This page is part of a website based on the life and achievements of eighteenth-century inventor Henry Cort.  Please email site controller Eric Alexander with any comments or queries.

 

 

EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY LONDON

 

 

Picture the narrow streets and overhanging houses, the shop fronts bulging over the narrow, cobbled, post-guarded footways, with creaking sign boards overhead, and wares of all kinds hung and strewn outside; the filthy kennels, deep in reeking mud; the rough roadway pitted with holes, where shouting hackney-coachmen, jostling chairmen, and insolent footmen thrust their way through, scattering mud and dust on luckless pedestrians; the miserable glimmer of dripping oil lamps at night, when thieves and footpads roamed at large and at ease, the only protection for wayfaring honest folk being a few decrepit old watchmen encumbered with immense coats, lanthorns, rattles, and long poles.  Refuse thrown out from upper windows, waterspouts from the roof fronts, stenches from the uncleansed open sewers, derelict houses where lean swine and scavenger dogs forgathered, till they fell with a crash on ill-fated passers-by – these were but a tithe of the perils of the Londoner of those "good old times".

 

  From Reginald Blunt, Mrs Montagu, 'Queen of the Blues' (London 1923), quoting Gay's Trivia of 1714

 

Henry Cort has two spells in London.  The first is from 1757 (or possibly earlier) to 1776, when he is working as a navy agent in Crutched Friars, not far from the Tower.  The second spell is from 1789 to 1800, from the time his iron business collapses until his death, when he lives at Devonshire Street (now Boswell Street) on the east side of Bloomsbury.

 

In many ways London during Cort's time has changed little since the beginning of the century: a noisy, smelly, vibrant metropolis, stretching on both sides of the river from Chelsea to Rotherhithe.  The population in 1760 is estimated as 650,000.

 

I never could be poetical in this Town, if my imagination was preparing to rise on the wings of the Eagle in that moment perhaps a wretch under the window cryd oysters, and I have been immediately awakend from the vision.

  From letter of Elizabeth Montagu, February 1778

 

Governance of London

 

As a municipality it covers four administrative areas. Between the cities of London and Westminster, the county of Middlesex protrudes like a tongue, while the river's south bank is in Surrey.

 

It was estimated in 1737 that none could bear the costs of being Lord Mayor on an income of less than £15,000.

From N Rogers, ‘Money, land and lineage: the big bourgueoisie of Hanoverian London’ [Social History Oct 79 Vol 4 No 3]

 

The river

 

Before its embankment in the nineteenth century, the Thames has a wider spread.  It is a major transport route: a boat trip from London Bridge to Westminster costs sixpence.

 

Westminster Bridge, the second crossing, opened in 1750.  Around 1756 major works were carried out on London Bridge: buildings were removed, and the central span doubled.

 

The third crossing, Blackfriars Bridge, is opened in 1769 by Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Chitty.

 

 

Public health

 

Drinking water is supplied to the city from open aqueducts, and can become very contaminated.  One water company is at Broken Wharf south of St Pauls, others at Charing Cross and Chelsea.

 

St Bartholomews, St Thomas, and Bedlam Hospitals have been around before the eighteenth century, which saw the building of Westminster, Guy's, St George's, London, and Middlesex Hospitals.

 

 

Crime

 

London is really dangerous at this time: the pick-pockets, formerly content with mere filching, made no scruple to knock people down with bludgeons in Fleet-street and the Strand, and that at no later hour than eight o'clock at night...

  From letter of William Shenstone, 30 May 1744

 

The Bow Street Runners were founded by Henry Fielding before 1753.  Prime Minister the Duke of Newcastle is persuaded in 1757 to give them a grant of £400 per year of public money "after they had broken up several gangs and arrested a number of notorious thieves and highwaymen", according to L W Cowie, Hanoverian England 1714-1837.

 

 

Travel

 

Many travel around the city on horseback.  Those who can afford it hire a Hackney coach, or a chair if they are very rich.

 

There is a regular service of horse-pulled coaches to outlying parts such as Bromley, Camberwell, Hackney, Clapham, Hampstead etc.

 

By 1773 there were 37 daily suburban services leaving the City and also the West End.

From N Rogers, ‘Money, land and lineage: the big bourgueoisie of Hanoverian London’.

 

Entertainment

 

In 1732 London had an estimated 16,000 drinking places.  Most of these were gin or brandy shops or alehouses, but there were 654 inns and taverns as well as 551 coffee houses.

