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City Lights


Tristram Hunt’s Building Jerusalem is an erudite and elegant account of the rise and fall of the Victorian city, and an eloquent plea for the return of the pride and civic consciousness that he sees as the great achievement of those who shaped urban life in nineteenth-century Britain. Its focus, then, is resolutely British—its territory the Manchester of Engels, the London of Dickens and Mayhew, and the Birmingham of Joseph Chamberlain—but its larger polemic contributes to the debate about the way we live now. It urges us to use the Victorian achievement in order to tackle concerns about contemporary anomie, privacy, and “social disengagement” expressed in works like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone of 2000, and to reinforce the attack on modernist urban planning and the triumph of suburbanization embodied in the “sidewalk” school of criticism begun in the 1960s by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The notion that a dose of Victorian values offers a cure to the ailments of postmodern urban living may seem counterintuitive, not to say unpalatable—and certainly there are times when Hunt sounds like the Victorian doctor telling his patient that he should swallow the medicine for his own good—but he pleads eloquently for us to learn from the experience of nineteenth-century Britain. The historical picture he presents is well executed but also quite familiar. The novelty of Building Jerusalem lies in its contemporary polemical edge, and its success stands or falls by the effectiveness of the link it posits between past experience and present-day policy.

Talk of Victorian values and anti-modernism conjures up images of a conservative nostalgia less concerned to change the world than to flee from it. But this is far from Hunt’s position. His mix of history and policy is very much of a piece with his aspirations to be a public intellectual on the left in Britain. Hunt has been a conspicuous presence not just in the academy but on television, radio, and in the press. He has worked for the Labour Party, advised government ministers, worked with the Institute for Public Policy Research, and is a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which dispenses an annual budget of about £330 million for projects preserving the local, regional, or national heritage. Building Jerusalem, then, seems intended not just to enlighten the general readers about the eminence of their Victorian forebears, but to persuade those in power to pursue policies that “re-engage a notion of civic patriotism or civic pride with an individualistic society with only the loosest of affiliations to nation, region and class let alone to the city.” The project is not without ambition.

At first sight the nineteenth-century city does not seem a propitious place to find urban felicity. The burgeoning manufacturing towns of the Industrial Revolution were the “New Hades.” As Hunt vividly reminds us, the great leap forward of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was achieved at a terrible human cost. The inventory of suffering resembles the charge sheet of those who indict the global capitalism of today. Fed by high birthrates and rural migration into the towns, the manufacturing centers and the businesses they housed had an insatiable appetite for young factory laborers who worked long hours for low wages in hazardous, unregulated conditions. The immigrants poured into overcrowded rooming houses and dank tenements.

Soon the cities were bursting at the seams. Between 1810 and 1841 Manchester grew from 95,000 to 310,000; Leeds tripled in size to 150,000. In one parish in Glasgow the population increased 40 percent between 1831 and 1841 but the amount of housing remained unchanged. Brutal, dehumanizing working conditions and domestic squalor pushed mortality rates to levels not seen since the medieval plague of the black death. In 1841, life expectancy at birth was 26.6 years in Manchester, 28.1 in Liverpool, and 27 in Glasgow.1 Contagious diseases, combined with poverty and malnutrition, were the chief killers. Typhoid, typhus, smallpox, cholera, and tuberculosis were rife. Crime, prostitution, and violence that went along with urban poverty were endemic, and pollution shrouded cities like Manchester in a miasma of soot and dirt, and left rivers cloacal waterways filled with effluent and rubbish. The manufacturers, merchants, professionals, and men of property lived separately from the factories and labor that produced their wealth, safely ensconced in rich neighborhoods and leafy suburbs. Even within a single town there were what the future prime minister, then the novelist Benjamin Disraeli characterized as “two nations,” sometimes described as two separate races, the sharply segregated rich and the poor.

Not surprisingly the “New Hades” provoked anxiety and criticism. The seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of urban change, together with the memory of the violent and radical political developments of the French Revolution, prompted a vehement reactionary response that attacked the crass materialism of the modern city as a place where, Hunt writes, quoting Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, “every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter” and that romanticized a pre-industrial age of social stability, piety, and paternalism.

The fears of many outside the laboring classes were less about the industrial poor’s material privations and catastrophic prospects than about the nature of the society they inhabited. Critics repeatedly singled out the poor’s godlessness and impiety, pointing out the lack of urban churches. Inadequate religious supervision, they believed, explained the disorderliness and sexual depravity of working-class life. They abhorred the gulf between rich and poor, prompted both by physical separation and the faceless individualism of urban life, because it precluded paternalist supervision of the lower classes. And they castigated the new masters, whose crude concern with profit and rational calculation, so vividly satirized by Dickens in his portrayal of Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times, was blamed for a corrosive, urban society that tainted master and employee alike. As the great Victorian seer Thomas Carlyle complained, “It is no longer the moral, religious, spiritual condition of the people that is our concern, but their physical, practical, economical condition.”

