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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Beautiful Things – London Impressions

London Impressions: etchings and pictures in photogravure by William Hyde and essays by Alice Meynell was published in 1898.  Both the words and the images in this book are beautiful.  Hyde uses a very soft sometimes charcoal like approach to photogravure – a photo-mechanical intaglio printing process that uses light to expose an image on to a plate which is then acid-etched.  The charcoal-like nature of Hyde’s work is accompanied by accurate and fine detail.  This mix of techniques does indeed provide a very impressionistic view of London at the end of the 19th century.  Alice Meynell is now mostly remembered as a poet but she was also a suffragist, a critic, an editor and an early questioner of Europe’s colonial imperialism.  Her prose in London Impressions often speaks of the colours, sounds and other sensory experiences of London.

An Impression

BL Meynell fol-6

‘Add to this the black garments of the crowd, which make every man conspicuous in the light, and the abrupt and minute patches of white – exceedingly pure white of sharp shapes and angles – scattered throughout the drifting and intercrossing multitude.  The white of a footman’s shirt, the white of the collars of innumerable men, the white letters of advertisements, the white of the label at the back of cabs and hansoms, and many and many another little square, triangle, and line of white, are visible to the utmost distances.  They have an emphasis that is never softened; nothing except snow, could be whiter; and nothing, perhaps, makes so salient a part of the enormous fragmentariness of the street view.’ (p. 7-8)

Utilitarian London

BL Meynell fol-4

Terrible London

BL Meynell fol-5

The Climate of Smoke

‘And yet the artificial climate of London is at its best when it is very obvious, and when it has strong scenes of sunset or storm to deal with.  The time when it is insufferable is noonday or full afternoon on a cloudless day in summer, when there is not wind enough to drift it, helpless, out of town, and when it is not thick enough to keep the sun away.  It makes the sunshine ugly.  No beauty, even artificial or obvious belongs to the smoke then, and it plays no antic pranks in mimicry of cloud.  It has no shadow and no menace; it has no opportunity for stage-plays: it is disconcerted, and cannot make a penny theatre of its London.  Every one must know such days, of which the essence should have been their purity, plain and splendid.  By their light is the smoke seen to be nothing in the world but a sorry smirch.  The horizon is thickened with it, and there it wreaks its chief ‘effects’, but all near things are also oppressed by it; the spirit of the sunshine is gone, and a blazing sun upon miles of blue slate roofs and yellow houses, with the uncleanness of smoke just showing in the blaze, is actually that impossibility – sunshine without beauty.’ (p. 10)

Kensington Gardens

BL Meynell fol-3

The Trees

‘The leaves of the street-side tree flutter bright emerald green through the whole night (out of town discolouring night) of leafy summer.  That local colour is never quenched, as human blushes are quenched at night.  It rather takes a more conspicuous quality, under the closeness of the electric light; it is sharply green.  Whereas the days has its mists and veils, and may at times darken a tree nearly black, by setting the sky alight behind it, the night has none of these shadows.  The light of night is stationary and unchangeable, and there are some solitary trees here and there that undergo the unshifting illumination at the closest quarters; the light that knows no hours and makes no journey gleams near upon the motion of the leaves and glosses their faces.  It is beforehand with the twilight, so that the dusk when it comes finds the place taken, and it will not let the tree go until the light of day flows in fully, and dawn is over.’ (p. 12)

London Impressions is a book from the Bromhead Library, a collection of around 4000 volumes almost exclusively about London and Londoners. 

Beautiful Things – Text and photographs by Charles Harrowell.

Widening access to books about London

Time to celebrate! A library milestone has been reached with the complete online cataloguing of one of our hitherto “hidden” collections, the Bromhead Library. The Bromhead Library consists of about 4,000 items pertaining to the history of London. Those printed before 1800 were catalogued online some years ago. Now the vast majority of the collection, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century books, have been added. These range from exquisitely coloured folios to books about specific London suburbs (e.g. Sweet Hampstead and its Associations), coach directories and general guide books – perhaps the most scintillating title is London night and day: A Guide to Where the Other Books Don’t Take You. Books are fully searchable by author, title, subject, keyword or classmark,

A royal river pageant: Aqua triumphalis

In the euphoria of Diamond Jubilee celebrations, here at Senate House Library we have had a special interest in last Sunday’s river pageant (3 June 2012). News coverage noted the last similar event on such a scale, the river pageant to welcome King Charles II and Queen Catherine of Braganza on 23 August 1662 on the occasion of their marriage. This drew our attention to the playwright John Tatham’s poem commemorating that event, Aqua Triumphalis.

Our copy of this poem, from the Bromhead Library of works about London, turns out to be one of just three in London and four in Great Britain more widely. The BBC borrowed it to show in connection with the Diamond Jubilee flotilla. Bound in a 20th-century calf binding, the book was in good condition and able to take the heat of the spotlight. Our usual loan and filming conditions include limiting the time under the heat of the lights, keeping handling to a minimum and holding it with clean hands carefully but securely. Dr Anna Whitelock was used to handling rare books so we knew it was in safe hands. The clutter of a studio and live filming could have presented problems but everyone was very accommodating. Unfortunately in the end the book did not quite make it to screen – maybe another time …