London has changed a great deal in the last two hundred years, due to social engineering, commercial development and the effects of blanket bombing during the World War II "Blitz". All three influences had particular impact upon the mediaeval City of London, destroying the old commercial and maritime areas almost completely, repeating the wholesale destruction and the commensurate, wasted opportunity to build anew offered by the Great Fire of London of 1666.
Because of this, much of the London known to Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin has disappeared. But traces can be found everywhere and there are occasional examples, such as The Old Buildings of The Admiralty, which are almost unchanged.
London, like New York, is often described as a collection of villages. This is an accurate metaphor, and within a few miles of bustling Piccadilly Circus one can enjoy tranquil corners of an almost rural calm, small villages set amongst trees and open grassland, such as Hampstead, Highgate, Fulham, Chelsea and Wimbledon.
But the London we are going to discover in this Guide is essentially that great metropolis in which Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin occasionally lived, worked, suffered and played - Georgian London.
In fact, this is a tale of two cities, the City of Westminster and the City of London. Today these two Cities are seamlessly joined. To a great extent even in Jack's and Stephen's time most people would think of London as one city - the Great Metropolis, or in William Cobbett's uncomplimentary term, the Great Wen.
But once, Westminster and the City of London were separated by open heath and great gardens and divided by protective walls. They are still today divided by political structure, local bye-laws, commercial interests and cultural traditions, and some of the physical divisions can still be traced.
The City of Westminster, clustered round the ancient Royal processional route of Whitehall, has been the seat of English political power for a thousand years. Some of the early Royal Palaces were there; it was the seat of English government after the Norman Invasion and is now the site of the Houses of Parliament. For centuries Westminster has been the centre of British public administration, law and entertainment in courts, offices and private houses and later, coffee houses and clubs, around the fine Royal Parks with the military garrisoned in great barracks. And, of course, Westminster is the location of the Royal Navy's power house, The Admiralty, housed in a discreet but imposing set of buildings at the eastern end of the current Royal processional route, The Mall, between St James's Park and Whitehall.
The centre of Westminster in Jack's time moved north and west from Whitehall itself. Here, in fashionable Mayfair and Belgravia were built great new houses in fine squares, the London homes of rich landed aristocrats such as the Grosvenors and the Russells. These tried to emulate the new Royal palace, Clarence House, standing in Palladian splendour on its terrace on the northern edge of St James's Park; alas, this fine building was destroyed by fire later in the century and only one wing remains, now the London home of HRH The Queen Mother.
Leading architects of the day were also commissioned to design imposing buildings in the squares and broad main streets of this elegant area, to house the many gentlemen's clubs which provided entertainment and lodging for well to-do gentlemen up in "Town" on business or pleasure.
In the many side streets to the north and east of St James's were the more modest houses of small tradespeople - the rising petit bourgeois - and their customers, the newly-growing middle and professional classes. Behind this veneer of genteel housing, and away from the heart of the City of Westminster, were the old and insanitary dwellings of the poor and the day labourers whose hard manual graft kept the whole thing going.
London grew rapidly in the Eighteenth Century, the era of the Georges. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the fields and orchards seen on maps published just a hundred years earlier had been obliterated by houses, streets and commercial buildings. The classical-porticoed houses of professional people stood where maids had milked cows in the former mediaeval village of Marylebone. The newly-created Regent's Park with its Palladian crescent by Nash was the splendid terminus of the long processional route from St James's.
The City of London was the centre of trade and business, the "Square Mile" of the original walled Roman city enclosing in Georgian times, as it still does, the craftsmen's Guilds, banking and trading houses, the Stock Exchange and Christopher Wren's magnificent cathedral, St Paul's. Around it were huge food markets, such as the Smithfield meat market and the Billingsgate fish market, some of them Saxon or Roman in origin.
At its edge stood the great merchant navy and Royal Navy wharves and warehouses, where ships from every maritime trading nation in the world unloaded and embarked commodities in the ramshackle port of the Pool of London. In the early part of the Nineteenth Century, this activity gradually moved a few miles downstream to the great new merchant docks in a massive development scheme unrivalled until that of Canary Wharf in the 1990s, built over the same site.