Nostalgia is the child of radical change, and the Victorian era was no exception. As is so often the case, modern society was seen as a fall from grace, and a period from the past idealized for its embodiment of virtues that were lost. (As we shall see, this is a position that Hunt himself reproduces from his position as a twenty-first-century critic.) The early-nineteenth-century cult of medievalism—whether in the form of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, Gothic architecture, or the banal cult of chivalry that lay behind such historical reenactments as the Eglinton jousting tournament of 1839—sought to restore the values supposedly destroyed by modern industry. It shaped the evangelicalism of the Church of England, which strove to bring piety to the cities through an ambitious program of church building. It fueled the Oxford Movement, which returned the Anglican Church to its High Church roots, and led some of the faithful back into the Roman Catholic Church itself. It inspired the “Young England” conservatives who argued for a greater role for the Church and the squirearchy (the modern equivalent of those chivalric figures in armor) in governing the nation.

It made Gothic architecture a national fashion as the embodiment of spiritual values, the preferred design first for churches, and then for railway stations and town halls. And it repeatedly underpinned a fantasy about a once organic and harmonious world in which lords and ladies, masters and men, peasants and laborers had lived in felicitous harmony. As George Dawson, the Birmingham Nonconformist minister, put it, medieval folk “went for unity in the family, the church and the nation; they forgot or ignored individualism…they could not understand protest, individualism, or self-erection [sic].”

Hunt argues that the Gothic revival and its values changed the face of the Victorian city:

Its vision of an organic city rebuilt upon faith, with a spirit of community and brotherhood expressed through a stratum of guilds, corporations, fraternities and churches, and reflected in a civic fabric of noble edifices and godly symbols, appealed intuitively to the bewildered inhabitants of Britain’s cities.

He seems to suggest that it was a source of the civic consciousness whose history he wishes to celebrate. But treating the “Gothic” and “medieval” as intuitively appealing—a natural phenomenon—can obscure how such terms were used for very different political and religious agendas. John Ruskin’s Gothic, which led him to a distinctive brand of socialism, was radically different from Young England’s Tory medievalism. They both opposed a progressive view of industry and the city with a historical vision based on an imagined past—they may even have admired the same buildings—but their views of urban politics and social relations were far apart.


As Hunt shows, the view they both abhorred had a very different conception of the city. Progressive, optimistic, usually aligned with religious Nonconformists, especially Unitarians, it celebrated cities as the sites of modern progress. As The Economist put it in 1848:

Modern towns are great wonders and great blessings…the home of advancing civilization, the abodes of genius, and the centres of all the knowledge, the arts, and the science of our race.

Such achievements were, above all, the accomplishments of a new class, Marx and Engels’s bourgeoisie. Sharing their admiration for its ability to drive the engine of history, the philosopher James Mill extolled the middle class as containing

beyond all comparison, the greatest proportions of the intelligence, industry, and wealth of the state. In it are the heads that invent, and the hands that execute; the enterprise that projects, and the capital by which these projects are carried into operation.

Led by the likes of Sir Edward Baines, the newspaper proprietor described by his son as “self-harnessed to the car of progress,” this class used its entrepreneurial energy to shape the modern city as the home of economic progress, political freedom (at least for those who were enfranchised), and a public life made rich through benevolence, philanthropy, and voluntary associations.

It is the last of these that especially catches Hunt’s eye. Taking up Robert Putnam’s notion of social capital—the idea that social strength is best accumulated through a dense collective life in which people belong to a variety of associations—he eloquently argues that such social strength was the achievement of the civic leaders of the nineteenth-century city. They created, he says, “a highly civil society.” Thus the Nonconformist Benjamin Love’s boosterish 1842 The Handbook of Manchester admiringly listed the chapels and places of worship, schools, hospitals, and other benevolent and educational institutions in the city, concluding that

no town possesses a greater number of charitable and benevolent commercial men and the charity and benevolence of Manchester tradesmen are commensurate with the scale of their commercial transactions.

Hunt is conscious of the objection that this civil society was predominantly middle class in both its tenor and social composition. He also concedes that the so-called Mechanics’ Institutes had a less humble clientele than their names implied. But he is eager to point out that there was a working-class civic culture, albeit one built around coping with economic misfortune and death. Friendly societies, savings banks, and burial clubs were its key components. By 1860 the extravagantly titled Manchester Unity Friendly Society Independent Order of Oddfellows had over 300,000 members making weekly contributions to pay for sickness allowance, medical costs, and, if necessary, burial. The pattern was repeated across the urban landscape. As early as the 1830s an estimated four hundred benefit clubs with more than 40,000 members flourished in Birmingham. A decade later the city saw the founding of the first building society, which used its members’ savings to extend loans to buy homes.

  1. 1

    To put these figures in perspective, according to WHO figures life expectation in Benin, Bangladesh, and Haiti is over 50 years; Burundi, Sierra Leone, and Malawi, with some of the lowest figures in sub-Saharan Africa, have expectations of 34.5, 38, and 40 years.

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