Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


A drop of ink from our pen, falling upon the pad of blotting - paper upon which it is our custom to lay the narrow strips of "cream-laid" upon which we write, suggests no inappropriate figure of the subject we are going to write about. A round, well-defined drop at first, it gradually dilates and expands in size, and assumes a ruggedness of outline as it enlarges, the little ridges flying off in every direction, radiating still farther and farther from the centre, just as the circle of London grows bigger and wider by stretching away on all sides from the original confines of the city. The comparison holds good so long as any moisture remains to be absorbed; but soon the ink dries up, and there is an end of it-which cannot be said of the bricks and mortar, the sum and substance of our theme.
    In the little two-pair back-room where we now sit, with a few score of well-thumbed volumes for our sole companions, if we except the cheerful fire which brightens up gratefully for every morsel of food it gets, and all day long singeth a quiet tune - we sat on this day seven years. Nothing material has changed within the four walls since then; but without - on the other side of the thin window-pane which keeps out this cold March wind - everything is so completely transformed or superseded, that it really requires a powerful effort of the imagination to assure one's self of the fact, that we have not been spirited away into another region, or changed by wicked magic into some other respectable elderly gentleman residing in some other equally respectable neighbourhood. Then - in those days of far eld - as we sat in our arm chair, and gazed out of the window, it was a lovely landscape that met our view - lovely at least in the eyes of a Londoner. The end-wall of our patch of a garden abutted upon an extensive tract of level land, cultivated as market-gardens and nursery-grounds, among which the little one-storied brick or wooden cottages of the cultivators sent up wreaths of smoke, which curled pleasantly among the poplar trees and aspens; while the voice of Polly Brown calling Bob her husband to his twelve o'clock dinner, or the prattle of children, or the song of the lark in the sky, which was heard all the summer-day long-were the only sounds which struck upon the ear, save the distant hum of London when the south-west wind blew. Beyond the garden and nursery-grounds, there rose a mixture of meadows and waste land, upon which we have often watched the fowler spreading his nets, and planting his decoys, waiting by the hour together on bended knee for the chance of titlark or goldfinch fluttering shyly above the toils. In the distance, stood the dark-green hill of Highgate, crowned with its solitary spire; to the left of which, a glimpse of further Hampstead terminated the prospect. Now, if we turn our eyes in the same direction, what do we see? Bricks and tiles, and staring windows, from which, for aught we know, a thousand eyes may be looking down upon us; and there, a few yards or so to the left, the deep gorge of a railway cutting, which has ploughed its way right though the centre of the market-gardens, and burrowing beneath the carriage-road, and knocking a thousand houses out of its path, pursues its circuitous course to the city. The cottages have vanished, and given place to a magnificent square, around which a score or more of tall streets, all undeniably genteel, and filled with inhabitants all undeniably genteel too, attest the gentility of the quarter. Where the lark sung in the clouds, there is no ornithological utterance to be heard but that confounded chattering of impudent Cockney sparrows, which are invariably the first tenants that take possession of a London house, and are to its roof what, at a later period of its existence, the rats become to its cellars- a pest and a nuisance. Where the fowler was wont to spread his nets, the poulterer now spreads his fowls; the smell of the new-mown hay is superseded by the smell of burning bricks; and as for the green fields and the distant hills of Highgate and Hampstead, they might as well be a hundred miles off, for all the good they do us behind a screen of solid brick five or six furlongs in thickness. 
