The Urban Contexts of Crimes Tried at the Old Bailey
From war, plague and fire, London emerged into the last quarter of the seventeenth century and the early eighteenth, a city startling for its wealth and poverty, its bright modernity and ageless squalor.
Contents of this Article
- Built Environment
- Social Structure
- Culture and Politics
- Introductory Reading
The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed a third of London's medieval fabric, taking with it endless small and claustrophobic courts and alleys, but leaving behind a familiar street pattern, and a penumbra of older buildings. The city that was recreated under the aegis of Acts of Parliament and a royal commission was perhaps the most beautiful and certainly in its central quarters, the most ordered city in Europe. The homes and shops created to replace those lost by fire were regular and light, reflecting the social standing of their inhabitants, and the social expectations of a new age. But London still retained innumerable tightly packed and poverty stricken communities, which rubbed shoulders with more fortunate neighbours. The Proceedings provide evidence of both the squalor and the wealth.
By 1715 the population of the capital had reached nearly 630,000 individuals, from perhaps 500,000 in 1674, and London was on the verge of becoming the largest city in Western Europe, challenged for this role only by Paris. More than its sheer size, the stagnation of the national population in these decades ensured that London came to encompass a growing proportion of the English and Welsh population as a whole. By the turn of the eighteenth century almost 10% of the population of England and Wales counted London as home. The people who teemed in the new built city were a distinctive crew made more diverse by the influx of both French Protestant Huguenots following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and increasing Jewish migration. For a more detailed demographic account see A Population History of London. For historical background on specific communities, and suggestions on how to search the Proceedings for information on them, see Community Histories.
The central third of the capital was rebuilt after the Great Fire to a regular pattern of two, three and four story buildings punctuated by new churches, markets and open spaces. Pavement and street lighting gradually spread through famously muddy streets, while a sophisticated transport infra-structure on water and road slowly emerged, with new quays and steps down to the river and a comprehensive set of coaching inns. At the centre of the old City, Wren's baroque fantasy of St Paul's Cathedral gradually rose above street level and was finally finished in 1708; while the River Thames continued to provide the all important port and transport, water and light to this city spread along its shores.
The built-up area covered by the capital had long since outgrown its medieval walls, and during the second half of the seventeenth century in particular spread out towards Westminster to the west and past the Tower and Spitalfields in the east. London always possessed its open fields and squares, but in the 1670s and 80s the pattern of building which would come to characterise eighteenth-century London was established. St James’ Square was completed in 1680, while Leicester, Soho and Golden Squares were built within a few years on either side. By the 1710s the West End, with its imposing facades and pattern of leasehold property development, was well underway. And in Whitechapel and the east, new building, of generally a more industrial character, grew northwards from the riverside, from Ratcliffe Highway to Rosemary Lane and Cable Street, towards Whitechapel High Street. South of the river, outside the jurisdiction of the Old Bailey, the city grew much more slowly, hampered by the fact there was still only one bridge over the Thames. Despite London's expansion, there remained open fields within in a few minutes walk of almost any part of the city, while the built-up areas along the Strand had only just joined the old medieval City to Westminster, creating a single urban entity.
To search for street names in the Proceedings, and see them displayed on contemporary maps of London, use Place and Map Search, 1674-1834.
Within the urban conglomerate that was London there were distinct patterns of settlement. Essentially the West End, Westminster and its neighbours, was dominated by the aristocracy and the well-to-do seeking access to the Royal Court and Parliament. The East End was significantly poorer while the City of London within the Walls was the centre of a mercantile elite famous for its wealth, its own self-conscious culture of politeness, and its boorish lack of aristocratic manners.
Many contemporaries felt that what had been a coherent community was evolving into a set of separate nations. In 1712, in The Spectator, Joseph Addison suggested the different parts of the city had come to be colonised by wholly different nations: “the inhabitants of St. James's, notwithstanding they live under the same laws, and speak the same language, are a distinct people from those of Cheapside, who are likewise removed from those of the Temple on the one side, and those of Smithfield on the other, by several climates and degrees in their way of thinking and conversing”. Despite this growing pattern of cultural and economic differentiation, however, the rich and the poor were forced to rub shoulders and share urban spaces. Small pockets of extreme poverty could be found intermixed with the palaces of the aristocracy in Westminster, and the homes of gentlemen were thinly, but significantly, spread through the East End. And while the traditional medieval pattern of the rich and poor sharing the same streets had largely broken down by the early eighteenth century, there were as of yet few areas that could be characterised as universally poor or rich.
As the centre of government, as England's greatest port, and largest manufacturing centre, London contained almost every occupation conceivable. Merchants and traders, both supplying the almost unlimited desire of Londoners for overseas goods and its equally voracious demand for more locally produced items, dominated the occupational structure of the City and East End, and at least numerically, even the West End. In addition, weavers and dyers, spinners and cloth finishers were commonplace, as were retail merchants purveying foodstuffs to the hungry multitude. Below the level of householders and the middling sort, the largest single occupational group was servants, followed by a rag tag collection of porters and building workers, chairmen, street vendors and washerwomen.
The occupational structure was also highly gendered, with women concentrated in the food, drink and victualling trades, along with textile manufacturing. Evidence for the diversity of occupations practised in London can be found throughout the Proceedings, and you can search for particular occupations using both the personal details search page (for victim and defendant occupations) and keyword searching.
London was a great city not simply because of its size or its wealth. It was also a centre of cultural developments that gave it a unique position. With the rise of the coffee house, and the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695, a vibrant culture of newsprint and debate was formed that created a new politics in which public opinion, formed by Grub Street, had a powerful role. As a result, the origins of the modern political world can be located in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century London. This was the moment when writers such as Daniel Defoe, Aphra Benn, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and Ned Ward did so much to create the generic conventions which have since come to characterise literary and public culture. The advent of the Proceedings themselves, popularising as they did the activities of the judicial arm of the state, made a significant contribution to this process. For an account of the early history of the Proceedings see the publishing history of the Proceedings.
At the same time we should not underestimate the vicious political and religious disputes which divided this community. From the religious and dynastic conflicts of James II's reign, through the upheaval associated with the Glorious Revolution, and religious zealotry of the Reformation of Manners campaign of the 1690s and the violent religious upheaval associated with the Sacheverell Riots of 1710, Londoners were frequently drawn into national politics. The Old Bailey itself witnessed many political trials in these decades, reports of which were published in the Proceedings. See, for instance, the trial of Ludowick Muggleton in 1677; the treason trial associated with the Popish Plot of 1679; and Daniel Damaree’s trial for participation in the first Sacheverell riot in 1710. Related trials can be located by searching for the specific offence categories of "religious offences", "seditious libel", "seditious words", and "treason".
The politics of the capital itself, divided into a plethora of competing jurisdictions, were a mess. The Common Council, Court of Aldermen and Lord Mayor retained their grasp of the levers of power within the City, but outside the Walls, in the growing suburbs, a hotchpotch of parochial authorities grew in power in response to the growing extramural population. In Westminster, the Court of Burgesses, the traditional medieval authority for this Royal enclave, gradually fell into powerless quietude in the face of the growing authority of both parish vestries and the Justices of the Peace of the Middlesex Bench.
For more information on eighteenth-century London see London, 1715 to 1760.
- Spence, Craig, London in the 1690s: A Social Atlas (London, 2000)
- Porter, Roy, London: A Social History (London, 1994)
- Picard, Liza, Restoration London (London, 1997)
- Earle, Peter, A City Full of People: Men and Women of London 1650-1750 (London, 1994)
For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.