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.

Muddle in style may not much matter and can even be attractive; muddle in ideas is serious, if unmediated by dialectic. The generosity of Hunt’s account serves to make the Victorian city look confused. He begins with urban industrialism’s enemies. These number not only those Manchester horror-mongers, Southey, Carlyle and Engels, but modern scholars such as Simon Szreter, who has picked over the demographics and concludes, of the early 1840s, that industrialisation had ‘actually set back standards of living’ and caused ‘a massive reversal of previous improvements in life expectancy’. Despite the mammoth reform efforts that started at the end of that decade, urban life expectancy notoriously failed to improve much till late in the century. On that model, the anti-urbanists have an open-and-shut case. The graph of the Victorian city’s fortunes ought to start at zero and be allowed to creep upwards only after 1880.

But that is not the whole story. In due course Hunt tells it again from a Whig perspective, with Macaulay, Cobden, corn law reform and the Nonconformist heritage to the fore and the Tory romantics feckless in the background. Now Manchester and the rest of the industrial towns become opportunities, not problems. ‘No, it is all good for trade, we want more of it, we find no fault with smoke,’ responds a citizen taxed with the proximity of factories and houses in Middlesbrough. Gradually, city government develops a transparency and purpose absent before; a transient era of true municipal autonomy is born. Shopkeeper-councillors, intent only on keeping the rates down, fall back before the onslaught of enlightened, Chamberlain-style manufacturers, who perceive that their own interests and those of their workforce and city coincide. With higher civic expenditure, sewers can be laid, baths opened, schools built; soon libraries and art galleries will follow. Urban civilisation diffuses wealth; the virtuous circle is complete.

Hunt’s technique is to set the progressive and ‘miserabilist’ pictures side by side without adjudicating between them, just as wealth rubbed shoulders with squalor in the places he describes. He makes no real attempt to reconcile the conflicting views. Occasionally he offers a corrective; Engels, he reminds us, saw Manchester during a slump. He values the provocations and humanity of the romantics. But ultimately his sympathies seem to lie with the libertarians, to whom he ascribes not just the creation but the reform of the industrial city. For Hunt, the mid-Victorian manufacturing classes have a vested interest in the city. They will stick by it, while the Tories and indeed the socialists are making ready to run away.

What this misses is that cities were seldom conceived as wholly separate entities within the nation. Though civic pride was certainly swollen by the substitution of grand town hall for parish pump, much of it boiled down to old-style parochialism. Liverpool talked little to Manchester, or Leeds to Bradford. Unlike in ancient Greece or medieval Italy, the framework of a national polity had become fairly settled in Britain by the time industrial cities came along. They may have convulsed electoral and demographic patterns, but they never threatened to break the country up into city states.

Before 1880 it is hard to find informed debate about what the ‘good city’ should be. The romantics proffered backward-looking sketches but no science. There were fine buildings, herculean efforts at infrastructure, and enlightened developments (mostly in the suburbs), but almost no one before Patrick Geddes tackled the structure of cities – how the invisible hand of commerce might be reconciled with the all too visible streets and buildings, so prone to change, wear and tear. In urban matters, most of the ideas-merchants evoked and quoted by Hunt were rank amateurs – with the exception of the doctors and the sanitary experts. There was as yet no unified theory or practice of what later came to be called town-planning. Hence much of the muddle.

In this respect, Britain’s cities lagged behind those of continental Europe – not just Paris, which crops up now and again in Hunt’s pages as too glib a point of comparison, but fully industrial cities as well. One visitor, Léon Faucher, pointed out that Lyon and Mulhouse had made a different fist of things from Manchester. All industrial cities of the 19th century had their traumas and their hideousness, and no doubt it’s true that Britain’s suffered the worst because the Industrial Revolution happened here first. Nevertheless, many failures in their layout and management stemmed from the country’s uniquely haphazard and discontinuous links between different levels of government, intellectual life and the various professionals and technicians – architects, engineers, sanitarians and doctors – who did their best to make the new cities function. In his desire to shun ‘bureaucratic’ history, Hunt has ducked all that or not taken it in.

Many reformers at the start of Hunt’s period cast the industrial cities less in terms of absolute good or evil than as distortions of a national picture which needed readjustment. Cobbett, Carlyle and Disraeli all present them as having sucked the lifeblood out of the countryside. City and country are both in trouble, and both need treatment if the entire body politic is to resume a more wholesome and balanced way of life. That is a literary and moral trope that goes back to Swift, or indeed to the Roman poets, but the industrial city gave it new currency. Throughout the Victorian age, the debate about the city and the countryside cannot really be divided. By implicitly altering the balance of the reform literature, Hunt reveals only half of the early picture and is able to pillory as apostates those that came later.

