the disease and devastation of london -- 7/23/19

Today's selection -- from Voyagers to the West by Bernard Bailyn. In the late 1700s, rural poverty and the promise of high wages lured the British to London, where they found disease and devastation:

"London's key role in Britain's population history [came from] its powerful magnetic force for migrant workers all over the British Isles. The great metropolitan center devoured people. The city was a graveyard. Disease devastated the slums, and epidemics deci­mated the population. In the seventeenth century, when an estimated one­-third of the city's inhabitants were recent arrivals, plague wiped out some 15 percent of the total population, but the losses were made up by new arrivals within two years. By the early eighteenth century London -- a pesthouse of malnutrition, disease, and early death, yet constantly increas­ing in size -- must have been absorbing approximately half of the entire increase in England's population. But 'the waggon loads of poor servants coming every day from all parts of this kingdom,' as a correspondent to the London Chronicle wrote in 1761, kept the great city growing despite the devastating losses.

Plate 1, Moll Hackabout arrives in London at the Bell Inn, Cheapside

"The literary evidence supports the quantitative indications of the constant migration into greater London of a mobile, unattached labor force. There is no more common theme in the writings of Fielding (a quintessen­tial Londoner, who grew up in Dorset), Smollett (a Scot by birth), Richard­son (from Derbyshire), or Sterne (a youthful wanderer who lived mainly in York before arriving in London as a literary celebrity) than the story of young country innocents seeking employment, migrating with stars in their eyes to the great metropolis, there to struggle endlessly with corrup­tion and temptation. Some of the thousands of country people who flocked into London every year had connections to help them find their way in the city, but most, 'allured to London with the prospect of high wages,' were fleeing poverty -- some were refugees from the malevolent pressure of the poor laws -- and had no way of finding security. They drifted quickly into the mass of casually employed laborers and the abject poor, swarming in the verminous, overbuilt ramshackle tenements and the garbage-strewn streets of Cheapside, Houndsditch, Whitechapel, and Southwark.

"Hogarth vividly illustrated this migration process, as he did so many other aspects of eighteenth-century London life. The first of the six plates of his 'Harlot's Progress' shows the innocent Yorkshire girl, Mary Hack­about, alighting excitedly and tremulously from a York wagon. Confronted by the diseased procuress Mother Needham, and eyed by the rabid Colonel Charteris and one of his pimps, she is caught up instantly in the vortex of London's corruption. Such country girls, lacking reliable patrons in Lon­don, could hope at best to find employment as unskilled servants. But the city was teeming with servants, many of them unemployed, and Mary's doleful fate, foreshadowed in the figure of the goose she carries to her 'lofing cosen in Terns Stret in London,' was predictable. In 1775 it was estimated that one in every eight Londoners was a servant, most of them recently arrived. If the city numbered 750,000, that meant a servant popula­tion of more than 90,000 men, women, and children.

"Relatively few of these thousands of unskilled workers from the coun­tryside, available for any kind of common labor or household service, would ever find steady employment (a magistrate in 1766 estimated that 'at all times' there were more than 10,000 servants 'out of place' in London), and they formed a large pool of potential emigrants. For rarely, a contemporary wrote, did they 'go home again to be laughed at ... but inlist for soldiers, go to the plantations, etc. if they are well inclined, otherwise they probably commence thieves or pickpockets.'"




Bernard Bailyn


Voyagers to the West


Vintage Books


Copyright 1986 by Bernard Bailyn


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