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.

But the leaders of the new industrial cities were more concerned with the reputation of the communities they led. Above all they were determined to rebut the accusation, famously and pungently formulated in Matthew Arnold’s brilliant essay Culture and Anarchy (1869), that the commercial middle classes valued mney but were philistines when it came to culture and art. Hunt focuses on the 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition held in Manchester and funded by its most prominent citizens. This achievement, according to the Illustrated London News, marked the moment when the city could “hurl back upon her detractors the charge that she is too deeply absorbed in her pursuit of material wealth to devote her energies to the finer arts.”

The exhibit was truly remarkable, the sort of blockbuster old master show—1,800 canvases, and works by Raphael and Titian—we associate with such great museums as New York’s Metropolitan, London’s National Gallery, and Paris’s Louvre. But it was also not typical. There was a tremendous flow of capitalist wealth into cultural institutions in Victorian England. Cotton in Lancashire’s Acrington, Bolton, Brighouse, and Southport, brewing in Bedford, Derby, Ipswich, and Sheffield, mustard in Norwich, wines and spirits in Newcastle, property development in Birmingham, patent medicines in Rochdale, banking in Preston, textile machinery in Bradford and Manchester, jewelry and clock making in Lincoln: the great capitalists of the nineteenth century plowed their wealth into art galleries and museums. But the collections they housed were not dominated by old masters but by contemporary and regional art by living artists. The urban elite, distinguishing itself from aristocratic and plutocratic collectors who dominated the cosmopolitan art market, chiefly patronized what was then modern art. Provincial galleries were far more likely to contain works by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Frith, and Lord Leighton than by Raphael or Leonardo.2

Rich Victorian burghers drew, as Hunt shows, on a variety of examples to justify their cultural patronage. They looked to ancient Greece, Renaissance Florence, and Venice, as well as rich northern commercial towns like Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent. And what they always sought was what one speaker at the Manchester Athenaeum found in ancient Athens: there “the study of arts and the acquirements of literature were united with, and made to flourish by, the pursuits of commerce.” Drawing parallels with their historic predecessors—and here Florence, compared with both Bradford and Manchester, was a particular favorite—cities plundered the buildings and architectural styles of the past to reinforce their cultural pedigree. Liverpool became the center of the Greek Revival. Charles Barry’s Halifax Town Hall was modeled on Sansovino’s library in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square; the Keithley Mechanics’ Institute imitated the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and John Stewart Templeton’s carpet factory in Glasgow was easily recognized as a version of the Venice Doges’ Palace. Provincial cities were covered by a rash of imposing and sometimes bizarre town halls and municipal buildings in a variety of styles.

This civic pride was part of a firm belief in the virtues of municipal autonomy. Politicians, novelists, journalists, and foreign commentators like Alexis de Tocqueville saw such local authority as the defining characteristic of Britain when compared with the overcentralized regimes of continental Europe. Municipal self-government was deemed the source of the nation’s freedom, stability, and economic superiority, a national characteristic traced by academic historians and amateur antiquarians to the nation’s Saxon roots. William Stubbs, the great Oxford medievalist, spoke for many in his famous Constitutional History of England (1874–1878) when he described the English as “a people of German descent…in the possession of the elements of primitive German civilisation and the common germs of German institutions.” In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South(1855), the dour northern mill-owner Mr. Thornton explains to his southern guests:

We are Teutonic up here in Darkshire…. We hate to have laws made for us at a distance. We wish people would allow us to right ourselves, instead of continuously meddling, with their imperfect legislation. We stand up for self-government, and oppose centralization.

This Saxon model was contrasted with Norman attempts at centralization after the conquest of England in 1066, when the French propensity for autocratic, centralized government first had an effect on English life. In this way commentators neatly connected English history to nineteenth-century ideas of superiority to an over-bureaucratized and overcentralized France. As the Birmingham Daily Press put it, “On the other side of the Channel Paris is France, but no such rule applies to us…. Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, and other towns must be asked their opinion” before great decisions were made.

Talk of local empowerment in the tradition of the representative institutions of Saxon England was sometimes used by such reformers as the radical Chartists to advocate greater democracy. But more often, as Hunt shows, it was deployed by small property owners and petty capitalists, local rate payers, to resist costly public improvement. Concerned to keep government as cheap as possible, they repeatedly opposed any schemes that required local funding, especially those that emanated from Parliament. Resistance to reform was effective. To take Hunt’s chief example: the wave of epidemics—of influenza, typhus, typhoid, and cholera in 1837–1842—and the cholera outbreaks of 1846, 1848, 1854, and 1855–1856 made action on public health imperative. Yet many cities failed to supply clean water or dispose of sewage. Health reform was slow to come, piecemeal, and often strongly resisted. When the well-organized lobby the Health of Towns Association, with its campaign against “foul air, foul water foul lodging, overcrowded dwellings,” finally succeeded in securing the passage of the 1848 Public Health Bill, there was a public outcry. The act gave a central government General Health Board powers to force localities to act. According to one critic, “No scheme more demoralizing and mischievous, in every respect, was ever introduced by the enemies of human freedom and progress.” And, though the act enjoyed some success—during its first ten years, 219 different towns and villages adopted its provisions—its reforms were rolled back in the late 1850s.