In another way, too, Hunt’s image of Victorian urbanism looks isolated. His focus on the pioneering industrial cities (most of which went through their fastest phases of growth before Victoria’s accession) follows – and indeed sometimes borrows from – Asa Briggs’s classic Victorian Cities (1963). But scholars are more conscious now that such cities were never typical of the overall pattern of British urbanisation. Many resort towns grew as fast if not faster. To cover his whole period evenly, Hunt would also have needed to investigate second-generation industrial cities like Belfast, Cardiff and Middlesbrough (which earns a chapter in Briggs but only passing mention in Hunt). The limitation of his study to earlier and more compelling cities reduces its pertinence to the urban condition today, and threatens at times to turn Building Jerusalem into an old warhorse.

For the last third of the book, Hunt charges full tilt against London, ‘the whited sepulchre of empire’, along with all the namby-pamby supporters of dispersal and witless inhabitants of suburbia whom he longs to arraign for the decadence of our cities. One can only stand and admire the full-throated imprecision of this career. ‘The ethos of suburbia constituted a sustained assault on the 19th-century urban tradition,’ he thunders. The best he can find by way of an opponent at this point is Mr Pooter – with his mild and insidious habits, surely no mean credit to civilisation. Some paragraphs later the uneven assault resumes. ‘The civic pride which drove William Roscoe to found the Liverpool Institution . . . was quietly abandoned for mowing the lawn and a bit of tinkering in the garden shed. The great achievements of the Victorian civic spirit were progressively undermined by a string of outwardly innocuous green suburbs.’

To prove this, compression, elision and some fancy footwork are needed. Hunt’s difficulty with London is that it was sorting out its governance and its crushing social problems at the same time as it started decanting its population. To demonstrate an anti-urban conspiracy, he has to show that the former preceded the latter. This won’t wash. An example is the ‘settlement movement’, which from the 1880s set young university graduates to work in the London slums in an attempt to do something practical about poverty and reduce class antagonism. Hunt says that by the later 1880s, Toynbee Hall, most famous of these ‘colonial’ settlements, ‘no longer seemed enough’, and so reformers turned their attention to reducing inner-city densities and purifying the national stock. In fact, Toynbee Hall had not long begun its work by then; and the efforts of its warden, Samuel Barnett, to improve the social and moral tone of the East End went on for decades, meshing with those of his wife, Henrietta Barnett, the founder of Hampstead Garden Suburb. Similarly with the London County Council, whose social efforts during the 1890s Hunt is compelled to admire. The LCC had hoped to house its tenants in ‘cottages’ – that is, in small family homes – but because of intractable market conditions ended up building barrack-flats. Finding these too costly, it bought up tramways and built in the suburbs, from which people commuted to work. In neither case was the city ‘deserted’ in favour of the suburb; the two were inextricably connected.

Hunt’s tendency to take refuge in ‘ideas’ draws him insistently away from the mechanisms which explain how cities evolve, in this case the costs of land and of transport. One Edwardian he quotes but might have made more of is H.G. Wells. In an eloquent essay of 1901, Wells prophesied the problems which urbanists everywhere are facing today. Already, he saw, capitalism’s pursuit of lower costs was revolutionising the choice of location and unpicking the traditional city, through the use of cheap transport and easily transmissible electricity. London, Manchester and the rest had still to lose population, which is why the dispersalists were ardent in their crusade. But the signals were there. A trickle of urban industries was already moving away to cheaper, more spacious sites in towns and suburbs, sometimes taking their workforce with them. For prescient observers like Wells, the question was how the growing movement might be expedited but controlled.

That is where the garden city comes in. Hunt is sufficiently engaged with the ideas that inspired Ebenezer Howard and his moral-religious moonshine about rehousing the nation in self-sufficient towns of 30,000 as to be almost fair to him. He digs out the many roots of Howard’s mission, notably its debt to Henry George’s single-tax campaign for land reform, popular in its time, forgotten today. He seems half aware that the garden city was meant to re-energise the countryside as well as purge the city. Yet he can still believe that ‘the Garden City constituted an affront to Victorian civic thought,’ as if Howard did not chime with the voices of Cobbett, Pugin and Disraeli.

The wonder is that the garden city happened at all, and even had progeny. Factory villages like New Lanark or Port Sunlight made sense. But an entire new town on a bare patch of Hertfordshire, unsponsored by government or industry, was lunacy. Hunt retells some good anecdotes about early Letchworth, though his story that Lenin visited it is a canard. Like most visitors, he finds the town boring and lacking in individuality. That it got built was due not just to Howard’s persuasiveness and persistence, but to the awakening interest in relocation among small-scale industrialists in London. In economic terms, Letchworth proved a bridge too far. It was rescued by council housing, in other words government subsidy, after the First World War.

