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.
And if Engels could have waited he would have seen the Corn Laws repealed, the birth of the Manchester School, the change from commercial shrewdness to principle, the triumph of Free Trade.
The industrial cities were not pretty; in two things they were united. Their rise meant a war against the aristocracy who went under in the struggle; it also meant a sort of intoxication with the magic of industry and also with the diverse political magics this created. Birmingham’s famous “civic gospel” grew out of the manufacture of brass ware—which flooded Africa and India—and created, indifferently, both a strong bent to radical socialism at home and to Imperialism abroad. A Birmingham economist was compared to Tamurlane!
Middlesbrough which had been a mere hamlet, in a marsh, became a Gold Rush city. It produced pig iron. Its railway boosters described it in language that might have come from some comic speech by a Dickensian politician, in Petrarch or in Martin Chuzzlewit.
The iron it supplies furnishes railways to Europe; it runs by Neapolitan and Papal dungeons; it startles the bandit in his haunts in Cilicia; it streaks the prairies of America; it stretches over the plains of India; it surprises the Belochees; it pursues the Peggunus of Gangotri. It has crept out of the Cleveland Hills, where it has slept since the Roman days, and now, like a strong and invincible serpent, coils itself round the world.
The mayor of this pigiron town welcomed the Prince of Wales with the words:
If there is one thing Middlesbrough is proud of it is the smoke. The smoke is an indication of plenty of work…an indication that all classes of work people are being employed, that there is little necessity of charity….
There are the two sides of the Victorian character: the imaginative extravagance and the moral. Their language is shrewd, biblical and imperial and the confusion is a matter of principle. Away with the aristocratic, the formal, the classical in everything; away with the monotonous orderliness of the eighteenth century. Pillage the Middle Ages for ideas of Utopia, the Gothic and Renaissance for your style. The Victorians aspire, they are diverse. Middlesbrough likened to Hercules; the manufacturers of Derby to the Medici.
Professor Briggs leaves one admiring the Victorian energy and particularly the fact that these new cities not only made money out of manufacture, but took earnestly to the conflicts that arose and voluntarily spent their lives fighting. Reformers and improvers slogged away at wealth in the civic battles. The English provinces were centers of political vitality. Why then, in the end, does the vitality of the provinces at last decline towards the end of the century? And why does London eventually become the center of England, and the south the ruler of the north that had made so much of the enormous wealth? The question is complicated. In a way the Victorians were deceived by their own magniloquence; it made locality larger than it really was; it magnified the illusion of distance. They did not observe, as they gazed hypnotized by empire and foreign markets, that England was a tiny country. (They know it now). And was on the way to becoming one city. The provincial press declined: London swamped it. And there was another curious reason which probably has a bearing on the failure to deal with industrial ugliness. It is a peculiar fact that since the sixteenth century the dominating idea of any Englishman who could afford it, was to live a country life. Political decisions, as Taine noted, were made in the country house, not in London. Unlike the French, the English hated the Court. The great moralizing industrialists rapidly turned into vegetative country squires and dropped out of city government; they were often enlightened and able, but they hated the places where they had made their money. (Ford Madox Ford’s “perfect gentleman,” Tietjens, sees himself as an ancient landowner, but in fact forgets that a lot of his fortune comes from Middlesbrough.) Shopkeepers took their place on the town and borough councils; they were penny-wise fellows, not heirs to the founding exuberance. Industrial cities on the Continent—Lyons for example or ports like Hamburg—were more attractive than the English ones and hardly less wealthy. American Victorians ceased to look to England, thought of cast iron, the steel frame, the elevator, the electric city.
Here in the Nineties Mr. Briggs’s story stops. The solid meat in it is good. He is thorough. He reawakens one’s respect for the moral energy and dramatic style of the Victorians. The weakness of the book is that, outside of the scholarly care, it has been rather thrown together; the American perspective is sketchy and there are maddening repetitions.
September 30, 1965