Yet as Hunt points out, “by the 1860s there was a festering impatience with the classic, Victorian way of doing things: of voluntarism, civic association and muddling through.” A new era dawned in which “cities became known not just by the activities of their businesses or the culture of their civil society, but also by the reforms and rhetoric of their councils.” Nowhere was this new “municipal gospel” preached more avidly and pursued more successfully than in the city of Birmingham. Nonconformist ministers and their prosperous congregations, led by the ruthlessly efficient businessman Joseph Chamberlain, gradually came to control local government. Like other reformers, they were helped by the 1867 Parliamentary Reform Bill, whose changes in the franchise reduced the power of the “shopocracy,” the small rate payers who had opposed improvement. The reformers took over the private corporations that ran services, converting water and gas companies into efficiently run—indeed profitable—public utilities, and embarked on major schemes of civic redevelopment, inspired by the un-British example of Baron Haussmann’s radical rebuilding of Paris. In Birmingham in the 1870s, nine thousand inhabitants were removed from the city center, and property worth £3 million was compulsorily purchased to create a new civic center with shops, better dwellings, an art gallery, library, and council house. Glasgow Council carried out similar improvements. These schemes, Hunt emphasizes, were symptomatic of a new view of the city, described by one contemporary as “a society, established by the divine will, as the family, the States, and the Church are established, for common life and common purpose and common action.” Indeed by the 1880s the municipal gospel was becoming the creed of municipal socialism, using local government as a way of building from the ground up “an ethical socialist community through public ownership and public control.”


But if the new leaders of the provincial cities seemed to have begun to manage the problems of urban life, the late-nineteenth-century view of London was altogether different. By 1901 London’s population was 6,586,000, roughly 20 percent of the entire population of England and Wales. More than the capital of the nation, it had become a metropolis that stood at the heart of Britain’s vast empire. Like Manchester in the 1840s, London at the turn of the century exemplified the triumphs and failures of urban life—glittering wealth based on finance and imperial trade in Westminster and the City, terrible squalor in the East End, “a jungle,” Hunt writes, “of pauperism, immorality and criminality which few dared to encounter.” The poor were, as the Pall Mall Gazette put it, “heathens and savages in the heart of our capital,” viewed in the same light and with the same anxiety as the native peoples under British rule in Africa and Asia.

Fears of moral and physical degeneration, compounded by anxieties of racial mixing that focused on the influx of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, and the revelations of such surveys as Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London, prompted a variety of initiatives. Housing trusts, the settlement movement in which middle-class Christians moved into the East End to help the poor, local and central government housing reform, even rather sinister eugenic and social Darwinist plans to sterilize the poor or put their progeny in labor camps: all these proposals aimed to cure the capital’s ills. Others, however, had concluded that urban life, especially in the metropolis, brought with it an incurable disease. Only changing the way people lived could prevent moral and social decline.

The flight from urban life—into suburbia and the so-called garden city—does not please Hunt. He describes the rapid exodus from London—between 1891 and 1901 the outer ring of London suburbs expanded by 45 percent—as well as the corporate suburban communities created in Bourneville on the edge of Birmingham by the Cadbury family and at Port Sunlight on the bank of the Mersey opposite Liverpool by Lord Lever, and the experiments in garden city communities promoted by Ebenezer Howard. He sees these developments as the precursors of a “far more nefarious breed of suburbia which came to swamp interwar Britain…that irreversibly scarred the British landscape and marked a total rejection of the virtue of civic life.” Suburbanization in Britain preceded the age of the motorcar, relying as it did on an efficient network of trains. The 1920s and 1930s were boom years when four million new houses were built, 90 percent of which were in the suburbs. For Hunt this is a disaster: “By some imperceptible but tragic process the suburbs were increasingly imagined as the natural home of the English people.”

The suburbanization of Britain was chiefly concentrated in the southeast of England and reflected a shift in the economy as first new light industry and then technology flourished and the industrial base that sustained the great northern cities—textiles, shipping, general manufacturing, iron and steel, coal, engineering—went into free fall. The great towns of the Industrial Revolution hemorrhaged population. The city of Liverpool today is roughly half the size it was when I was growing up in its suburbs in the 1950s. At the same time successive governments deprived the local authorities of their power, either privatizing their services or replacing their functions with national, government-sponsored bodies (including incidentally, the one on whose board Hunt sits). The middle class, the backbone of nineteenth-century civic consciousness, gradually lost its local roots, thinking more and more in national and metropolitan terms. The industrial cities languished, “an archipelago of islands,” distant outliers of Greater London, Britain’s only global city. As Hunt ruefully admits, the great age of Victorian civic culture was “short lived.”

