When the Romans laid out Londinium with their usual efficiency, they built a road north through the gate in the walls which later acquired the name Bishops Gate, a road along the north bank of the river westwards through the gate later called Lud Gate, and another leading to the east, and they built a bridge across the Thames. The pattern they imposed on the city then has remained remarkably unchanged. Successive monarchs tried to limit the size of the city by keeping it within its walls, but all they achieved was the infilling of yards and gardens to produce labyrinthine courts and alleys behind the frontages visible from the main streets. When the City was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, the urgency of restoring trade took priority over ideal re-planning, and the opportunity to create an elegant metropolis was lost. The streets were rebuilt much as they had been, with a little straightening here and widening there, but still comfortably recognisable to a former resident.
Street cleaning in the City was still under the jurisdiction of the parochial authorities. Some parishes were poor, crowded and ineffective. Others were rich, thinly populated and powerful. The parish of St Michael Bassishaw contained 142 houses, 'well built and inhabited by merchants of great reputation and fortune,' who would see that their frontages were immaculate, in any case. Portsoken ward, which included Whitechapel market, had 1,385 houses and only four scavengers. In theory, the parish scavengers came round every day except Sundays and holidays, rang their bell to alert residents, and 'stayed a convenient time’ for the rubbish to be brought out to their carts. It was an offence to leave rubbish about in front of your own house, and — even worse — in front of someone else's, or in front of a church. `Throwing any noisome things' — dead cats, for instance — into the highway was just as bad.
Benjamin Franklin found when he was in London in 1742 that when they were dry the streets were never swept, and when they were wet 'there was no crossing but in paths kept clean by poor people with brooms'. The central gutters (`chapels' or 'kennels') are generally made very deep ... and with cross-chanels, render the coachway very disagreeable and unsafe', not helped by 'the too common practice of the lower sort of inhabitants and servants throwing away ashes, rubbish, broken glass ... offals and other offensive things into the streets [which] stop the current of the chanels', making the streets 'much annoyed with mud and ... very dangerous in frosty weather'.
The nature of London street dirt is demonstrated by the value put on it by the market gardeners round about, who bought it by the cartload to spread on their gardens, producing the level of fertility that astonished foreigners.' It was a rich, glutinous mixture of animal manure, dead cats and dogs, ashes, straw, and human excrement: see Hogarth's print of Night, where a chamber pot is being emptied from an upstairs window on to the hat, and wig, of a passing magistrate.
In frosty weather, walking in the streets was even riskier. 'Everyone must have observed during the late [1756/7] frost, the numberless heaps of horsedung which had been purposely laid in most of the streets of this metropolis and how much after it is dark these embarrass and in some cases endanger those who pass through them on foot.'? These regular little piles were an ingenious DIY effort at insulating the lead pipes bringing the domestic water supply. After all, horse dung produced heat in garden hot-beds, why not over the pipes? Unfortunately, it didn't work. The lead pipes still burst 'with an almost incoercible force' and the water froze all over the streets.
Paving and lighting
It was the legal duty of every citizen to pave the street up to the centre line of the street in front of his house, but, predictably, this resulted in even more bumps and holes. As a visiting Frenchman put it,' 'it is scarce possible to find a place to set one's foot'. 'A loose stone in a pavement under which water lodges and on being trod upon squirts it up, to the great detriment of white stockings' was known as a `beau-trap'. If the DIY efforts of the citizens left any stones level, the water companies, the only public utility in the eighteenth century, could be relied on to deal with them. The New River Company alone had 400 miles of wooden pipes under the streets, which were always having to be repaired, and were subject to a twenty-year rolling repair programme when labour could be spared. The water companies were legally obliged to make good their excavations, but somehow it rarely happened.
In 176o 'the ruling part of the City"' suddenly realised that if things went on like this they might lose money to Westminster or Southwark, which were not quite so filthy. A clean-up campaign was launched. By 1765 the old cobbled paving had become intolerable. 'Every person not bigotted to ancient forms and customs must be convinced of the necessity of a speedy reformation', said the new Commissioners for the Sewers and Pavements of the City, recommending a tax to cover the estimated cost of repaving with 'Scotch stones'. In all, 32,428 yards of paving were to be laid, at 7s 8d per yard, right through the City, from Temple Bar, past St Paul's, along Cheapside and Leadenhall Street to the other side of the City at Aldgate: an astonishing operation." By 1773 granite setts from Aberdeen which, as Dr Johnson noted approvingly, 'hard as it is, they square with very little difficulty" were producing an even surface, and an excruciating screech in conjunction with iron shod wheels.
