When John Dryden envisioned London rising from the Great Fire of 1666 to its destiny as one of the great cities of the world (NAEL 8, 1.2085), he foresaw what would actually happen. During the following century, the population doubled, from 400,000 to 800,000. But still more, the cultural and commercial life of Britain and its empire increasingly centered on London. Though a vast majority of English people continued to work at farming, it was the city that set the tone for business, pleasure, and an emerging consumer society. "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," according to Samuel Johnson; "for there is in London all that life can afford."

[Click on image to enlarge] With so much to see and do, a day in eighteenth-century London can be viewed as a microcosm of that world. Pope's Rape of the Lock (NAEL 8, 1.2514) uses the events of one day in high society, from dawn to dusk, as the comic equivalent of a full epic action. The low society of London also bombarded the senses. A Description of the Morning, by Jonathan Swift, itemizes some typical sights and sounds as the city wakes. All sorts of noise filled the streets; the famous "Cries of London," as vendors hawked their wares, were celebrated in popular prints and songs.

During the day, London was a vast hub of finance, trade, and manufacturing; ships jammed the Thames with traffic from all over the world. But Londoners also found ways to mix business with pleasure. At midday it became the fashion to drop into clublike coffeehouses, to meet friends and cronies and catch up with the news. Another favorite gathering place was "the nave or centre of the town," the Royal Exchange, rebuilt after the fire as a vast mall for shopping and trade. With growing prosperity, London turned into a city where everything was for sale. Its elegant shops dazzled tourists, supplying not only heaps of goods but also a perpetual source of amusement.

[Click on image to enlarge] In the evening, under the glow of much-improved oil-burning street lights, London came alive with places to go, to see and be seen. Glittering pleasure gardens, especially Vauxhall and Ranelagh, provided luxurious grounds to view works of art, to dance or listen to music, to stroll and mingle and flirt. Varieties of spectacles and shows drew larger and larger crowds, and theaters expanded to meet the competition. At the London playhouses, the audience itself was often part of the entertainment. Nor did the quest for pleasure cease at the witching hour. According to John Gay's Trivia, thieves and mischief-makers took over the streets at midnight, ready for a night ramble: "Now is the Time that Rakes their Revells keep; / Kindlers of Riot, Enemies of Sleep." As part of the city woke at dawn, another part was just going to bed.

© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page