‘Rome and her rats are at the point of battle . . .’ There were moments when late 19th-century London bore a close resemblance to the Rome of Coriolanus, torn by class conflict and watched by waiting enemies; and Victorians were brought up on Livy and Plutarch. As the great empire-builders of modern times they could hardly help remembering how while the Roman empire expanded it decayed at the heart, and the people of Rome turned into an unruly mob. Rome had no regular troops close at hand, London not very many, and in any case it would compromise the dignity of the imperial capital if the army had to be called in there. More to the point by the 1880s, the National Congress was coming into existence in India, with a native press quick to seize on any symptoms of weakness in the imperial masters. Early in 1886 London’s rats emerged in force from their East End sewers. A meeting of unemployed led on to rioting and looting, and there was panic for several days. ‘London was visited by something akin to the grande peur.’footnote1 About the economic and social background of all this, the accumulation of half-employed, half-starved casual labour in the East End,
London is placed here in the setting of the England of the industrial revolution. This ‘revolution’, the first of its kind, unfolded sluggishly, meanderingly, anarchically, with a minimum of social planning. Free enterprise excelled at seizure of short-term chances of profit—as it is now snatching at North Sea oil—with reckless disregard of everything else. The erratic pace of change allowed old ways and institutions to straggle on, with adjustments every now and then: gradualness came to seem to Englishmen the norm of all human progress, and a positive virtue in itself. London never became the hell that Paris was in June 1848 or in 1871, but for too many of its inhabitants it was an unending purgatory. Foreigners whose circumstances brought them into contact with the East End, like the poorer political refugees, were shocked.footnote3 Rumours of this Waste Land in the country so fond of boasting its wealth and modernity were wafted abroad. Frenchmen were discovering the seamier side of Paris from writers like Zola, Russians learning from Tolstoy of the abyss under their own two capitals; London’s far greater size, if no more, gave it a bad pre-eminence.
Pre-industrial London was strong in consumer trades, and shipbuilding, sugar-refining, silk-weaving and many other skilled crafts flourished. All this was crippled by ‘the traumatic impact of the Industrial Revolution upon the older industries’ (p. 145). Silk-weaving failed to adapt itself to machine methods, shipbuilding to steam and iron, engineering too petered out; other old businesses removed further away. ‘By the 1880s, the inner industrial perimeter, once the focal point of London
This industrial revolution in England accentuated ‘pre-industrial characteristics’ in London (p. 26). At the social apex London preserved amid the swirl of change a good deal of the flavour of a Residenzstadt, a town existing because a prince held his court there. Below this level, but no more completely cut off from it than from the famishing multitude at the bottom, were skilled artisans of the old sort, the fine flower of the pre-machine labour world which came to full bloom just as history was about to blight it. It was a class, as Stedman Jones says, intensely political, with a social and mental life centering on trade society and coffee-house (pp. 338 ff). But it was rapidly eroded by the new industrialism, submerged in a struggle for bare survival with no wider politics than those of the sweatshop. A legion of tiny enterprises clung to what trades remained, like furniture-making and clothing, and tried to fend off factory competition by submitting to its living standards which the petty masters themselves often had to share. Primitive techniques were kept alive by ‘a cheap, overfilled, unskilled labour pool of women and immigrants who were prepared to work at sub-subsistence wages’ (p. 22). A great deal of work was done at home; a return to the cottage-industry of early capitalism. As old employments vanished the docks became the common, though very niggardly, refuge of all who could find nothing better, and therefore stood out disproportionately as the heart of the casual labour problem. Men hung about at the gates like Italian farm labourers standing in the village square in hope of being hired for the day. Often those lucky enough to be taken on had eaten nothing since the day before, and had to knock off work and leave the docks as soon as they had earned enough for a meal, which gained them a reputation for laziness (p. 93). Their children at school could often learn nothing because they were crying with hunger (p. 96). Around a tenth of London’s population, 400,000 people, had no regular work; ‘It was a basic precondition of the casual labour market that supply should be permanently and chronically in excess of demand’ (p. 67).
Stedman Jones with his usual alertness to the interacting cross-currents that combined to make life so much the more precarious shows how ‘harsh winters were a much more common occurrence in the 19th