    But a truce to complainings. Let us endeavour to trace the progress of this mighty change, and see, if we can, how it is brought about. For the first symptoms of the approach of brick and mortar-the invasion of the country by the town, we must look further a-field than a stranger might suppose. The grass is waving, the oxen are browsing, and the sheep are nibbling at this moment on the sites of a hundred thousand houses, which are already in existence upon paper, locked up in lawyers' tin-cases, or in the architect's cabinet. The land upon which these are to be built is let upon short leases to gardeners, dairymen, cattle-drovers, and in some cases to farmers, who make the most of it for the short term they occupy, and with as little outlay as possible. At length contracts are completed, and the long-meditated plans have to be executed. On a sudden, the hedges and fences disappear; roads are staked out; and the verdant earth is flayed, the green hide being rolled up in strips of a foot in width, and sold for laying down in other places. This process is, however, often seriously interfered with by the travelling turf-seller, who never goes further than he can help for his merchandise, and feels that he has a natural right in all unfenced land. Then commences the sinking of clay-pits; the digging of flat ponds for the collection of water from all the rivulets or ditches in the neighbourhood; the erection of high mounds, on which you may see a blind horse revolving in a perpetual circle, dragging round the ponderous single wheel that grinds the limestone; the setting up of pug mills for mixing the clay; and the piling of rough sheds, to screen the brick-makers from the heat of the sun during their toilsome labour, which, throughout the summer months, is pursued without intermission from the first glimmer of dawn until darkness puts an end to their work. In the course of a fortnight or less, the garden or the meadow is changed into a brick-factory, and soon interminable rows of gray bricks are seen stretching away in all directions, crowned with loose straw to protect them from passing showers. Then begins the burning of the bricks - a process in which the Londoners seem particularly unfortunate, judging from the lumps, as big as haystacks, which are here and there to be seen burnt into solid masses, and fit for nothing but to be broken up for road-making, and dear at a gift for that.
    Pending the making of the bricks, foundations have been dug, and now a crop of handsome houses, arranged as streets, crescents, squares, or detached villas, springs out of the ground with a celerity hardly intelligible to the casual visitor. Simultaneously with the building, the carpenters' work has been going on in a huge temporary workshop erected on the spot. No sooner are the carcasses completed, than the interior fittings are ready to be adjusted; and if the demand for houses be brisk, or the neighbourhood a favourite one, you shall see a whole town born into being in a summer, and peopled ere the winter sets in by a colony of comfortable well-to-do strangers, who seem to have come into being for the express purpose of being absorbed into the evergrowing metropolis.
    We have been describing the creation of a district of the genteeler sort, altogether new, and fashionably far from the seats of business. But it will as frequently happen, that the locality to be built upon is already occupied more or less with dwellings of the poorer class. There are, and always have been, within our recollection, extensive outlying districts in the suburbs of London, very strongly resembling the heterogeneous regions of squatters in a new settlement. You are walking, for the sake of exercise, some fine morning in a quarter with which you are unacquainted, and determine to explore it for the sake of gratifying your curiosity. Suddenly you step off the pavement, out of the long brick-street, which it has taken you ten minutes to traverse, and find yourself in. a new world. The road is black mould, sprinkled over with oyster-shells, broken crockery, and remnants of old saucepans, and sunk in ruts, a single pair, a foot deep, between which the grass grows rank and long; it is flanked by a couple of deep ditches, across which, on either side, at the distance of about twenty paces apart, a couple of rotten planks, laid side by side, serve for a bridge. Ghosts of forlorn donkeys, or at any rate, donkeys not in the flesh, wander moodily about, nosing the rank herbage, and anon waking the dismal echoes with a bray of disappointment at the unsavoury fare. The further side of either ditch is guarded by a hedge of alders, which, being but a sorry fence, is supplemented with the staves of old casks pitched all over, and surmounted with dry twigs and sticks carelessly thrown between the straggling branches of the alders. If you step upon the bridge of plank, and peep over the top of the blue door, the hinges of which you will observe are manufactured from an old shoe, you will see at the end of the patch of ground which serves as a garden, a wretched cottage of two rooms, in one of which a woman is working at the wash-tub, while a young girl is stretching a line between the forks of a few tall fagot-sticks, in preparation for drying the clothes. There is nothing in the garden save the fading remains of a potato-bed, and a few rows of gigantic cabbage-stumps, nearly