  From John Rule, Albion's People: English Society 1714-1815 (London 1992)

 

There are pleasure gardens at Vauxhall (a shilling entry fee) and Ranelagh.  At the theatre Garrick is acting, while Handel's operas are regularly performed.

 

A lottery offers prizes up to £10,000.  Richard Crawshay is a winner.  In early days before a draw you might share a ticket for £2.10s: the price can rise to £42 nearer the day.

 

 

Social life and characters

 

There is an abundance of coffee houses.  The most notable of these attract customers from a particular trade: shipping insurers at Lloyds, stockbrokers at Jonathan's (between Cornhill and Lombard Street), Baltic traders at Baltic (Threadneedle Street).  Garraways auction captured goods.  Samuel Johnson is the most famous frequenter of the coffee house.

 

One of the most interesting letter-writers of the time is Elizabeth Montagu, member of a group of intellectually inclined women who become known as blue stockings.

 

Benjamin Stillingfleet was the botanist and author whose unconventional blue stockings are supposed to have led Admiral Boscawen to give their title to Mrs. Boscawen's and Mrs. Vesey's assemblies.

  From Blunt, Mrs Montagu, 'Queen of the Blues'.

 

Away from London's bustle, in a secluded spot in Clapham, Henry Cavendish is conducting experiments that will open up new branches of science.  He is notoriously reclusive, leaving out notes for his housekeeper rather than speaking to her.  You stand a chance of meeting him if you are a Fellow of the Royal Society.

 

One character whom Cort may well encounter is Jonas Hanway ("an unwearying friend to chimney sweeps, waifs and down-and-outs") who holds a post as Naval Commissioner.  He has gained fame with a book about his early travels in Russia and neighbouring countries.  Among his exploits are founding the Marine Society (1756) for recruiting orphan boys into the Navy, and Magdalen Hospital (1758) for reforming prostitutes.  He gains a reputation for wandering around London carrying an umbrella, but many associates find his company tiresome after the first encounter.

 

Poor man, he never knows when to have done when he is talking of himself.

Elizabeth Montagu's opinion of Jonas Hanway, quoted in Blunt, Mrs Montagu, 'Queen of the Blues'.

 

 

Changes during Cort's first period

 

The first daily paper, the Courant, appeared in London in 1702.  By 1724 there were three, and by the middle of the century there were no fewer than a dozen papers appearing in the capital either daily, bi-weekly or tri-weekly.

  From Frank O'Gorman, The Long Eighteenth Century: British Political & Social History 1688-1832 (London 1997)

 

The British Museum opens in 1759.  In 1760 the first of Hamley's toy shops opens in Holborn.  In 1762 the royal family moves into Buckingham Palace (then called "Queens House"), installing a lightning conductor, and the Stock Exchange is founded at Jonathan's coffee house.  The numbering of house addresses starts that year, numbers appearing in directories in 1767.

 

In the winter of 1763 the Thames freezes over.  In May 1765, 8000 weavers (mostly from Spitalfields) march on Parliament in support of a ban on imported silks.

 

Between 1765 and 1773, 32428 yards of roadway between Temple Bar to Aldgate are repaved with "Scotch stone".

 

In 1768, the year of Cort's second marriage, the Adelphi is built over riverside warehouses south of The Strand.  That year is notable for riots: coal heavers (who unload collier ships), watermen, hatters, tailors, shoemakers, coopers and weavers all rebel, and sailors petition for an increase in wages.  There are also disturbances associated with the career of John Wilkes.

 

 

The magnificence of the shops is the most striking thing in London.  They sometimes extend without interruption for an English mile.  The shop front has large glass windows and a glass door.  In these the merchant displays all that is finest and most modern, and as fashion compels him to make considerable changes, the variety and the symmetrical arrangement provide for the passers-by the most brilliant coup d'oeil.

  An overseas visitor's comments, quoted in A.S. Turberville (ed), Johnson's England (Oxford 1933)

 

 

 

RELATED PAGES

Main sources of information

18th century politics

John Becher and the American War

Thomas Morgan and the American War

Shelburne, Parry and associates

Dundas and Trotter

Sandwich and Middleton

The Arethusa, Sandwich and Keppel

Law in the 18th century

18th century finance

Religion and sexual mores

Calendar change of 1752

The 1782 Jamaica convoy

Sinking of the Royal George

Abolition and the Corts

Fact, error and conjecture

Cort’s work as navy agent

Cort’s twilight years in London

London ironmongers

The Crowley business

 

Life of Henry Cort

 

 

 

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