By the end of the 19th Century, London was the capital of one quarter of the world. London had become the NEW ROME, centre of a world - wide Empire far greater than the Roman Empire. How could one city in one tiny island administer so immense an area? The answer was industry. The power of modern communications made the Empire effective. From far and near, steamships, telegraph cables, posts and railways converged on London, just as all the roads had led to Rome. But whereas the Roman Empire was at its greatest extent for 200 years, the British Empire remained so for nearer 20. At the climax of Empire, the end was already close and before long London would be, once again, an island capital.
The powerhouse of the British Empire was London, the Rome of the modern world. By the end of the 19th Century, London complacently felt itself to be, as the bards of the 1897 Jubilee called it “the hub of the world”. It really was the greatest of cities With its contrasts of patrician glitter and fetid slum, its hugger-mugger mixture of pathos and parade, its humour, its boisterous and libidinous night life, its glorious parks and its glowering smoke-filled skies; with the murky old Thames rolling grandly through its centre, and the millennium of history that flowed through its very soul; with all its quirks, splendours and disgraces, London possessed a universal, Shakespearean quality that every perceptive visitor remarked. Here were the shrines symbols and mechanisms of the greatest empire ever known in history.
In the centre of the metropolis, loftily above St. James’s Park, stood the headquarters of the whole imperial organisation built in Italian style by George Gilbert Scott 40 years before. The building had been the subject of a famous architectural controversy of the 1850‘s Scott wanted to build it in the Gothic style, but gothic had come to be associated with Toryism, and when the Whigs returned to power in 1857, Lord Palmerston insisted in Renaissance . The result was not a very inspired building - a heavy towered block, decorated with sculptured representations of imperial races, Indian rivers or dead Colonial Secretaries: but it housed both the Colonial Office and India Office, beneath whose dual authority lived nearly 400 million people.
At the India Office was stacked all the knowledge, experience and self-esteem acquired during two centuries of the British presence in India. India was in fact, ruled from Calcutta, and its practical executive was the Viceroy. But the India Office, his link with Imperial Government, was the alter-ego of the Raj. All the departments of Indian Government had their microcosms there in Whitehall , and the Office had its own stores depot , audit office and accounts general. The men who ran the India Office were clever and dedicated careerists, and their methods were nothing if not deliberate - “stern, solemn, sure and slow” as Lord Curzon put it.
Everything about the India Office reflected Britain's ancient association with the East. The Office was old, sombre, powerful and legalistic. The reputation of the India Office was daunting: its authority over those romantic domains of the East was one of the decisive facts of the 19th Century.
Sundry other establishments, monuments or mere memories reminded the citizen of London that his was the capital of one quarter of the world. There were foundations like the The Royal Colonial Institute, or the Ladies Imperial Club. There were the offices of the Colonial Agents the travel specialists (“Portmanteaux shipped direct to Bombay”); the colonial wine merchants (manager- Lieut. Col. Haskett-Smith Late of the Cameron Highlanders); the shops selling tropical medicines, Camp Beds for Colonial Climes, mosquito nets, patent field cookers, leather bound trunks etc. etc.
At the moment of Victoria’s accession in 1837, Britain had found herself in a position of unprecedented opportunity. She was at that time the only industrial power, having mastered the use of steam before any other. She was the financial and commercial exchange of the world. Since Trafalgar, she had enjoyed undisputed command of the seas. Since Waterloo, she had been immune to threats by land. She possessed an incalculable economic potential in her Indian territories and her undeveloped colonies elsewhere. She was stable enough to ride out social unrest at home, vigorous enough to absorb all manner of technical and political change.
London as the stage for processions and pageants, became conscious as never before of its position at the centre of the vastest Empire in history.
With 4,500,000 inhabitants, late Victorian London nearly equalled the entire population of Canada then some 4,800,000. Bursting with vitality, it was the centre for the whole elaborate structure of imperial trade, communication and administration. Its busy thoroughfares like the Strand at Charing Cross overflowed with brewer’s drays and horse-buses, private broughams and victorias, cabs and pedestrians. As Dr. Samuel Johnson said a century earlier: “The full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross”.
