Monuments and Dust
London Times: 8 Aug 1851
I has often been said that nobody but a police-inspector knows London as it should be known. Our country cousins who come up to town, and who visit the Tower, and the little picture establishment in Trafalgar-square, the Colosseum, and the Opera, know nothing of London. The man of business and the rising lawyer who take their daily walks from the West-end to Threadneedle-street, or the inns of court, know nothing of London. Their knowledge is confined to two districts -- the one in which they make their money, and the other in which they spend it. To the fashionable world London consists of Grosvenor-square, Belgravia, perhaps even Tyburnia, the clubhouses, the Hanover-square-rooms, and the Horticultural-gardens at Chiswick; to the petty tradesman, of his own street and the line of road leading to Hampstead-heath. We need go no further in the way of example. With the exception of the police, and possibly of a few gentlemen connected with one or other of the Sanitary Commissions, it would, we suspect, be very difficult to find within the circuit of the metropolis a single individual who has studied its various districts with any very minute attention. Some few among us know the secret history of one locality -- some, of another -- no one has grasped the subject as a whole; and yet it well deserves all the attention and all the inquiry that can be bestowed upon it. There are still districts within the circuit of this great city teeming with vice and misery, which must be purified, physically and morally, if we could see the calendar at the Old Bailey reduced to decent proportions, and any permanent improvement in the condition of the metropolitan population. It will never do to leave hot-beds of vice here and there, and content ourselves with erecting equestrian statues of GEORGE IV. That will never mend matters. We must not even remain satisfied with the purification of the objectionable districts. We must provide places of refuge for those who ask no better than to enter upon a respectable and moral course of lie, but who, for want of proper care on our part, despite all their struggles, are perpetually sucked back again into the vortex of debauchery and crime. No doubt within the last few years great improvements have been effected in the external appearance of the town. Fire, always the most efficient auxiliary of the London architect from the days of CHARLES II. to our own time, has every now and then saved us from the embarrassments of selection and the pangs of demolition. Public buildings of considerable pretension have been erected on the smoking embers of others which redounded but little to the national credit. Great squares have been opened, and wide streets have been cut, to the manifest advantage and ornament of the metropolis. Better still, some of the most vicious and wretched quarters of the town have been effectually purified. A little child may now walk with safety where but a few years back a strong man could not have passed by without danger to his life. But here comes the point. Simply to transfer a vicious district from one quarter of the town to another is no real improvement. It may, no doubt, be a satisfaction to the inhabitants of western Bloomsbury and Oxford-street to know that such a got-bed of vice as the old Rookery of St. Giles no longer contaminates their neighbourhood; but of what advantage is this removal in a public sense, if we remain at the same time perfectly aware that the mass of vice and crime which had been previously concentrated at this given spot is now transferred bodily to another quarter; or, as the alternative, has been disseminated and scattered throughout the whole of the metropolis? As well might we commend the physician whose skill could reach no further than to transfer an ulcer from the right to the left limb of his patient, or to procure its absorption into the whole system to taint the general current of the blood.
Let us for the moment confine our attention to a particular spot. There is a district close to Westminster Abbey and Buckingham House -- that is to say, close to the Cathedral Church of Western London and the Palace of England's QUEEN -- which has long retained an unfortunate preeminence in every kind of moral and physical pollution even among the other tainted districts of the capital. Here, when the gas-lamps were lighted, and the pavement was glistening with fallen rain, you might have seen slatternly girls of twelve or fourteen years of age wandering about with all the marks of confirmed vice stamped upon their young brows. From the courts and blind alleys the screams and shouts both of the agents and the sufferers in deeds of violence might have been heard to break the silence of the night. In yonder tavern was held a symposium of the merry beggars who, throughout the day, had annoyed and infested the polite regions of Belgravia with their simulated sufferings and their clamorous solicitations. In that clump of houses a noted receiver of stolen goods held his mart. As the evening wore on a goodly swarm of thieves and young pickpockets, who desired to [ldquo ]relize,[rdquo ] dropped in to dispose of the produce of their day's work. Talk to the policeman at the corner, and he will point out to you the tavern in which the dirty CATILINES of Chartism concocted their pleasant scheme for firing the metropolis at various points on a night named. All this, and ten times more than this, but a short while back was in active progress in the Sanctuary of Westminster and the adjacent district. The challenge of the sentry at the Palace gates of Queen VICTORIA had not yet died away in the night -- you could not walk a hundred yards away from the heavy shadows of the western towers of the Abbey, ere you were in the midst of the manifold pollutions we have so faintly indicated in a few passing words. What was to be done! Clearly the first thing was to let in sunshine and daylight -- to demolish and clear away. In such a case the work of destruction must precede all others. This has happily beene effected in this particular instance, and more than this. First, a vast space has been cleared away in the very midst of this region of vice and misery, sufficient to form an area for a stately street. The limits we gave yesterday in our report of the opening of this great thoroughfare, which is henceforth to be known as [ldquo ]Victoria-street.[rdquo ] Certainly the QUEEN'S name has never been used with greater propriety than in this instance. It would be impossible to overrate the amount of wretchedness which will be ultimately relieved by this great imporovement, if it is followed up in a spirit of prudence and foresight. This street commences at the west end of Westminster Abbey; it proceeds [ldquo ]in a south-westerly direction through the Workhouse, Brewer's-green, Christchurch, the land adjoining the Bridewell and ELLIOT'S Brewery-ground, till it joins the Vauxhall-bridge-road, forming a direct and convenient communication between the Houses of Parliament and Belgravia.[rdquo ] The steet is macadamized; it is 80 feet in width; and yet so extensive an improvement is due to the energy and exertions of private gentleman, who were incorporated as commissioners in the year 1845. This body has succeeded in procuring the needful subscriptions from the parish authorities of St. Margaret and St. John, Westminster; and a subsidy of 80,000l. from the Government. We should in fairness add that all parties appear to have displayed the greatest energy in furthering this great onward movement towards the improvement of the metropolis. The result of their labours was seen on Tuesday, when the new street was thrown open to the public in the presence of Sir. E. BUXTON; the Chief commissioner, and the Earls of CARLISLE and SHAFTESBURY.
Thus far all is well, but the result of this great experiment must entirely depend upon the manner in which it is carried out from this point. If the Commissioners do not take careful heed that proper buildings are erected for the benefit of the working-classes upon the site of the wretched hovels that have been demolished, the improvement will be but a seeming one, and utterly fail in effecting any improvement in the condition of the people. It is said that this point has received their serious consideration, and that they propose to devote a considerable portion of the district to the erection of houses which shall accommodate two families one each floor, and to the erection of proper houses for the working classes on the plan of the model lodging-houses. Wherever these establishments have been tried they have invariably succeeded. They have proved not only a salvation to the families of workpeople, but a secure investment for those who have embarked money in the speculation. How should it be otherwise in a town like London, where every square foot of ground is of such inestimable value? The provident and natural course for speculators is to build up from the ground, not along its surface. If at the same time that they better their own fortunes they do their fellow-creatures a service, surely that is no drawback upon the speculation.