Eighteenth-century City Streets

What would it have been like for my character Ashmole Foxe to have walked through the streets of 18th-century Norwich? Probably more akin to today than you would imagine, minus the motor vehicles, the asphalt and most of the pavements. The sounds would be quite different of course. No stench of diesel either, though plenty of other smells to take its place. Apart from that, most cities were busy centres for commerce, shopping and recreation, just like today.

Leaving the Land

There had been towns and cities in England since at least Anglo-Saxon times, though most were small, and the vast bulk of the population still lived as part of an agricultural economy throughout the Middle Ages. Some urban development began in the seventeenth century, especially in London, but most of what we would recognise today as an urban existence has its origins in the eighteenth, the Georgian and Regency eras. Changes in agricultural practices, the move from a subsistence to a market economy and the first stirrings of the industrial revolution started a move away from the countryside and into the towns; a process which accelerated steadily into the nineteenth century and beyond. At the same time, population growth created a rising demand for work, while the enclosure of the common lands destroyed the old peasantry and substituted uncertain, poorly paid employment for those who chose to remain in the countryside doing farm work.

It had long been a tenet of English common law that public highways were open to all and that included the streets of the towns. People of all classes mingled together, distinguished only by their clothes. Even foreigners and immigrants were generally accepted, though they might be the target of a certain amount of ridicule for their outlandish garb. Where, in the countryside, the gentry would pass on horseback or in their carriages and expected ordinary folk to step aside and acknowledge their presence, the hurly-burly of the towns swiftly reduced such deference to little more than a token touch on the hat or small inclination of the head. Even wellborn ladies might join the throng, accompanied only by a maid servant or a chaperone. Working women walked alone or in mixed company as a matter of course, even after dark. A landmark ruling in 1709 by the Lord Chief Justice held that, “a light Woman [i.e. prostitute] has a right of Liberty as well as another to walk about the streets.” Although beggars and vagabonds might be arrested for loitering, and prostitutes for “disorderly conduct”, they faced no automatic restrictions.

Street crime

Eighteenth-century streets were not, of course, free from their dangers, especially at night, in dark alleyways and in certain known haunts of criminals. Pickpockets and cut-purses mingled amongst the crowds and smiling locals offered directions to confuse visitors which took them down narrow alleyways and past confederates waiting to rob them. Even so, assaults and violent crimes were relatively rare, so that even gentlemen gradually gave up wearing swords, though many carried walking sticks as fashion items. The carrying of firearms was greatly frowned upon and might attract prosecution. Such brawls and mêlées as arose mostly involved fists and occasional cudgels.

Begging was also greatly disliked and discouraged, though beggars who occupied a fixed position and refrained from directly bothering passers by might be tolerated. Prostitutes and streetwalkers could be found nearly everywhere, although towards the latter part of the century most began to congregate in specific locations and around brothels, forming the earliest “red-light districts”. Other places which attracted prostitutes were those where large numbers of people tended to congregate anyway, such as outside theatres and in the pleasure gardens and promenades which had sprung up as places of recreation. Walking was seen as a healthy occupation in times of leisure and local corporations began to provide parks where urban dwellers could “take the air” in fine weather. Norwich was noted for its large number of pleasure gardens, complete with statues, flower beds, pavilions, places of entertainment and booths where you might eat and drink. In King’s Lynn, tree-lined walks were provided where you could perambulate to see and be seen and experienced a little of the countryside. They are still there to this day.

The Sounds — and Smells — of Urban Life

In contrast to the country, eighteenth-century towns were crowded and noisy places. City dwellers tended to view life in the countryside as a kind of sleep or hibernation, devoid of intellectual or cultural stimulus. In sharp contrast, towns were centres for news and information of all kinds. People met on street corners, in marketplaces and around the public pumps and exchanged gossip of all kinds. Pamphleteers, newsvenders, and balladeers shouted or sang the news, both real and false. Street traders called out their wares and many of the poor eked out a meagre living by hawking political and satirical pamphlets of all kinds. The better off gathered in coffeehouses to read the newspapers and discuss the topics of the day. The poor gathered in taverns, gin shops and grog houses for more or less the same purpose, the few who could read passing on the news to the many who could not. Booksellers pasted up satirical prints and caricatures in their windows, attracting the better off to buy them and the poor to stand in the street laughing at what they depicted.

Behind the sound of voices would be heard the constant clicking of the wooden and iron pattens worn by ladies to keep their shoes out of the mud and muck that lay everywhere. Add to that the constant rumble of wheeled traffic, the sound of horses’ hooves, the call of animals being driven to the market or to the butchers, the ringing of chimes from church clocks, the barking of dogs, yowling of cats and even the sound of ducks and hens. Eighteenth-century towns were rarely quiet, save in the dead of night.

Towns were also smelly places. People sometimes emptied their chamber pots into the street and passing animals left their dung behind. Refuse of all kinds found its way onto the streets and into the gutters. While official scavengers and collectors of “night soil” did their best to clear up the worst of the mess, heavy rain was prone to wash some of the contents of back-street dung hills and privies back into the streets. Markets could be particularly smelly places, especially the areas known as “shambles”, where butchers slaughtered animals and sold their meat, along with the fish markets. It was no wonder that those who are better off sought to escape to the countryside or the coast during the hottest days of summer. To all of this must be added the smells associated with brewing, tanning and other kinds of industry which might still be located near to the centre of towns. The new industrial processes of metalworking and refining, producing pottery added smoky smells to the towns where they took place, as did the woollen and cotton mills as steam power replaced water wheels as the most characteristic way of driving the machinery. In cold weather, the only form of heating in towns and cities came from coal fires, so that smoke and soot added their own odours to the general mix.

By the middle of the eighteenth century therefore, city life had assumed most of the characteristics that we would associate with towns today, save only for the motor vehicle. Better sewage systems and sanitation have taken away most of the smells and the stink of diesel has replaced the smell of horse dung in the streets, but England has never returned to being a predominantly rural society, nor is ever likely to. Like it or not, the majority of us are still city dwellers, something for which we can thank our Georgian ancestors, along with the burgeoning trade, commerce and manufacturing which supports us to this day.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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1 Response to Eighteenth-century City Streets

  1. noelleg44 says:

    I think I might have enjoyed 18th century city life, were I am man! I particularly liked “City dwellers tended to view life in the countryside as a kind of sleep or hibernation, devoid of intellectual or cultural stimulus.” Sort of the way NY, NJ, MA, CA and other coastal, densely populated areas in the US view anything you have to fly over.
    Hope you had a great Christmas with a nice pud!

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