a yard high, which may have been planted originally, for aught you know, when the cottage was first built. You pursue your way, and now the road is bedizened with fragments of shining tin, in circles and triangles, and long strips, which cling about your feet; and glancing through the hedge at your left, you perceive the tinrnan, or tinker, which you choose, pattering away at a kettle which he holds between his knees, as he sits on the ground at the door of his wooden hut. The tinker's garden, however, is in better trim than the washerwoman's; he has no occasion to use it for a drying-ground; and, having a fancy for onions, lie has laid out a pretty patch of them, and they are thriving well. Next to the tinker dwells a shoemaker, whose wife is again a washerwoman; and next to him is a basket-maker, who has a decent fence next the ditch, having devoted a few twigs from his store to the repair of the hedge. A little further on, and you come upon a settlement that covers a space of some hundreds of square acres; and observe that, with very few exceptions, all the dwellings arc cottages of one floor, having little brick-chimneys protruding crookedly from their roofs, like the feet of a pigeon in the preterpluperfect tense through the crust of a pie. You will come to the conclusion, as you look around, that everybody's wife is a washerwoman, with the exception of the dog-stealer's, whose husband is too much of a gentleman to allow his better-half to waste her time at the tub, which she can spend more profitably in the exercise of his profession; and that a good many of the husbands, too, are in some sort washermen, engaged in the fetching, carrying, and hanging-out departments. Most of them, in spite of their confined quarters, take in lodgers, chiefly navvies and bricklayers' labourers, whom, it is to be presumed, they stow away in the little cock-lofts under the pantiles. Yonder is a little chapel called "Jireh," whence a very loud voice may be heard issuing on a Wednesday night or a Sunday morning; and not far from it, with a tattered union-Jack flying over the roof, is a Tom-and-Jerry shop, the landlord of which supplies treble X and ninepins for the accommodation of the neighbourhood.
    But this happy district, which enjoys the designation of Tittlebat Fields, or something very like it, has been let for building. The tenants are served with a summary notice to quit by a certain day. The happy man who has a little freehold on the spot is bought out, or he refuses to be bought out, and remains and lives in his beggarly cottage, till the light of heaven is shut out of it by an enclosure of high walls. The whole colony takes wing, and, scattering in all directions, settles down again in some kindred locality, further than ever from the centres of fashion. The mode of building upon a district such as this, differs very materially from that pursued in the former case. The bricks are not made upon the spot, but brought from the brick-grounds, which lie beyond the region. The level of the land is too low to allow of the required drainage, and has to be raised perhaps ten or a dozen feet. The first step, therefore, is the building of the roadways which are to intersect the district. These are raised much in the same manner as are the embankments for railways-by carting earth and rubbish from the nearest depositary, and shooting it on the spot. A lively German writer, in a late work, has described the inhabitants of London as residing in houses built in ditches on each side of the roads. lie would have been more correct had he said, that the roads were built up to the level of the ceilings of the basement- rooms-such being in practice the general rule. The floor of the so-called underground kitchen of a London house was never really under ground, but was laid originally a trifle above the level of the soil, and even in many cases at a considerable elevation above the level. As fast as the roads are formed, the houses, built according to a certain plan, to which the builders are bound to adhere, rise rapidly on either side of them. It will be frequently observed, however, that they halt at a certain stage for weeks or months, and, indeed, occasionally for years, before they advance to completion. This is evidence of a state of affairs which we shall have to notice presently. As the advancing suburb pushes its way forwards, it gradually eats up the old neighbourhood. What trees there are, are felled, unless they happen to stand in some patch allotted for a garden, or in the identical spot which forms the boundary between the footpath and the road, in which ease they are always left standing, and are sure to operate as a recommendation in the eyes of new-corners. The abandoned cottages are broken up into material for the new houses, of which their old bricks go to form the partywalls; and hence it frequently comes to pass, that you may remove to a new house, and find it literally swarming with vermin before it has ever been inhabited by human beings. A couple of years or so suffices to transform Tittlebat Fields into Tittlebat Town, with a splendid new church and congregational chapel, and swarming with inhabitants. Where they all come from is a mystery not easily solved, and not accountable for by the increase of population, which, as we learn from the returns, goes on but at the rate of 400 or 500 a week-though that is something. 
