Economy, Society and Politics in 19th Century London

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ECONOMY, SOCIETY AND POLITICS IN 19TH CENTURY LONDON

Using visual evidence such as artworks, prints and photographs, explore how contemporaries interpreted changes in nineteenth-century London in ONE of the following themes: (i)Streets
(ii)Poverty
(iii)The Thames
(iv)The home

The theme of “Streets” in nineteenth century London encompasses many aspects of Victorian societal development. Indeed, studying the large-scale improvement scheme of London’s streets in the nineteenth century brings to light the radical change in sanitation levels, the presence of poverty and social disparity which was still rife and the advent of leisure and a growing middle class, visible in new public spaces which continue on from the street, such as parks and gardens. These ideas will form around the analysis of three pieces of visual art dating from nineteenth century London.

Let us first look at Figure 1 of the crossing sweeper and the lady. In this painting by William Powell Frith is depicted a typical street scene of Victorian London. Indeed, crossing sweepers were very present, as expressed by Henry Mayhew in his extensive study of London, London Labour and the London Poor: “We can scarcely walk along a street of any extent, or pass through a square of the least pretensions to "gentility", without meeting one or more of these private scavengers.” (Mayhew, 1861). These ‘scavengers’ constituted a large part of London’s poor; in the painting the young boy offering his services is barefooted, his trousers and vest ripped and his overall appearance one of ruggedness and misery. This is perfectly contrasted by the lady, who on the contrary is in luxurious attire; a velvet overall covering her and her leather boots shining. Behind her stand white and grandiose buildings with stucco facades which place the painting somewhere in West London. As explained by Bills (2004) the presence of a Notting Hill omnibus and the painter’s familiarity with Lancaster Gate suggests the painting could more precisely be inspired from the Notting Hill area. Beyond the very organisation of the painting however is its message. The lady, who is trying to cross the street whilst ignoring the young boy who asks for money, is walking by foot rather than travelling by carriage, which would have been expected by a woman of her stature at the beginning of the century. This change in behaviour was brought about by the major development scheme to clear the streets of London organized by the Metropolitan Board of Works. At the start of the century, sewage management was highly inefficient and, needless to say, extremely unhygienic. Before the research completed by pioneering physician John Snow, the miasmatic theory was largely held that disease was spread through the air rather than, as Mr Snow elucidated, through water, which he demonstrated to cause the spread of cholera. This new information, along with the Great Stink of 1858, compelled legislators to better manage London’s sewage works. The city moved from private enterprise of water supplies and sewage treatments to modern hydrological systems that worked as a whole. By 1855, the Metropolis Management Act was passed which created the Metropolitan Board of Works, an authority aimed towards developing London’s infrastructure in such a way that would cover all boroughs of the city, regardless of municipal governments. The Board of Works created a complex system of intercepting sewers, including fourteen pumping stations and two wastewater treatment plants (Bruce, 1969). Not only were the streets deodorized, they were also cleaner and starting to become more safe and hygienic, paved by granite and macadam. In addition, electric street lights were introduced around 1880 to modernize the urban experience. In a study of London’s transformation, urban technologies are explained as shaping London; “on the one hand, they could shield the eyes and ears of genteel urbanites from the offensive and barbarous workings of...
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