But to those who looked beneath the hubbub, it was also a city of contrasts: a short walk took the visitor from the luxury of West End residences and the comfortable security of city finance houses to the East End slums. London was as much “two nations” - Disraeli’s phrase - as Britain itself, and few Londoners crossed the border between the two.
The public buildings of the well-established institutions - government, finance, the Church, the Law - amply expressed Victorian power and prestige in a wide variety of imposing styles, derived from classic models.
Bankers and military men, merchants and government officials worked behind mock- Classical or Pseudo-Gothic facades,; most of these were solid and sober mid-century structures; within a few years however the craze for pretentious decoration and cheap new materials produced a spate of overpoweringly ornate railway stations, hotels and mansions many of which still stand.
The importance of one increasingly powerful institution - the popular Press - was less obvious to an outsider. A stroll through the centre of the newspaper world revealed no hint of its real power. Alfred Harmsworth had founded his halfpenny Daily Mail with its sensationalist appeal to the newly literate masses only in 1896. Fleet Street’s densely packed houses were as yet unbroken by the imposing press buildings which were soon to dominate this ancient thoroughfare.
London’s crowded streets provided a small time living for thousands. Peddles, hawkers and itinerant traders lined the cobble-stoned streets with their barrows and sold hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, cutlery, boiled eggs, furniture, cockles, clothing and live chickens.
It was an insecure competitive life “like holding yourself up after a shipwreck first by one floating spar then by another”, in the maelstrom of London’s unplanned sprawl of buildings. Many never even attempted the struggle to earn an honest living; a host of pick pockets, thieves and confidence tricksters preyed upon those who looked respectable or prosperous enough to be carrying a sovereign or two.
Only at night did the hubbub decline : then the streets were left all but deserted, and the best-established street-traders of all - the 80,000 prostitutes - could ply this oldest of the professions in the flickering light of the gas lamps.
Throughout the 19th century, London was the main clearing house of Britain and the market-place for produce from all over the world. Railways rushed fruit, vegetables, fish and meat to the markets at Covent Garden, Billingsgate and Smithfield. Ships from Empire and elsewhere unloaded cartons, crates and bales at the wharves along the Thames. On this flow of goods a million or more workers depended for their livelihood.
It was a precarious existence. The great age of commercial expansion was over, and unemployment was a recurring threat to London’s casual day-to-day labourers. Strikes and lock-outs were common, and labour unrest had several times led to violence. Bloody Sunday - 13th November 1887, when soldiers had battled with unemployed rioters in Trafalgar Square - still rankle in working class memories.
Of those who inhabited this, the worlds richest city, 30% lived in hopeless poverty. At that time few knew the violent contrast between rich and poor; the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the eastern districts knew nothing of the western areas “but from hearsay and report” and for the wealthy districts in the east where “the other half live” were as unexplored as Timbuktoo according to a building society report. In the 1890‘s the problem was at least recognised. The East End was seen as an “evil plexus”. A Fijian or a Maori, said one writer “was not half so savage as the tenant of a tenement in an East London slum. And as Will Crooks, a workhouse educated Labour M.P. Ironically put it ”The same sun which never set on the Empire never rose on the dark alleys of East London.
One of the highlights of London’s social season in 1897 was the fancy-dress ball given in Devonshire House. It was a brilliant occasion on which the future George V and his wife joined their aristocratic friends and relatives, one of whom is seen here donning the dress of his favourite historical character. “The Cardinals and Doges walked in superb majesty” reported the Daily Graphic “the knights in armour glistened in silken mantles and diamond decorations”.
Few guests at the glittering party could have doubted the strength of the landed aristocracy. In a century containing three Parliamentary Reform Acts, measures that progressively reduced landowners power, they still wore the mantle of the ruling class. But the real location of power in an industrial nation, till now obscured by the fact that wealthy industrialists had joined the aristocracy, could not for long be ignored. Only two decades ahead, the mantle of power worn with such assurance at Devonshire House would finally be packed away.