    Of the art and mystery of the builder's occupation, we do not pretend to know much; but judging from the numbers engaged in it, and from the evidences of their industry constantly rising around us, it cannot be a very unprofitable business. Doubtless it requires a good capital to carry it on to the greatest advantage; but this is constantly done, and that in a pretty large way, by men of no capital at all, beyond a little ready-money to meet the Saturday-night's wages. Whole miles of streets in London are built upon speculation, somewhat in the following way: by men who have little to lose, and everything to hope for. Chips the carpenter joins with Hod the bricklayer in renting a piece of ground for a term of eighty or ninety years. Neither of them, perhaps, has money enough to erect a single house; but between them they contrive to get up a couple of carcasses as high as the second or third story, and there they stop. They can go no further; but at this stage of the proceeding the houses are mortgage able; and if the situation be a good one, holding out the prospect of a speedy tenancy, capitalists are readily to be found who will advance money upon mortgage for their completion; if, on the contrary, the situation be not promising, and there be any stigma of unhealthiness resting on the locality, the speculating builders may wait a long while for the relief of the mortgagee, which explains the phenomenon we have alluded to in a former paragraph. With the money advanced upon the two first houses, Messrs. Chips and Hod can finish them, and put up the semi-carcasses of a couple more; and so on and on until the whole of their land is covered. If the houses let - and that is almost invariably the case-they do well, and in course of time pay off the mortgages; if they do not let, the loss is comparatively little; and this, moreover, in the present day so rarely happens, that it forms the exception, and not the rule. Of course, in these speculations, everything depends upon the judgment of the builders. It will sometimes happen, that a row of houses built in a style of expense beyond the requirements of the neighbourhood, will have to stand empty, or to be let at an unremunerative rent; on the other hand, if the houses erected be such as to command but a low rent, the ground-rent, which is always high, the repairs, and the interest of capital, will be hardly covered by the receipts. Notwithstanding all such contingencies, however, the builders manage their affairs pretty satisfactorily. We could point to more than one who, a dozen years ago, wrought with their own hands at the carpenter's bench, and who are now in the receipt of a clear rental of above a thousand a year each, after all drawbacks are paid. If there be any mystery in this, the solution of it will be found in the difference between the rate at which money can be borrowed in the market, and the average income it produces when invested in inhabited houses.
    The pedestrian who has been accustomed to perambulate the bounds of London during the last quarter of a century, asks what has become of all those snug and luxurious mansions embosomed in the foliage of lofty elms, and surrounded with acres of lawn and shrubbery, the whole enclosed with high walls, and guarded by a comfortable porter's lodge, which, thirty, twenty years ago, stood like citadel sanctuaries in a hundred pleasant spots on the verge of the great Babel? Gradually they have nearly all disappeared. Mammon, under the specious aspect of "ground-rent,"has come with the bray of his brazen trumpet, and the lofty walls have fallen as flat as those of Jericho at the blast of the rams' horns. The sacred groves have submitted to the axe; the carpeted greensward has given up its quiet being; the land being first advertised, "To be let on Building Leases-inquire of Threefoot Rule, Esq ," is swallowed up by all-devouring London; the mansion itself is nowhere, and the owner is off somewhere, with £5,000 a year added to his income.
    This brings us naturally to a few words on ground-rent- the great bugbear of builders and speculators, and of all who have property in houses, and have not the good fortune to be the proprietors of a freehold. Of the ground within the boundaries of the city proper, it is probable that the larger proportion belongs to the corporation of London. Its value for building purposes is in the precise ratio of its contiguity to the channels of traffic. An out-of-the-way spot, comparatively unfrequented, may be rented at a moderate sum; whilst a single rood of land, in the very centre of activity, will realise a princely income. In one street you shall hire a house of a dozen rooms for £50 or £60 a year; and in another, you may pay £250 for a couple of rooms, one of which the daylight never enters from one year's end to the other. In the best situations, the value of the ground is so enormous, that the premises standing upon it add but a mere per-centage to the amount of the annual rent. We could point to houses hardly large enough for a comfortable family residence, in the occupation of tradesmen doing business behind their counters, and paying for ground-rent alone £300, £400, and £500 a year each. This abnormal value has grown up with the increase of traffic; and the question has often been mooted, whether it is morally right that a factitious wealth, which the public has created, should he exclusively enjoyed by those who have done little or nothing towards producing it? Here is a question for the casuists, which we must leave them to decide.
