Disorderly London

A conference on “Literary London” has become an annual summer event. This year the conference theme was London in crisis and disorder. Senate House Library provided a small display to accompany the conference from 17 to 19 July. The best-known book shown was Henry Mayhew’s classic London Labour and the London Poor. Other items focused on crime.

To me, coming to the conference from the viewpoint of book reception, two items particularly stood out. These were The Frauds and Cheats of London Detected by George Barrington (London: J. Lee, 1802) and The New Cheats of London Exposed, by Richard King (London: A. Hogg, [between ca. 1778 and 1805?]). Both booklets were written to warn against vice and being taken in by it, on the basis that “the many shocking crimes committed in and about London, as well as frauds and cheats daily practised on the unwary tradesmen, mechanic and deluded countryman, call aloud for detection and discovery”, and that it is impossible to write too much about it. The text, albeit allegedly by two different authors, is is extremely similar, in some places identical, in the two works; a difference is that the Barrington booklet states specifically that it is aimed at residents of the country who may wish to visit London and risk ruin there, such people being more unsuspecting than London residents.

Wight, Mornings at Bow Street

Wight, Mornings at Bow Street

Also interesting for reception is John Wight’s Mornings at Bow Street,  illustrated by George Cruikshank: enlarged, corrected, and polished versions of “some of the most descriptive and amusing” reports from Bow Street Magistrates’ Court to have appeared between 1821 and 1823 in the Morning Herald. The text was first published in 1824 and ran through numerous editions in the nineteenth century: selected for display was the latest of four editions in the Bromhead Library, a cheap yellowback version. Further evidence of the work’s popularity was the publication of a sequel (also displayed), More Mornings at Bow Street, in 1827 – and perhaps even by the latest item chosen to display, Humours & Oddities of the London Police Courts by “Dogberry” (1894). Like the Bow Street volumes, this book offers “much that is curious and amusing in the more attractive side of London Police-Court life”, presenting true, but “re-dressed”, police cases. Unlike Mornings at Bow Street, it ranges over numerous papers and covers almost a century; and it was published only once.

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