- Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London
The social history of the poor is not understudied: since the 1970s, a wealth of work has appeared, written by scholars who have sought to uncover the lives of the obscure and, they argued, powerless folk at the bottom of British society. Hitchcock's work considers the same subject, but with a consciously different, and, on the whole, successful approach. Rather than tables, charts, and graphs, Hitchcock relies upon narrative and thematic analysis illustrated by the telling anecdote. As one of the founders of the extraordinary website, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey On Line (oldbaileyonline.org), he has become intimately acquainted with a world that few historians know so well. Enshrined in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey is a virtually boundless wealth of detail about London society, both high and low. Hitchcock uses this detail to great effect. Such an approach, based upon narrative techniques as old as Thomas Babington Macaulay, might seem insufficiently rigorous. But the author's success lies in his ability to illuminate the lives of the poor while constructing an argument no less rigorous or well-supported by the evidence than any statistic-laden doorstop laboriously created by a team of social scientists. He has certainly produced a far more readable work of history than many others who have treated similar topics.
Using legal records, as well as contemporary literary and artistic representations, Hitchcock offers a thorough picture of life at the margins in eighteenth-century London. He argues that the poor were vital to the economy, performing much of the necessary work that made the capital livable. He also believes that beggars and the poor (often the same people) found London "more welcoming and charitable" than some historians have suggested (xvi). Hitchcock demonstrates that the city accommodated its poorest citizens fairly well—due in large measure to the inventiveness and resourcefulness of the poor themselves, who devised shelter from whatever was at hand. Conditions were hardly luxurious; a night in a threepenny flophouse was certainly dispiriting. But Hitchcock reports that the number of Londoners who died as a result of exposure was small and that charitable provisions improved as the century progressed. Nevertheless, Hitchcock argues, the poor deserve much of the credit for sustaining themselves, through begging, work in the "pauper professions," and, at times, criminality. An important part of Hitchcock's argument is that the poor were not simply the inert subjects of external pressure; they had the power to organize their own lives—even, surprisingly, within the confines of London's workhouses and jails.
In chapters about the nature of work for the poor—sweeping chimneys and streets, blacking shoes, sifting cinders and the like—as well as on the nature of begging (both acceptable and criminal), Hitchcock provides a lively picture of a vast economy inhabited by the poor, whose casual labor underpinned the lifestyles of their social superiors. His depiction [End Page 277] of the poor-relief system and of the jails is also extremely valuable. London aimed substantial resources toward caring for the poor; in 1776, for example, ratepayers provided over £174,000 to take care of the destitute. The system was certainly not foolproof, nor was it particularly humane (although the full horrors of the Dickensian poorhouse were still well in the future). But the system did offer more aid than many historians have appreciated. Indeed, in one respect, Hitchcock underestimates London's generosity toward the unfortunate; he has little to say about the many privately funded charitable institutions of the day; hospitals, orphanages, and other foundations that relieved the sick and distressed.
Hitchcock does not mean to sugarcoat eighteenth-century London. He tells more than a few heart-rending tales of neglect and violence, and his genuine sympathy for the poor is clear. Indeed, part of the strength of the book is his ability to conjure living characters from the dead parchment of the past. Hitchcock's thoughtful combination of rigorous archival research and narrative flair has wrought an exceptional picture of ordinary life in London more...