The 1890,s were the golden years of entertainment. Workers crowded into London pubs to see “poses plastiques.” created by apparently naked girls clad only in sheer body stockings. Packed into music-halls like the Alhambra and Empire, boisterous audiences responded with glee to the bawdy songs and risqué jokes of Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. Stuffier members of the middle-classes murmured their disapproval of the “wanton display of the female form divine”. But the tide could not be turned. As Winston Churchill asserted in his first letter to a newspaper, “In England we have too long obeyed the voice of the prude”.
Within a month of the jubilee celebrations, even before the last bunting had been removed, a disturbing poem was published in the Times of London, traditionally the organ of the British ruling classes, and in 1897 as staunchly imperialist as the most sensational of its penny rivals. It was Rudyard Kipling, at 32, the acknowledged laureate of the imperial idea. Kipling, more than anyone had succeeded in equating Empire with duty, honour, national pride and opportunity. The noble poem ‘Recessional’ (recommended reading) referred at one level directly to the Jubilee itself. But in a deeper sense Kipling had in mind the profounder act of sacrament which was Empire itself- the ritual imposition of British values, like a laying on of hands, upon so many alien races, speaking so many different tongues and honouring such diverse religions. ‘Recessional’ was a warning against the degradation of this ethic. It was a reproof to a newly bombastic people. It hinted at unresolved doubts about the moral nature of imperialism, and it disconcertingly suggested that British supremacy in the world was not so inevitable, not so divinely ordained as it seems.
The Germans were now challengers. They had started an empire of their own in direct imitation of the British. Everyone knew that the rivalry was intense and possibly perilous. The Germans were building a powerful new fleet. Their diplomacy seemed designed to exclude Britain from the affairs of the continent. Their industry, already in some respects more advanced than the British was expanding faster from more modern beginnings.
British foreign policy had traditionally been based upon two fundamentals: a fleet more powerful than any combination of two potential enemy navies, and a balance of power in Europe to prevent the emergence of a single super state across the channel. The rise of Germany put both these principals at risk. The Germans were clearly bent upon the hegemony of Europe; and the Royal Navy, though numerically unchallenged, was hardly Nelson’s incomparable fleet of old.
The ebullient Diamond Jubilee celebrations, which had turned London into an exhibition of imperial grandeur, were partly intended to mask these weaknesses. Superficially Britain seemed supremely sure of herself : but thoughtful Britons like Kipling, were already half conscious of the cracks behind the facade, and haunted by a vision of their country as a second-class power of the future. More significantly still, a small minority of citizens was already beginning to wonder if Empire was such a good thing after all.
There were a few visionaries, even at that time, who wondered if Empire was really ‘right’. Was it right for instance that a kingdom dedicated to the idea of personal freedom should rule its dependencies as absolute autocracies? Was it right to impose western culture upon peoples with ancient civilisations of their own? Were the coloured races of Empire getting their fair share of progress, or were they merely being exploited? Was it all, to use a favourite value-judgement of Victorian England, “fair”?
There were statues here and there across the grimy old city to viceroys and imperial conquerors, Richard Burton, the African explorer, slept beneath his marble tent in the Catholic cemetery at Mortlake. In the Nave of Westminster Abbey lay the incomparable Livingstone, his body brought out of Africa by his devoted native servants Susi and Chuma.
Sometimes the Londoner might catch a glimpse of living imperial functionaries. He might for instance observe the Judges of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the ultimate tribunal of the British Empire, assembling in Whitehall. He may see the Speaker of the House of Commons , an assembly who’s writ ran in one degree or another throughout the British possessions, and whose approval was theoretically required for every stutter of a Maxim gun. He might see the 95th Archbishop of Canterbury, head of a Church who’s 96 bishoprics spanned the entire Empire, emerging in splendid canonicals from his official home at Lambeth Palace.
Or he might set eyes on the Queen of England. She often came to London from her castle at Windsor, and her carriage may be seen on its way from the railway station to Buckingham Palace, or clattering through the palace gates between her saluting guardsmen.
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