There is always a risk with mainstream histories of glorifying the dark and violent avenues of whichever place is up for discussion, so I approached Lucy Inglis’s Georgian London: Into the Streets with apprehension.
A leading voice among bloggers of London’s past, Inglis has transferred the fruits of her research from screen to page and has produced something quite delicious.
Her enthusiasm shows through from her accounts of the emergence of coffee culture to her relating of the escapades of The Society for the Recovery of People Apparently Drowned.
Of course, the shadows are there and they are to be enjoyed; readers are not denied the destructive presence of gin, nor the devilry of the underground corpse trade, but Inglis resists the temptation to linger.
Sadly, Georgian London’s enlightening chapter on Hackney is all too brief.
One of the book’s shortest, it begins with this unfamiliar description: “It was a community where cattle were raised on the lush pastures, and where Samuel Pepys saw trees of oranges ripening in the sun.”
We are guided through its transformation from a vast expanse of farmland and grand Tudor estates to a hive of crime home to numerous asylums by the end of the 18th century.
We explore the influx of Spitalfields’ weavers and the busy life of Henry Norris, the Justice of Hackney dedicated to keeping the streets clean of mischief.
We learn of the watch houses set up to support vigilant night patrols, including one at the Shoulder and Mutton (now the Cat and Mutton off Broadway Market).
Inglis also ventures a predictable account of ‘The Italian Boy’, an innocent youth murdered by a trio of greedy body snatchers. The tale was the downfall of The Museum of London’s Doctor’s, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition earlier this year, but is handled with more tact here.
In Georgian London, Hackney is a place of ‘violence and madness’, but is brimming with life and culture in much the same way as it is today.
Georgian London: Into the Streets is published by Viking. ISBN: 9780670920136.RRP £20/ 9 October, 2013