Swiping at Suburbs

Andrew Saint

  • Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City by Tristram Hunt
    Weidenfeld, 432 pp, £25.00, June 2004, ISBN 0 297 60767 7

How Blake would blench at the ends to which the English left has turned his poem. The vagueness of his vision of Jerusalem helps to make it the handiest of slogans. Officially appropriated as the New Labour anthem to replace the robust ‘Red Flag, here we have it dusted down again by Tristram Hunt to front a passionate, kaleidoscopic but wilful defence of the Victorian city. Building Jerusalem is a book with a plain political line; yet where it leaves us is little clearer than in Blake’s poem.

The subtitle offers the sharper clue to Hunt’s agenda. To grasp the polemic in it, dates must be added. On the temporal axis, his graph limits the full curve of the Victorian city’s rise and fall to less than a century. He identifies three phases. How, when and where Britain’s industrial urbanism began is not in dispute, but Hunt zestfully sets out the story again. The pace of change after the Napoleonic Wars threw up unprecedented patterns and scales of employment, resulting in urban centres of unbridled energy, turbulence and degradation, if also a strange sublimity. That is the ferocious phase of the Victorian city, best represented by Manchester, which comes first in Hunt’s affections. After 1850 there follows the reform of local politics, welfare, infrastructure and architecture, exemplified above all by Birmingham and Joseph Chamberlain, whose dapper personality adds style to the narrative of earnest civic endeavour.

All that is uncontroversial. But then after 1890 comes collapse, as the middle classes and intellectuals lose faith in city living and decamp to garden cities and anaemic suburbs, egged on by the unworldly likes of Ebenezer Howard. Now London, a metropolis so intent on acquiring and exploiting empire that it can’t face its own problems squarely, becomes the villain of the piece. Well before the First World War, on Hunt’s analysis, the British city is in free fall. Its subsequent frailty, a preoccupation throughout Building Jerusalem, he attributes less to the fall-out from the 1930s Depression or to postwar planning follies than to a loss of nerve palpable by the end of Victoria’s reign.

That is the framework of a book whose merits are its broad scope and vivid detail rather than cogent argument. This is to be expected, perhaps, once Hunt has warned us that he will concentrate on ideas. ‘Too much recent urban history,’ he says, ‘has retreated into a tale of bureaucratic development – of planning, transport, housing – without discussing the ideas within the context of which attitudes were formulated and decisions taken.’ True to his word, he pastes in sketches of the views and doings of almost every Victorian man or woman of letters, faith and politics who had anything trenchant to say about cities, at any rate in the early part of his period. Scott, Southey, Carlyle, Disraeli, Roscoe, Dickens, Cobden, Bright, Ruskin, Macaulay, Eliot, Gaskell, Arnold, Chadwick and Toulmin-Smith are all there; and so are Tocqueville, Guizot and Sismondi. At some cost to coherence, the star-studded cast rolls by.

Nor are the arts forgotten. One reason Hunt so fiercely champions Britain’s old industrial cities is that he loves their buildings. Manchester Town Hall and its architect, Alfred Waterhouse, earn four pages in a thin allowance of illustrations. Ford Madox Brown’s wonderful cycle of history paintings there gives Hunt his jumping-off point for expounding Manchester’s sense of its own worth – just as the Victorians no doubt intended they should. The town halls of Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford and Glasgow also enthral him. He is baffled by those like G.M. Trevelyan and, more recently, Peter Hall, who have found in the Victorian urban patchwork only muddle.

Yet muddle there was, the reader is reminded, as idea locks horns with idea and style jostles with style. Take the marginal matter of style. The industrial cities were aware they amounted to something new and were proud of it. But like all newcomers, they longed for legitimation and nabbed it wherever they could find it. When they cast themselves as independent city states, their public architecture tended to go Greek; Glasgow did best at that. When they saw themselves as trading cities in a great empire, they followed a Roman trajectory exemplified by Liverpool’s St George’s Hall. In the private realm, Hunt explains how, after William Roscoe of Liverpool and the Swiss historian Sismondi pointed to the middle-class virtues and culture of the republics of the Italian Renaissance, those styles promptly colonised the banks and warehouses of the merchants. Later, Flanders and Holland came into the picture, as manufacturers and traders convinced themselves that their northern race and Protestant religion accounted for their energy and prowess.

In one of his richer diversions, Hunt tracks down the persistent Victorian belief that English cities deserved a Saxon style of government. It is as well that the scope of Anglo-Saxon architecture was limited, or we might have had town halls pierced by slits for windows and edged with ‘long and short work’. As it was, Gothic rose to dominance in urban and rural church-building alike. In the mid-Victorian years, it almost became the national style for secular architecture as well, on the grounds that it suited the English climate and race. In the event, pace Pugin and Sir Gilbert Scott, it proved inconvenient, as any glance at the inner workings of Manchester Town Hall will show.

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