Exuberant Victorians

Victorian Cities

by Asa Briggs
Harper & Row, 424 pp., $6.50

This book is a companion volume to Professor Briggs’s Victorian People, an examination of the Victorian attempt to come to terms with the anarchic cities of the industrial revolution in England between the start of the railway age in the 1830s to the beginning of their dispersal by the automobile at the end of the century. The British were the first to plunge into industrialism; they went greedily and recklessly into it, throwing over everything they had learned from the planners of the eighteenth century, and were left angrily entangled in the muddle they had created. For ten years Manchester astounded and shocked the world, just as Chicago was to shock late in the century and as Los Angeles—the city in disintegration—shocked in the Thirties and Forties. And still does.

Victorianism is more than a local subject. It was a pervading British export. (Outside of the United States Melbourne is an example). Foreign experts, particularly American, French, and German, came to England to admire and denounce, to be tempted or to be terrified. London, the largest and filthiest city in the world for a very long time, fascinated. It was Manchester, the new aggressive monster, in a miserable climate, that horrified. In 1840 the violent city seemed ripe for social revolution; the hostility of the classes to one another was absolute. Yet by 1850 the moment had passed. The mood of England had changed and, in any case, Manchester was not the whole of industrial England; for it is the point of Professor Briggs’s book that English cities were not standardized. Places like Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds, Nottingham, Middlesbrough—a real frontier town—were different and individual. If Manchester was for a long time an exciting scandal and the scene of struggle, the huge city of Birmingham, late in its development, and the home of a “civic gospel,” was called the best governed city in the world. It almost certainly was.

Of Manchester Tocqueville noted “evident lack of government, inability of the poor to act in isolation, separation of classes much greater at Manchester than at Birmingham…Three weeks stoppage of work would bring society down in ruins…The respect paid to wealth in England is enough to make one despair.” Emerson and other Americans were shattered. But it was dangerous to generalize: Manchester’s life was built on great cotton mills; Birmingham’s wealth was built on small workshops in which men became masters and masters became men with the changes in trade. In that sense it was a democracy.

“If Engels had lived not in Manchester but in Birmingham,” Briggs writes, “his conception of ‘class’ and his theories of the role of class in history might have been very different.” In this case Marx might have been not a communist but a currency reformer. The fact that Manchester was taken to be the symbol of the age in the 1840s and not Birmingham (which had fascinated Dr. Johnson and Edmund Burke in the late eighteenth century) was of central political importance in modern history.


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