Next to the wharves and the warehouses were industrial buildings and squalid housing for the masses employed in or around maritime commerce - the stevedores, lightermen, bargees, longshoremen, ship chandlers, rope makers, barrel coopers and countless other skilled and manual tradesmen. But amongst these mean streets were some fine examples of Restoration and Georgian architecture. Indeed, just across the Thames was one of the most beautiful buildings in the world - a World Heritage Site - Wren's masterpiece, the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, on the sandy southern bank of the Thames below the Royal Observatory.
The River Thames
At the feet of the two Cities which today make up London, was their raison d'être - the River Thames. More than 200 miles long, it is a broad, deep river rising in the rolling limestone uplands of south-west central England and running to its wide Estuary, 50 miles downstream of London, the confluence with the North Sea.
The Thames is tidal right through London and for a further 30 miles upstream, deep enough and regularly scoured by the tides to take the largest merchant ships of the time right up to the City walls. Bridged several times from the City and from Westminster to the southern banks, the Thames was for many centuries a major conduit of traffic between the Cities and their environs.
River taxis today are a delightful way to see London at its best. The view coming upstream as the riverside buildings light up on a summer's evening, is magical.
The Pool of London and the Docks
There is a range of spacious warehouses around the docks, for storing the West India produce, each of which is capable of containing eighty thousand hogsheads of sugar. All the West India ships must load and unload here. The loading and unloading is accomplished with the greatest ease and expedition. The cranes are of iron and constructed on a new principle: they occupy a very small space; and a single man, by the aid of one of them, moves one ton weight in and out of a ship, without any difficulty.
From "The Microcosm of London" by William Pyne, 1808
London had been a major port since the Romans bridged the river in the first century BC. In Reformation Europe London had been one of the great ports, and at the Restoration it had overtaken its great North Sea rivals Antwerp and Rotterdam at the end of the Anglo-Dutch Wars, in 1650.
By the middle of the Eighteenth Century the port, the ancient wharves, jetties and landing stages in the Pool of London downstream of old London Bridge, was unable to cope with the rapidly increasing traffic. Between 1720 and 1800 trade tripled. On occasion 1,800 vessels competed for 500 mooring spaces, causing severe bottle-necks in landing goods, some of them perishable or dependent on speed to market for best prices.
It was decided to build new facilities downriver, away from the old Square Mile of the heart of the City but close enough for merchants to stay in contact, and serviced by wide roads and secure warehousing. Construction of the West India Docks was authorised by Parliament in 1800 - the year of "Master and Commander" - taking two years to complete. Designed by the engineers William Jessop and John Rennie, these famous docks were on the Isle of Dogs, a flat and muddy peninsula in the East End of London.
The engineering and commercial success of this project encouraged more development on this usefully placed but previously barren site. London Docks were completed at Wapping in 1805, the East India Docks at Blackwall (1806) and Surrey Docks across the river at Rotherhithe (1807). Greenwood's map of 1827 shows plans for a new collier (coal-storage) docks on the marshes at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs, next to the West India Docks. But this site was earmarked in the later part of the C19th for Island Gardens, a small park at the spot which Wren had considered was the best viewpoint of his magnificent Royal Naval Hospital over the river at Greenwich. Today one of the branches of the Docklands Light Railway terminates here.
By 1816, the end of the Aubrey-Maturin Canon, London had become a modern city. The ancient, cramped, walled Cities of Westminster and London had merged into the second most populous area in the world (after Pekin), with rising suburbs joining together all the mediaeval villages.
The C19th Port of London, ten miles of river-bank facilities from the Pool in the west to the new docks in the east (since the 1950s, placed further downstream at Tilbury), was the source and the destination for trade goods of all descriptions to and from every point of the compass. And it was Jack's Royal Navy which ensured the world dominance of Britain in this trade, with London as its heart and brain. So it is fitting that, by alphabetical coincidence, the first entry in the list of locations which follows is The Admiralty.
© J M J Reay MM