What, then, is to be done? Hunt is guarded about many of the schemes of cultural regeneration now being proposed to help the post-industrial city. While he recognizes the potency of what we might call “the Bilbao effect,” in which new buildings, museums, and galleries stimulate an economy based on tourism, leisure, and (sometimes) education, he also fears its dependence on central government, “political fashion and consumer trends.” Cultural policy, he admits, “is essential to regenerating post-industrial cities, but urban culture will only emerge with local talent and local patronage.” But for that to happen, he concludes in a rather hectoring manner, “people [i.e., middle class people] need to move back to the cities and stay there.” The solution, then, lies in ending the “damaging dislocation between commercial wealth and civic identity” by “reconnecting a commercial elite with its civic environment,” which is why Hunt would like to bring back the high-minded values of Victorian Nonconformity.

How credible is this? I would be the last to deny the extraordinary contributions to civic life made by our Victorian forefathers, for I number myself as one of their greatest beneficiaries. As a middle-class child in Liverpool I thrived on its libraries, museums, galleries, theaters, and philharmonic orchestra—all founded by Liverpool’s eminent Victorians. They were a strong source of civic pride and of rivalry and comparison not with London, but with Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham. But though these institutions suffered with the decline of the city, they were and remain largely irrelevant to the terrible social problems that afflicted it and the other industrial cities not only in Britain but all over the Western world.

The Victorians often saw social and economic problems as questions of attitude and morality. They were surely right in believing that some sort of civic consciousness was necessary to urban revival, but it was never enough. When Hunt advocates civic-mindedness and local democracy, he sounds like the Victorians he so admires. But he also shares their weaknesses. The middle class succeeded in creating great civic monuments and in making their cities more salubrious and sanitary, but they never managed, as Hunt is forced to concede, to remove the radical inequalities that went with urban life. In fact their urban vision, like Hunt’s, was quite narrow—class-bound, aestheticized, paternalistic, and, in the Nonconformist tradition he so admires, rather puritanical. Victorian cities were never the sort of organic communities Hunt would like them to have been. The difficulty with the sort of vision supposed by Hunt and some Victorians is that it confuses the notion of “communitarianism” with “civil society.” It wants to see (and sometimes impose) a unitary vision as necessary to a social unit (the city) whose abiding characteristic is its diversity—its varied social composition and disparate values. Such a sense of unity may work for a sect or a congregation but not for a city. Advocates of this unitary vision frequently project it back into the past, claiming it as “a world we have lost,” although it is a world that we never had. It also quite often appears as a strategy to evade current problems with urban life or to condemn changes that fail to conform to the organic vision espoused or defended. The flight to the past, in other words, can often be quite unhistorical.

The omissions in Hunt’s story are telling. No doubt he is right to point to the deracinated, deterritorialized nature of middle-class life, but he makes no attempt to explore the quite rich associational life that persists in the suburbs, small towns, and villages that collectively have replaced rural England. The forms of social capital in such places may not be “civic,” but they flourish nevertheless. Equally, he says almost nothing about the complex set of institutions and practices that went to make up local working-class identity and which persisted well into the twentieth century—nothing about sports (especially soccer), working men’s clubs and pubs (apart from the Oddfellows), working-class leisure and recreations, local language/dialect or custom. He is aware of art galleries and libraries, but not of the local art, poetry, theater, and music scene that doesn’t often make the national press, but which has long been a part, for example, of Liverpool’s local culture. Despite or perhaps because of television and mass media, local civic identities—the Liverpool “Scouser,” the Newcastle “Geordy,” perhaps even the “Mancunian” from Manchester—remain as powerful as ever. Of course such people are not usually in a position to create the civic monuments and cultural edifices Hunt would like to see. Their horizons are more modest, more provincial, yet none the less worthy for that.

But then Hunt is much less interested in ordinary citizens than in addressing a national elite, calling on them to reshape cities in their own image, creating a civic culture whose impact is felt outside rather than just within the city. In theory this should appeal to Britain’s New Labour leaders, who like to talk about the importance of the local, and whose paternalistic and puritanical attitudes fit well with the traditions of nineteenth-century Nonconformity. But they face a problem similar to the one that Hunt never really confronts. He would like to be both provincial and cosmopolitan. Unfortunately neither he nor New Labour can be both.

This Issue

May 11, 2006