    Without the boundaries of the city, the land is mostly the property of the nobility and aristocracy of the country. The Edwards and Henrys of former times thoughtlessly gave away vast tracts of it to court favourites in reward for small services, real or imaginary. They little thought what a mine of wealth they were conferring upon the descendants of the fortunate recipients. The holders of these lands, however, were not slow in appreciating their value, and they bought up, while it could be done cheaply, the fields lying adjacent to their grants. At the present time, we must wander to a good distance from the city limits to get altogether clear of the estates of my Lord This, the Duke of That, or Earl Somebody, to say nothing of the lands of which Mother Church is the guardian. As London increased in size, these lands of course were covered with buildings, everyone of which, in due time, became the property of the owners of the soil. The land is let for building rarely for a longer term than eighty or ninety years; and a condition of the lease binds the builder, his heirs, executors, and administrators, to deliver up the houses to the ground-landlord, in good repair, at the expiration of the term. This, be it observed, is no formal clause merely. We once rented a house, which "fell in," as it is termed, to the ground-landlord during our tenancy. Eighteen months before the close of the lease, a surveyor came down upon us, in the cause of the ground-landlord, and enforced a thorough overhauling of the dwelling from the roof to the cellars, with re-painting, repapering, carpentering, and locksmithing, the cost of which was deducted from the landlord's rent. The effect upon the incomes of the aristocracy of this mode of doing business, may be best estimated from the single fact, that there fell into the Duke of ---, a few years ago, owing to the lapse of the ground-leases of one estate, a clear rental which was estimated at £300,000 a year. In this manner, by building on land rented for a limited period, a species of architecture is produced which stands at the lowest point in the scale of taste.
    There is an old distich which says,

    The realm of Old England shall never be undone, 
    Till Highgate Hill stands in the middle of London.

The speculators in land for building appear to have perfect faith in this suggestive legend. Looking upon what has been done, and at what the railways promise to do, they recognise no boundary to the extension of the metropolis. Away to all points of the compass, and far beyond the limits of any town- district, all the purchaseable land has been bought and sold, and sold again. Even though utterly unproductive, as some of it is, it is constantly rising in value, and a good deal of it as constantly changing owners. This branch of speculation appears to be a favourite source of excitement among retired tradesmen - old hands at business, with judgments matured in the experience of bargains, not a few of whom, to our knowledge, have more than doubled their capital since they bade adieu to the shop-counter, and gave up, as they imagined finally, the idea of money-making. These cunning old fellows never build - they know better. They know that Highgate Hill will get into the middle of London in good time without their dabbling in bricks and mortar; but there is no reason why these substantial materials should not be made to pay toll to their sagacity as they proceed on their destined march. They may be met with on a dry walking-day, either in winter or summer, pacing a slope of ground, or measuring it with a walking-stick exactly a yard in length, or copying the conditions of lease or sale into their corpulent pocket-books from. the black board mounted on a pole, upon which the required information is inscribed in white letters. London advances through the gripe of their itching palms, and hastens to accomplish her destiny with a speed nothing retarded by their interference. Already have the columns of brick advanced to the very foot of Highgate Hill, and the green sides of that picturesque acclivity, spotted with red and white patches, begin to manifest unmistakeable symptoms of the advancing tide of population. Highgate Hill may never be the centre of the metropolis; but that it is destined, in a few short years, to be clad in a mantle of red brick, few who have witnessed the systematic measures in progress in that direction during the present reign will feel inclined to doubt.