Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1859

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Of the making of books about London since the days of Stow there has been literally no end. The quaint old Elizabethan Chronicle was re-edited, expanded and amended in the early Georgian era by Strype; but prior to the publication of the work of that esteemed cleric the seventeenth century had abounded in books bearing directly or indirectly on the British metropolis, and on the manners and customs of its citizens. The diaries of Pepys and Evelyn are to a great extent guidebooks to London. In the reign of Charles II. a Grand Duke of Tuscany travelled through England and recorded, or caused to be recorded, his impressions of London life. The inimitable Memoirs of the Chevalier de Grammont supplement the pictures of court life bequeathed to us by the two illustrious diarists just mentioned. The carefully observant Frenchman, Misson, was within our gates in the reign of William III.; and about the same time there was published in Holland a volume entitled Les Délices de la Grande Bretagne, of which a considerable portion is devoted to engravings and descriptions of the public buildings of London. The great city was repeatedly a theme for the pens of [-viii-] Swift, of Defoe, and of Gay. It is the text of Johnson's noble, but all too brief, satire. Graphic pictures of London life abound in the novels of Fielding and Smollett, and in Goldsmith's Citizen of the World. Hughson, Malcolm, and Pennant wrote voluminous histories of the capital of the British Empire; and in Ackermann's Microcosm of London, illustrated by Rowlandson and the eldest Pagin, we have a marvellously accurate conspectus of London as it existed in the first decade of the present century. Pierce Egan's Life in London, and its imitator Doings in London, are coarse but tolerably faithful aspects of many phases of London life; while much gracefuller and more humorous are the metropolitan essays - of Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt. Quite a new and a vivid tableau of London was given in the Sketches by Boz, in the Pickwick Papers, in Oliver Twist, in Nicholas Nickleby, and in Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens; and while the great novelist was gathering his first laurels, Mr. Fisher Murray was writing his World of London, and Charles Knight his Cyclopcedia of London. As regards the present generation, books about London have been as numerous as leaves in Vallombrosa, or as the amours of Don Giovanni as summarised by Leporello. Most conspicuous among the chroniclers of Victorian London was my late and dear friend Peter Cunningham, F.S.A., whose Handbook of London has been quite recently re-edited and almost rewritten by Mr. Henry B. Wheatley, F.S.A., to whom I have taken the liberty of dedicating this little work. Another most dis-[-ix-]tinguished historian of London in the past is Mr. Loftie. Gustave Doré's matchless pencil was employed to illustrate a book on London, the text of which was written by the late Blanchard Jerrold; nor must I forget to mention with eulogy the metropolitan prose sketches of another foreign observer of our manners, Monsieur Alphonse Esquiros. Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor has long since become a classic. Mr. Frederick Locker-Lampson and Mr. Clement Scott have sung lyrically on London; nor has the eloquent pen of Mr. G. R. Sims been silent with regard to the city which virulent old Cobbett contemptuously termed "the Great Wen." The late Mr. Runcirnan and the late Mr. Thomas Archer laboured assiduously at the task of portraying East-End London; Mr. James Greenwood has done yeoman's service in the same cause; and among the latest and the ablest commentators on things metropolitan it would be unjust not to mention Mr. Walter Besant.
    Under these circumstances it would not by any means surprise me to find the New Reader, - for there is a New Reader, just as there is a New Journalist and a New Woman - asking with some acerbity what the deuce I have to do in this galley: a craft on board which, time out of mind, the labouring oars have been tugged at by rowers fifty times abler and more observant than I? Assuming this question to have been put, a very brief reply shall be given to it. Thirty-seven years have passed away since I published a book called Twice Round the Clock: or The Hours of [-x-] the Day and Night in London; and I have been writing, at intervals, about the great metropolis ever since. Twenty years ago Mr. John Forster in his Life of Charles Dickens was good enough to observe that I was "an authority on London Streets"; and that generous tribute to my humble capacity as a traveller in Cockneyland has in no slight measure conduced to my writing London up to Date. It does not in the slightest degree profess to be a continuation of Twice Round the Clock. I am rather too elderly to be able to sit up all night; and I know little at present of what goes on in London in the small hours. Thus the hours in this work are not consecutively enumerated. They are only so many detached essays describing scenes and characters which did not find a place in Twice Round the Clock. For example, in 1857 I had never been to Court; I was not a member of any West-End Club; I did not live in a flat; these were practically our "first nights" at the London theatres; I had never served on a jury; I had never dined at the hospitable board of a city company; there was no Victoria Embankment; there were no Pullman cars on board which you could take breakfast or luncheon; and the "fancy fairs" and "public breakfasts" differed very widely from the charitable bazaars and garden parties of the present year of grace. The New Reader will also please to remember that in 1857 the population of the metropolis was in round numbers, two millions eight hundred thousand, and that in 1894 it is rapidly approaching five millions. Since I wrote Twice [-xi-] Round the Clock, square miles of slums have been swept away by the defunct Metropolitan Board of Works, and by the extant London County Council. Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket has, to the regret of all genuine opera-goers, been demolished : still, there is some compensation for that melancholy event in the circumstance that at least a score of new theatres have been built in London during the last thirty years. The shabby, stuffy, costly inns which formerly, under the name of hotels, disgraced the metropolis, and made us the scoff of foreigners, have been superseded by palatial caravansaries. A new Palace of Justice has been built; a new National Portrait Gallery has arisen; and South Kensington has been endowed with a stately Natural History Museum. Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and Queen Victoria Street have been added to the spacious thoroughfares of London ; and I rejoice to know that the grimy, ramshackle, obstructive, old Temple Bar with its Golgotha memories has been carted away into the country. The city in which I was born and of which, as a true Cockney, I am proud, is still in need of many things. We want a new abode for the Lord Mayor of London, handsomer and statelier than the cumbrous and tasteless Mansion House; we want a dignified habitation on the Embankment for the London County Council; and on that same Embankment there should not only be more statues but plenty of cafés, kiosks, and long rows of bookstalls such as exist in Paris on the quays of the left bank of the Seine. We want a National Theatre, endowed by the State; [-xii-] and especially do we want National Folksgardens:- comely, roomy, prettily decorated, where the working classes and their wives and children can sit, not only in the evening, but in the afternoon when work is over, and refresh themselves, if they like, with light beer, and listen to first-rate instrumental music. By the time these wants are satisfied I shall probably be under the turf; but that they will be eventually satisfied I unhesitatingly believe.

15th Sept. 1894.

[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]