wished for some particular case studies to illustrate the point being made. Yet there is here much detail hitherto unknown to me (who has read quite extensively on London), such as reactions in the city to the onset of Civil War, reactions of the city’s leadership and of the populace at large: Porter asserts, “If not quite an urban tail wagging the national dog, London had at least become a force no future king or Parliament could afford to slight.”
The first few chapters are by and large chronological, taking us up to the Great Fire. Thereafter, namely three-quarters of the book, a more thematic framework is constructed around the narrative. Chapters focus on commercial life (of course), but also cultural life, the physical expansion of the city, its inability to concentrate and centralise power, etc.
Porter makes good use of cogent contemporary quotations from the usual suspects (Pepys, Johnson, Dickens) to the not so well-known like the anonymous Victorian shore-worker who went into the sewers looking for coins – “I’ve found sovereigns and half-sovereigns over and over again … But we no sooner get the money than the publican had it.”
In the end, though, I had to ask myself if this ‘Social History’ was fundamentally different from any other London history. Perhaps not. It covers economics, politics, architecture, transport, but also (for example) the Dock Registration Scheme. The clue to its difference as a work of history is its perspective; the emphasis is on daily lives rather than on pomp and circumstance.
Thirty-three pages are devoted at the end of the story to guiding those who wish to explore further through other books on the history of London.
There is also unevenness in the range of topics. Since the book is labelled 'a social history', one expects an emphasis on the daily life of Londoners and the development of demographics, of neighbourhoods, and so forth. Much of this is provided, but interestingly it takes the form of mainly tracing social developments in the city through the ecclesiastical history on the one hand, and the physical construction of roads and boroughs on the other hand. Each period is given its own peculiar topical emphasis by Porter: the 17th century is mainly described in terms of building projects and expansions, the 18th century history is mainly cultural, whereas the 19th is mainly economic; the 20th century, finally, is where some politics comes in. But although two chapters are dedicated to the political aspects, these get relatively short shrift, as does London in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, one can argue this is fair enough for a social history, as so much has been written on Britain's politics already, but the peculiar disproportions are the more noticable for being uncommon.
That is not to say that this is a bad book. On the contrary, its unevenness is almost hidden entirely under the vast scope of the undertaking, Porter's skilled and engaging writing, and his mastery over detail. A 'social history' here seems to mean a history of essentially anything that does not mainly deal with politics and economics, and this leaves a massive wealth of material for a historian to choose from. Porter's selections are excellent, since it allows him exactly the right balance between engaging details and quotations on the one hand and the sweep of the broad brush on the other hand that is necessary for successful popular history. In fact, the wealth of information provided about London's streets, churches, crime, brothels, sewers, governments and immigration is so great that even those familiar with the city and who need no general introductions to the chronology of British history will find many things they did not know. The book is stylistically light enough to attract general readers, but the content is solid enough to make it anything but dumbed down. That is quite an impressive performance in its own right, and combined with the vast scope of topics covered, the book almost succeeds at being an unassailable all-round general history of the city up to the early 1990s. That is doesn't succeed entirely at being the definitive work on the subject due to insufficiently balanced integration of the different periods and topics is therefore certainly no reason not to buy this book. Recommended for anyone interested in London's history outside politics.
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