Believing the garden city to be unworkable, knowing the suburb to be inevitable but needing control, Raymond Unwin, the man who translated Ebenezer Howard’s naive diagrams into urban and architectural form, soon deserted Letchworth in favour of the garden suburb. Such places were altogether opposed to Howard’s principle of self-containment, but they worked. Hampstead Garden Suburb, the exemplary result, was imitated all over Europe, unlike any previous British venture in town-planning. That does not stop Hunt having a go at its amiable layout and present affluence: ‘Few designs could have been more antagonistic to the dominant traditions of Victorian urban planning.’ To cap the complaint, we are told that the suburb attracted the pragmatic end of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson, Manny Shinwell and Peter Mandelson’s mother, Mary, while Hampstead proper attracted ‘more self-consciously intellectual’ politicians such as Hugh Gaitskell, Douglas Jay and Michael Foot. Here is unmasked the latent snobbery of the anti-suburbans. The great merit of the garden suburb is that it brought order, grace and amenity to something that would have happened anyway.

True enough, the centres of Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb are limp, but that stemmed from failures of investment, possibly also of community size, not design. If Hunt had consulted Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice, he would have found more about the technique of city-centre layout than in any mid-Victorian tract, and an openness to Continental urbanism absent in earlier generations. Nor did suburbanisation halt civic monumentality in its tracks. For every great Victorian town hall, at least one Edwardian or interwar example went up. Put it down to continuing civic pride or the proliferation of local government’s duties, the symbolic result was the same.

Swiping at suburbs and railing at new towns he can hardly have visited, to judge by some sloppy descriptions, is really a sideshow for Hunt. As he nears his conclusion, what most concerns him is the damage done to his cherished Northern and Midlands cities by government centralisation. On this his pronouncements deserve to be echoed. In a rare financial passage, he explains how the national proportion of local authority to overall expenditure rose to an all-time high of 51 per cent in 1905 – enough to suggest where the peak of his urban curve should have come. After that, the structure of taxation shifted, as central government started to subsidise and control, first elementary education and then other services. The two world wars and the Depression made things worse, especially in industrial districts. The Thatcher regime’s removal of full revenue-raising powers from local government was just the coup de grâce. By American or Continental standards, our local administrations are now fig-leaves for centrally determined policies.

There are great problems about restoring a measure of true autonomy to cities. Never a self-contained entity, the British industrial city is less so now than it once was. Jobs and population are ever more fluid. Governments tinker with the idea of regional bodies for which there is little support outside Scotland and Wales. Cities on the other hand still command a certain loyalty, though one almost oblivious to the local mode of governance, and seemingly content with the outward trappings of self-determination.

Is the so-called urban renaissance, rampant in Manchester, coming up fast in Leeds and Liverpool, the real thing? Or is it just bread and circuses? Those are the final questions addressed in Building Jerusalem. For a New Labour man, Hunt is equivocal about the phenomenon. Mentioning specific Victorian monuments, he sometimes flicks in the odd word on their present fate. In Manchester, the Free Trade Hall is in the throes of conversion to a Radisson Edwardian hotel; the ground floor of the Portico Library has become a Firkin pub. Does Hunt like this? He doesn’t quite dare say no. But what he brings out well in his final pages is the ephemerality of almost everything now built and done in our city centres, cultural monuments included, and the discrepancy between the life of the inner-city ‘singleton’ and the stolid family inevitability of the suburb. It is as if we can’t aspire to anything stable and permanent in our cities any more, for fear of looking pompous, foolish or outmoded. In that mood, the carcases of the Free Trade Hall, Portico Library and the rest appear Parthenon-like in their condition of wounded authority and otherness. No wonder Hunt adores them.

By urban standards, it was not so long ago that the cities celebrated in Building Jerusalem shot to life like rank weeds. They have infected the whole condition of British urbanism with their vigour, their pathos and their insecurity. Ruskin, handsomely cited in Hunt’s pages, deserves the last word. In 1857 Manchester celebrated its coming of age by holding a great Art Treasures Exhibition, the first ever blockbuster loan exhibition of the type now universal, to show the world how cultured it had become. Everyone was thrilled except Ruskin. Because the pictures were on loan, not made in Manchester, that proved its purpose, he unjustly said, was ‘to encourage the production of works of art, which the producing nations . . . hope to sell as soon as possible’. Art, he pursued, must be found, not manufactured, bought and sold, which was all that Manchester and by implication all industrial cities knew how to do. Essential beauty, he insisted, could only be ‘based on the conception of its honoured permanence’. If that is true, there can be no end or outcome to the task of building Jerusalem, in England’s cities at least.