Jerry White, author and Professor of History at Birkbeck College, spoke at Guildhall Library on Tuesday 24th April 2012 about his latest book, London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing. This book is the eagerly awaited third in a trilogy that began with London in the Twentieth Century, followed by London in the Nineteenth Century.
White’s talk emphasised the shocking violence that underpinned 18th century society. He began with a reading about John Waller, an informant tried for highway robbery in the Old Baily in 1732, and sentenced to an hour in the pillory at Seven Dials. The crowd attacked him, pelted him with objects, and literally bashed him to death. White gave a graphic account of the incident, finishing with a description of Waller’s brains falling out of his skull and into his mother’s lap, when his broken body was finally returned to Newgate Prison.
One of the main figures in White’s book is the great Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784), below left, arguably the quintessential 18th century Londoner. Lichfield-born Johnson and his pupil David Garrick (1717 – 1779), below right, decided to make it big in London, and shared a horse to travel there. Johnson rose to fame as a wit, author, and lexicographer. Garrick became a respected actor, but was nevertheless attacked by the mob for revoking the traditional concession which allowed half-price entry during a play’s third act. Crowds rioted, wrecking his theatre, and a pamphlet war ensured. Garrick was forced to back down.
(Above images from Wikipedia)
White spoke about the unpopularity of 18th century London clerics, who railed against sin every Sunday, and indulged in it the rest of the week. William Dodd, Royal Chaplain to George III, was a dandy cleric who earned the nickname ‘Marconi Parson’. To pay the debts that his extravagant lifestyle had accrued, Dodd forged the Earl of Chesterfield’s signature on a bond for £4,200. He was convicted, and became the last forger to be hanged at Tyburn, on 27th June 1777. Hanging days were public holidays for London apprentices, and 40,000 people witnessed Dodd’s death.
The London trilogy took Jerry White 15 years to produce. He carried out research at Yale, the British and Bodleian libraries, and online (where it’s possible to access the Old Bailey’s Court Proceedings, and digitised 18th century newspapers). White has no plans for a fourth instalment in the series (i.e. London in the 17th century), and his next book will focus on London during WWI.