Handbooks

Valerie Pearl

  • The Shell Guide to the History of London by W.R. Dalzell
    Joseph, 496 pp, £12.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 7181 2015 9

The Shell Guide to the History of London might be more accurately described as the shell of a historical guide to selected architecture and works of art in London. The terms involved in such titles have long been subject to a process of inflation, as have the volumes themselves. For nearly three centuries there have been innumerable combinations of the words ‘guide’, ‘history’ and ‘London’ together with a great variety of adjectives, each product being claimed by publisher and author alike as the indispensable vade-mecum, mentor or companion for visitors to the metropolis or students of its history. If the appearance of such works is not new, neither is the non-acceptance of their exaggerated claims. In 1851, the Athenaeum complained that ‘books of this kind are often got up in haste and from old materials thrown hurriedly together without a due attempt to ascertain what they may have lost of their value from age.’ The Shell Guide is not altogether in that category, although it is not much of a recommendation for the author to claim that he has relied in part on ‘books written by two magnificent Victorians, Edward Walford and Walter Thornbury’: their works, first published in 1875 and 1879 respectively, contain much doubtful anecdotage and often come close to deserving the Athenaeum’s strictures. Exaggeration and egregious self-praise are, alas, also still with us in the genre. The dustjacket of the Shell Guide claims that ‘none of the great many books’ on the city ‘delves as deeply into London’s historical and social background’.

The genre suffers from another dilemma. Guidebooks for the traveller in the city, and histories of London, have long had an uneasy relationship. Is it possible to combine the two in one work which will satisfy, instruct and even entertain the different readerships, or at least two of them: the one looking for a conducted tour of buildings, streets and public places, its patter larded with comments on ‘famous residents’ and significant sights, the other seeking a balanced history of the city through all its changing fortunes, which would show the little-changed street lines as the backcloth to a stage on which economic, social, political and cultural events are enacted – the changing scene expressing an unchanging London, the spirit of the place, the theme of the play?

There have been some fine achievements. Few have described London so perceptively as Steen Eiler Rasmussen, who saw it in 1937 as The Unique City. More recently, both David Piper in his Companion Guide (1964) and Christopher Hibbert in Biography of a City (1969) have written with elegance and comprehension, the first closer to the form of the traditional guidebook, the second to the style of the popular historian. Yet there is still no satisfactory fusion of guide and history. It is not altogether surprising. For many authors, the purposes in question, and the methodologies, differ. As has been said, the uneasy relationship of the two forms has a long history.

Part of that history can be traced back to the first historian of London to be published. John Stow arranged his pioneering Survey on a topographical system, ward by ward, conducting the reader on a perambulation of the city, providing him with much historical, architectural and biographical information and pausing here and there, as our latterday guides do, to utter nostalgic asides or to mutter curses on desecrating innovators. Despite its immense contribution to the history of London, shown by the way it was copied and imitated over the following centuries, the Survey, naturally enough for its time, lacked the approach of a conceptual history which would blend together the everyday lives of Londoners with the progress of their city. After Stow, the guidebook proper made its appearance and followed a similar pattern. One of the earliest examples of the planned itinerary for visitors is François Colsoni’s Guide de Londres pour les Etrangers of 1693, which gave plans for a week’s daily sightseeing. A rash of publications in the 18th century warned about the moral hazards of the city, deploring them while making them seem attractive, in a style which the popular press was to imitate. Some were blatantly salacious, such as the List of Covent Garden Ladies, the saucy ancestor of a progeny still with us. Maps came in John Strype’s edition of Stow in 1720 and in George Reeve’s New History of London in 1764. Woodcut illustrations, scanty before the 19th century, can be found as early as 1681 in Richard Burton’s Historical Remarques.