Instead of sloping down to the central kennel, streets were cambered, with a gutter on each side. Benjamin Franklin found this inefficient, since it halved the force of rainwater that might have scoured away the dirt, dead cats and so on still littering the road. 'It only makes the mud more fluid, so that the wheels of carriages and feet of horses throw and dash it upon the foot pavement which is thereby rendered foul and slippery and sometimes splash it on those who are walking';' but then Franklin could always see how to do things better.
The Commissioners brought in contractors to see that the streets were clean and well lit. The Commissioners' officers were to 'behave with all possible good manners towards every inhabitant'. They would need all the goodwill they could muster, because each one had to keep a register of all the streets in his district, noting in it any less than-perfect paving and gullies and 'frequently to perambulate his district both in the day and the night' to check whether the contractors were fulfilling their contracts, whether the footways were
…daily scraped swept and cleansed ... and whether any pavement is broken or out of repair ... whether any privies communicate with the common sewer [which was not allowed], whether any horse and/or carriage is ridden or driven on the foot pavements, whether signboards were fixed otherwise than in the fronts of the houses and shops to which they belong, ... whether any occupier of a house shall deposit ... any ashes or filth in any part of any street except in some hole or box ... to be provided by the Commissioners ...
Broken water pipes had to be mended immediately, by the water company. Wagons were not to 'stand' for longer than an hour, and smaller vehicles for 'longer than is necessary for loading and unloading'; and the Inspector had power to 'seize and remove' an offending cart with its horses — there might be as many as eight of them — to a pound. Where there were footways at the side of streets in the City yet another Act, of 1767, for 'pitching, paving, cleaning and enlightening the streets ... within the City' required householders to 'scrape sweep and cleanse the footway' along the front of their houses, before ten o'clock every day except on Sundays.
Lighting had been spasmodic, in the streets of the City. As usual, the inhabitants were under a duty to light the street in front of their houses; and as usual, they didn't. The Commissioners were given powers to enforce the proper lighting of streets, and even to 'direct the placing of private lamps'.' Citizens were obliged to hang out, on dark nights, 'one or more lights with sufficient cotton wicks that shall continue to burn from six at night till eleven of the same night, on penalty of one shilling'.' Benjamin Franklin spotted a design fault in the lamps used, which produced a feeble glimmer and quickly became sooted up. It was easier to contract with enterprising traders such as William Conanway, who furnisheth persons of quality and others with lamps, lanthorns and irons of all sorts, also keeps servants to light them at reasonable rates', or John Clark Lamplighter near St Giles's Church, who also furnisheth Gentlemen [but no others, in his case] with all sorts of globular lamps and lights them by the week, or quarter, at the lowest prices'.
The swinging signs that look so quaint in old prints, and which still survive outside village pubs, were declared illegal in 176o. 'How comfortless must be the sensations of an elderly female, stopped in the street on a windy day, under a large old sign loaded with lead and iron in full swing over her head, and perhaps a torrent of rain and dirty water falling ... from a projecting spout', mused Jonas Hanway, the man who popularised umbrellas. No umbrella would help if the sign fell on her." Instead, the signs were fixed flat on the facade of the building, ancestors of today's shop fascias.
We complain of the pollution caused by petrol-driven engines. Imagine the sheer volume of faeces and urine excreted by the engines of eighteenth-century traffic — that is, horses — let alone the dung of the herds and flocks being driven through the streets to markets and abattoirs. The Gentleman's Magazine of May 1761 complained of the `pernicious practice of driving cattle through the streets of this city'. The Navy's abattoirs on Tower Hill dealt with a huge volume of cattle, sheep and pigs: they all had to get there somehow. Cattle coming up from Kent had to cross the Bridge and walk through the narrow streets of the City, to the market at Smithfield. The direct route to Smithfield from the west country was straight along Oxford Street. And then there were always animals that got away from their drivers. Nowhere was safe.
A little after two o'clock the people on the Royal Exchange were much alarmed by the appearance of a cow (hard driven from Smithfield) at the fourth Gate, and (though the beast did not run in on 'Change) great confusion ensued; some losing hats and wigs and some their shoes, while others lay on the ground in heaps ... during the alarm, a rumour of an earthquake prevailing, some threw themselves on the ground expecting to be swallowed. The cow in the meantime took [off] down Sweeting's Alley and was knocked down and secured by a carman in Gracechurch Street:
And in 1767, 'while the Court was sitting an over driven ox entered the Guildhall, threw the whole Court into consternation but not liking his company turned about and ran back again without doing any mischief.
Dogs came and went. There were recurrent scares about people being bitten by mad dogs, which led to orders that all dogs should be killed.
