Understanding the City

  • Simon Dentith
Part of the Social History in Perspective book series (SHP)


Cultural forms, I have been insisting, have a history, and work to historical rhythms, which are not simply congruent with the forms of life they represent and address. Certainly, the city has been the site of conflicting representations since classical antiquity; London in the nineteenth century was the inheritor of these conflicting representations, and could be celebrated both as the imperial metropolis and as a sink of iniquity in ways that have ancient precedents. But London was not the typical nineteenth-century city in England; at least, though it grew enormously in the course of the century and reproduced many of the features of other nineteenth-century cities, it is not to London that we should look for the most spectacular rates of growth or the most distinctively nineteenth-century patterns of urban settlement and industrial use. For these we should look to the industrialising cities of the Midlands and the North, which grew at prodigious rates in the nineteenth century, and which were in fact practically unprecedented in human history. For these cities — and for the reality of an enormous and socially segregated London — the old paradigms simply did not fit. Nineteenth-century cultural forms, to a very considerable degree, emerge from the novel realities of the nineteenth-century city.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    R. J. Morris and Richard Rodger, ‘An Introduction to British Urban History, 1820–1914’, in The Victorian City: A Reader in British Urban History, 1820–1914, edited by R.J. Morris and Richard Rodger (Longman, London, 1993), pp. 1–39. Figures for the nineteenth century are relatively secure compared to previous centuries, if only because of the institution of the national census on a decennial basis from 1801 onwards. Nevertheless, they are still open to interpretation, if only because, in this instance, definitions of what constituted a city or an urban settlement changed in the course of the century. Changing urban boundaries also affect the statistics.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion 1688–1914 (Longman, London and New York, 1993), p. 115.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., pp. 2–3.Google Scholar
  4. Alun Howkins, in Reshaping Rural England; a Social History 1850–1925 (HarperCollins, London, 1991), has rightly suggested some caution about assuming majority urban experience in mid-century England, pointing out that many of those considered ‘urban’ on the basis of the census would have been living in traditional small country towns relatively unaffected by industrialism.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    See H.J. Dyos and Michael Wolff, ‘The Way We Live Now’, in The Victorian City; Images and Realities, edited by H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff, 2 vols. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1973), 2: 893–907, for a contrast between the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cities along these lines.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Asa Briggs, ‘The Human Aggregate’, in Dyos and Wolff, eds., The Victorian City, pp. 83–104, 87–8.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    See Michael Wolff and Celina Fox, ‘Pictures from the Magazines’, in Dyos and Wolff, eds., The Victorian City, pp. 559–82. The illustrations are reproduced between pp. 572 and 573. Wolff and Fox offer these illustrations as evidence of a more active social conscience to be found in lesser-known journals like the Illustrated Times.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Carlyle, ‘Chartism’, in English and Other Critical Essays (J. M. Dent and Sons, London, n.d.), pp. 165–238, p. 170.Google Scholar
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    George Eliot, ‘The Natural History of German Life’ (1856), in Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, edited by A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren (Penguin, London, 1990).Google Scholar
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    Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (1847–48), ch. 47.Google Scholar
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    See, for the ‘Condition-of-England novel’, Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780–1950 (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1961), ch. 5, ‘The Industrial Novels’, pp. 99–119;Google Scholar
  12. Louis Cazamian, The Social Novel in England 1830–1850, translated by Martin Fido (Routledge, London, 1973);Google Scholar
  13. Sheila M. Smith, The Other Nation: The Poor in English Novels of thd 1840s and 1850s (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980).Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    This apparently arbitrary conjunction of writing and painting seems less arbitrary in the light of Martin Meisel’s great work Realisations, which traces the connections between writing, pictures and indeed theatre, from the late eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    This painting is closely modelled on an illustration Fildes provided for the Graphic 1 (1869), 9. See the illustrations between pp. 572–3 in Michael Wolff and Celina Fox, ‘Pictures from the Magazines’, in Dyos and Wolff, eds., The Victorian City, pp. 559–82.Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, edited by Edgar Wright (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 96.Google Scholar
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    George Gissing, The Nether World (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 280.Google Scholar
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    Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, 1st ser., revised edn, 5 vols. (Macmillan, London, 1902).Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    See n. 8, Chapter 1, above.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, edited by Trefor Thomas (Keele University Press, Keele, 1996), pp. 4–5.Google Scholar
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    Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold, London: A Pilgrimage (Grant and Co., London, 1872), p. 25.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., between pp. 138 and 139.Google Scholar
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    See Roger Sales, ‘Pierce Egan and the Representation of London’, in Reviewing Romanticism, edited by Philip W. Martin and Robin Jarvis (Macmillan, London, 1992), pp. 154–69.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    E. P. Thompson, ‘Mayhew and the Morning Chronicle’, introduction to The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the Morning Chronicle 1849–1850, edited by E. P. Thompson and Eileen Yeo (Penguin, Harmonsdworth, 1971).Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    Peter Bailey, ‘Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday: Comic Art in the 1880s’, History Workshop Journal 16 (Autumn 1983), 4–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 23.
    Andrew Mearns, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, edited with an introduction by Anthony S. Wohl (Leicester, Leicester University Press, 1970), p. 55.Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    See Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971);Google Scholar
  28. Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Virago, London, 1992).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 25.
    E. P. Hennock, ‘Poverty and Social Theory in England: The Experience of the Eighteen-Eighties’, Social History 1 (January 1976), 67–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 26.
    Benjamin Brierley, ‘Out of Work’, in Tales and Sketches of Lancashire Life, 6 vols. (John Heywood, Manchester, 1882#x2013;86), VI: 76–7.Google Scholar
  31. 27.
    M. J. Daunton, House and Home in the Victorian City; Working-Class Housing 1850–1914 (Edward Arnold, London, 1983).Google Scholar
  32. 28.
    E Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, translated and edited by W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1971).Google Scholar
  33. 29.
    See Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight.Google Scholar

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© Simon Dentith 1998

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  • Simon Dentith

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