The great age of the London guidebook began, however, in the middle of the 19th century, as David Webb has shown in the London Journal (1980, No 2). One important development illustrates nicely that odd relationship between guide and history. Peter Cunningham had followed his guide to Westminster Abbey of 1842 with a two-volume historical Handbook of London, which went through two editions in 1849-1850. It was an outstanding work and H.B. Wheatley based his London Past and Present on it in 1897. Indeed, so much has it been a quarry for later historians of London that the judgment of the DNB still stands: ‘all subsequent works on London have been more or less indebted to Cunningham’s Handbook.’ John Murray, who published Cunningham, was also the publisher of many best-selling foreign handbooks (his mansion in Wimbledon built on the proceeds was nicknamed ‘Handbook Hall’), and he commissioned the author to turn his history into a London guidebook in time for the great publishing bonanza expected and duly cashed during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Over six million visitors arrived to see the sights, their needs catered for by nearly fifty guides published in English and at least a third more in foreign languages. The Murray guide, Handbook for Modern London, or London as it is, was the most successful of them and the modern guide with its smattering of history may be said to have been fairly launched. Murray went on to publish 16 editions by 1879, when his guidebook was succeeded by Charles Dickens Jr’s Dictionary of London, although not before there had been a violent altercation between Murray and his alleged imitators and plagiarisers such as Ward Lock and Baedeker, accused of copying not only his binding and colour in the ‘red books’, but even the lay-out and part of the content. It was, as it has remained, an enterprise in which there is much borrowing, but Baedeker did have one important claim to originality: he was the inventor of the asterisks scale and of bold type to denote marks for ‘what to see’. His innovation, although deservedly popular, brought him no praise in academic quarters: he was denounced as a Kultur-Diktator. Today, perhaps as a consequence of Baedeker and the rise of the art critic, no compiler of guidebooks cum historical works has any inhibitions about uttering value judgments and advising us on what to see.

This earlier conflict between guide and history is relevant to the Shell Guide. The work is described as a guide to the history of London, so we may expect elements of both guidebook and history: what every visitor wants. A good guide should include a minimum of practical information such as transport routes, entertainments and hotels. None of this information is given. It may be claimed that the mention of ‘guide’ in the title is not significant, even that its bulk and weight (just over 3½ lb) exclude it from that class, and that it is intended to grace coffee tables rather than to occupy pockets. Yet the book contains much of the commonest kind of guidebook trivia. Titbits’ Monster London Guide of 1899, as cited by Wood, informed its readers that the water drunk in London every day would form a lake 700 yards long, 200 yards broad and with a uniform depth of six feet. But that guide had few pretensions, it did not claim to delve deeper than anyone else into historical and social backgrounds, and its 80 pages were sold for one penny. The Shell Guide raises expectations of being both a guide and a history and fails on both counts.

How does the book rank as a history of London? A popular history should give some explanation of how London came to be what it is, and should not be merely or mainly a description of the physical remains of the past. The Shell Guide is a readable history and description of London’s art and architecture, mainly church and public-building architecture (although the absence of any mention of some outstanding recent buildings is to be remarked). It is generous in its illustrations, 32 excellent views in colour and 473 in black and white being provided: but these last suffer in some cases from a sad decline in quality, a number being too small, badly photographed and reproduced, or reproduced from the costumed scene-imaginings of Victorian engravers. The treatment is chronological: the chapter headings proceed from the London of the Romans to the present day, and six ‘historical maps’ for different periods, with the chief thoroughfares, show some of the main public places and buildings.

There are obvious hazards for a historian who bases his conception on descriptions of the surviving structures and buildings of the intervening centuries and then attempts to treat each ‘period’ as a distinct entity. It is difficult to see how a balanced history of London could be written from such an approach, and although there are attempts to link up the buried past with the present, the task is really beyond the capacity of the book. Occasionally, we hear of big themes of change, but such references are either brief and incidental or not explained. There is no comparison with other cities in the work, nor is it truly related to national history. Neither task is easy to accomplish. Yet London history, while having its own distinct quality, is also national history, to which it has made a unique contribution. The sources must be sought, not only in survivals of wood, brick and stone, but also in the magnificent sets of records which remain – witnesses to the city’s singular system of local government and to her special relationship with central government.

For any attempt to combine a guidebook to London and a history of the city, certain themes stand out as needing to be studied (although there are many others), and all lend themselves to a broad treatment: the engulfing of villages, which managed to retain some measure of independence, and the division of authority over one-time vestries, later boroughs, which is still paralleled in metropolitan government – the outcome a decentralised London and a green city with old village centres; the growth, decline, and sometimes the rebirth, of particular areas; the dominance for centuries of London as a provider of services and a huge industrial producer composed on the whole of small rather than large units; the domination by the river, the docks and overseas trade leading the city on to become the hub of an empire and one of the great centres of world commerce and finance; the cultural predominance of London in the nation’s history, based on printing, education, social intercourse and entertainment, and on its position as the seat of government. These may be the stuff of scholarly volumes, yet they can also be absorbed into a popular guide.