The streets were patrolled by the Watch, decrepit old men appointed by each parish and paid a pittance. Londoners could not bring themselves to submit to a properly organised body of law enforcement officers, operating throughout the City. This astonished a French lawyer, Pierre Grosley, accustomed to the high profile of French gees d'armes. 'London has neither troops, patrol nor any sort of regular Watch and it is guarded during the nights only by old men chosen from the dregs of the people who have no arms but a lanthorn and a pole; who patrol the streets crying the hour every time the clock strikes; who proclaim good or bad weather in the morning; and who come to awake those who have any journey to perform; and whom it is customary for young rakes to beat."° Grosley missed one other useful function of the Watch. James Boswell managed to put his candle out, in the middle of the night after his fire had gone out. He looked for the tinder-box in the kitchen of his lodgings, but couldn't find it in the dark, so he waited until the Watch came round and got his candle `relumed' from the old man's lantern.' Grosley was not in London during the 1745 rebellion, when the authorities were extremely nervous, the City militia was ordered to patrol the streets and even anti-government talk could land you in trouble."
When good citizens were at home in bed, the night-soil men came out on their rounds. Sewage disposal had not improved much since Samuel Pepys' day when his neighbour's cess-pit overflowed into his cellar and had to be emptied through his house. There were still no sewers in our sense of the term. 'Sewers' were storm-water drains, respectable house-holders had cess-pits, others just threw out of the window.
If they are looked after properly, and regularly emptied, cess-pits should present no problems. The trade card of John Hunt (successor to the late Mr Inigo Brook), Nightman & Rubbish Carter, near the Wagon and Horses in Goswell Street" shows two jolly nightmen carrying a tub on their shoulders, being let in by a sleepy servant to the front door of a house. (Houses built in terraces often had no back access.) Their two-horse cart waits outside, with spare barrels. In the distance, the moon shines down on a covered wagon with six horses. Idyllic. But ... John Hunt and his colleagues would charge, and how were the slum dwellers to pay? It took another hundred years and a cholera outbreak to focus the public eye on what it did not wish to see, but which had been under its nose for a long time: 'There are hundreds, I may say thousands, of houses in this metropolis which have no drainage whatsoever, and the greater part of them having filthy stinking overflowing cesspools ..."4
There were elm trees in London streets. 'Nearly all the squares in London were planted round with it. ... So also Moorfields and where the Danish church stands [Austin Friars, in the City]. This and the willow were in short the only trees which were planted along the sides of the streets.' Elm was chosen because 'it gives the best shade, endures the coal smoke very well, stands for a long time green, and keeps its leaves till the autumn'," and, I would add for those who have never seen an elm tree in its glory, it is covered with a rufous haze of buds in the spring, and in the autumn its coin-sized leaves turn a lovely pale yellow.
Westminster slums and squares
It may be helpful, here, to remind the reader that Westminster included anything to the west of the City liberties. Ten of the parishes `within the Bills' were in Westminster. The Strand was in Westminster, Fleet Street was in the City. Both cities were in the county of Middlesex.
In general the problems of Westminster were different from, and lighter than, those of its neighbour. Slums were largely confined to the maze of narrow medieval streets round the Abbey, where Thieving Lane lived up to its name, and open drains carrying excrement still ran down the middle of the streets as late as 1808.26 The Restoration building boom had produced St James's Square, Leicester Square and Soho Square, the piazzas of Covent Garden and new quadrangles in the Inns of Court." Bloomsbury Square was first built in 1666.
In their enthusiasm for the fashionable idea of rus in urbe, bringing the countryside into the town, the developers of Cavendish Square tried the effect of sheep in the middle of it – 'a few frightened sheep within a wooden paling [with] sooty fleeces and meagre carcases'.28 A critic suggested painted sheep, but the square was finally embellished by a statue of the Duke of Cumberland 'in the exact modern uniform of the guards, mounted on an antique horse, all richly gilt', sharing his glory with the sheep before they were evacuated. The middle of Hanover Square, according to the same critic, 'had the air of a cow-yard where blackguards [vagrant children] assemble in the winter to play at hussle-cap [?] up to the ancles in dirt'. There must have been uproar one winter day in 3762 when 'a fox was taken up alive in Hanover Square having been pursued for near twenty miles and fairly hunted down'.29
The new road
Animals, with the possible exception of foxes, were resented by the nobility and gentry in the new squares. At last a radical decision was taken. A new road – an M25 for animals – must be built through the fields, 'round the suburbs of the city at a proper distance' (Marylebone Road/Euston Road/Pentonville Road follow its route exactly)." The wretched animals and their minders could use that outer ring, and leave Oxford Street for the gentry. The new road, opened in 3756, was designed as a drovers' road, 40 feet wide at least,3' and unpaved, so the flocks and herds plodded through the mud and dust of the ring road just as they had plodded along country roads, except that now a toll had to be paid. The rates evoke the numbers of livestock entering London by this one route alone: 5d per score of oxen, 21/2d per score of calves, hogs, sheep or lambs. There was unfortunately no way of compelling the animals to use their new route and leave the nobility and gentry in peace. There were constant complaints that wagoners and drovers ignored this purpose-built road and found their way through the fashionable squares as adroitly as a modern commuter taking a rat-run through a housing estate.
