Canaletto’s iconic painting, A View of the Thames from Lambeth Palace is a picture perfect postcard, but behind this idyllic view of eighteenth century London was simply too pleasant. Only a tourist could believe it. In fact, much was happening behind those walls and in those narrow streets on that sunny afternoon….
Smith’s Square is a typical little brickhouse enclave of the “middling people” of London- the lacemen, cheese mongers, stationers, booksellers, printers, cabinetmakers, tailors, druggists, pub owners, cabinet makers, tailors, druggists, pub owners, perfumers, pawnbrokers, ironmongers, grocers, tobacconists, and victualers. They live exceedingly well. Their wives do not have to resort to fishmongering, or to ragpicking. Their drawing rooms are furnished with silk upholstered chairs, decorative rugs, brass fittings for the fireplace, and fine mirrors.
The men live and work in the same building, and their apprentices and helpers live in the kitchen, the shop, or the attic. Although they are conscientious workers, they have ample time to go to the pub and otherwise entertain themselves at cockfights. bull and bear baiting, and cricket games. The public hangings at Tyburn and the floggings in Hyde Park, however, were by far two of the most popular entertainments of the age, and merchants mixed with apprentices, journeymen, and the Mob, or Scum.
The merchants and shopkeepers spent vast amounts of time in the 551 coffeehouses of London too. The first coffeehouses had come into being in the seventeenth-century before the advent of the newspaper, and, although bright young men started journals all over London in the eighteenth century, such as Tatler and the Spectator, the coffehouses remained meeting places where men discussed the affairs of the day. Each coffeehouse gradually acquired its own character- shippers in the Baltic trade gathered at the Maryland in Threadneedle Street, the underwriters for marine insurance gathered at Lloyd’s coffeehouse, the merchant bnkers at temple Bar, the Whigs at Saint James or Burton’s, and the Bedford in Covent Garden was the meeting place of Pope, Sheridan, Garrick, Fielding, and lesser literary men. A good many of these coffeehouses ultimately became London clubs, and Lloyd’s, of course, became the famous association of insurance underwriters.
Just up the bank from the red coated coal heaver is a large building with smoke coming from its chimney- an engine maker’s establishment. It has been said that the Industrial Revolution “was like a storm that passed over London and broke elsewhere.” This building then, is one of the light showers that fell on London. This is possibly where silk spinning machines were made for London’s largest industries: one estimate, probably wildly padded, put the number of ribbon makers alone at 50,000. And with this bit of industrialism, London experienced early what Manchester and Leeds would not suffer until the nineteenth century: poor health of workers from sedentary, boring labor; maiming of child laborers by machinery; widespread depression, strikes, riots; and finally those orgies of rage when the workers rose up and smashed the looms.