In any case, the new road did nothing for other parts of the city. A letter in The Gentleman's Magazine of May 1761 complained of the `pernicious practice of driving cattle through the streets'. And there were always animals that got away from their drivers, such as the 'large ox' driven by some 'fellows in a furious manner into Southampton Row and endeavouring to force him precipitately through the postern by goading, boxing and other brutish methods, the generous beast turned ... and at one spring staked himself upon the iron railings next to the Duke of Bedford's wall'. It died."
By the eighteenth century, the Strand was completely built up. The territorial magnates' palaces that had lined its south side, with gardens sloping down to the river, had been redeveloped in the previous century, with the massive exception of Northumberland House, a Tudor mansion that adorned the south-west end of the Strand until 1874. The Strand was a shopping mall as famous, and rather newer, than Cheapside in the City. Samuel Johnson called the stretch from Charing Cross to Whitechapel 'the greatest series of shops in the world'." He had a habit of overstating his case; from Charing Cross to St Mary's-le-Strand would have been nearer the mark.
The Grosvenor estate
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, most of the land between Bloomsbury and Westminster Abbey was still open countryside awaiting development. The owners included many old and titled families who had acquired the land by marriage or far-sighted investment. The most famous example was the Grosvenor estate. In the previous century, Hugh Audley, barrister, had thought fit to buy the Manor of Ebury, to the west of London. About 100 acres of it, the northern part, was decent agricultural land. The rest was 500 acres of swamp and marsh, between Westminster and Chelsea. Audley died unmarried in 1662, leaving the Ebury land to the grandson of his sister. The legatee, Alexander Davies, was a scrivener, a kind of lawyer's clerk. He built a few houses at Millbank, served by the horse ferry, but he died of the plague in 1665 before he could complete his development plans. His baby daughter Mary inherited the estate.
By now it must have looked more possible that some day London would stretch out towards the l00-acre site, and Mary was valuable. She was sold in marriage to the heir of Lord Berkeley. She was eight, her prospective husband was ten. But at the crucial moment Lord Berkeley could not raise the necessary £5,000, so she was passed on to Sir Thomas Grosvenor, who duly married her when he was twenty-one and she was thirteen. He died in 1700, leaving her with three sons. Legal complications delayed the development of the northern part of the estate until 1720, when building began on the 100-acre site." The streets were pegged out, 8 acres were reserved for a magnificent square, and the builders moved in. They stayed for nearly 50 years, erecting stately mansions round the Square itself and quite small houses at the edges of the estate. The streets never suffered from the problems that afflicted the City. From the start, they were as well built as modern technology knew how.
Lord Grosvenor and his neighbours to the east managed to correlate their street plans, so that for example Upper Brook Street ran east from Tyburn Lane [Park Lane], reappeared after Grosvenor Square as Brook Street, continued out of the Grosvenor estate and across the Conduit estate owned by the City of London, to end up neatly as Little Brook Street at the southern edge of Hanover Square in the Earl of Scarbrough's estate. All this was brought about by commonsense and mutual interest. There was no overall city plan. It was left to the owner of each estate to develop it as he thought fit.
The result was already clear by 1766. 'This city and liberties are laid out in handsome streets and squares. But not all the buildings in any square were the same. The ground landlord could enforce a common building line and height, but the size of the sites varied, allowing the nobility and gentry who moved in, a choice of style let alone expense. An obvious example was Berkeley Square. There was a spacious garden in the middle of it, and solid houses on the west side, architecturally friendly but not uniform. Some of the plots on the east and north sides were very small in comparison, and let to such people as tavern-keepers and coffee-house keepers, tucked in among the galaxy of duchesses and earls."
Westminster was kept spruce by no fewer than 80 scavengers appointed by the authorities, who paid out £4,127 annually to subcontractors for contract cleaning.
 St. Michael Bassishaw was a church in the City of London located on Basinghall Street, on land now covered by the Barbican Centre complex. Recorded since the 12th century, the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, then rebuilt by the office of Sir Christopher Wren. The rebuilt church was demolished in 1900.
 Hugh Audley (also known as The Great Audley (1577–1662) was an English moneylender, lawyer and philosopher. Following his death, he was the feature of a popular 17th century pamphlet titled The way to be rich according to the practice of the Great Audley, which compared his humble beginnings to his ultimate fortune