How Animals Shaped Georgian London

Dr Thomas Almeroth-Williams, University of York

 

In October 1820, a bullock hurtled down the Minories from Whitechapel and according to the London Chronicle, charged at several poor women who were sat at street stalls, leaving some ‘much injured’. The enraged beast then ran through a court in Rosemary Lane, where it ‘came in contact with a horse drawing a cart’. Horns plunged into the horse’s belly and ‘lacerated it in such a manner as to expose its entrails’. Finally, as the horse plunged backwards, a porter was killed ‘by being jammed between the cart and a house’.

I confess to opening with this partly to grab your attention but for a few other reasons too. ‘Animal history’ is thriving in Britain, as it is in many other countries, but there remains considerable reluctance to integrate animals into social history. I hope that my new book will cause some four-legged disruption of its own and convince more social historians that animals belong in their field and shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into ‘animal studies’.

The above spine-chilling snapshot of daily life in late Georgian London demonstrates that animals were ‘with man at the centre of his world’, to harness John Berger’s phrase.  At the same time, this source encapsulates much of what City of Beasts seeks to do, and what it aims to avoid doing.

Previous British animal histories have tended to focus on philosophical, religious and Romantic literature, much of which was written by people who viewed urban life from afar and usually had little or no personal experience of working with animals. By contrast, I prioritise evidence of tangible, dung-bespattered interactions between real people and animals which abound in newspapers like the London Chronicle but also in commercial, legal and parliamentary records; diaries and personal correspondence; and works of art.

The key characters in the book are not, therefore, clergymen, writers or politicians, but London’s brewers, brick-makers, tanners, grocers, cow-keepers, coachmen, horse dealers, drovers, carters, grooms and warehousemen. Scholarly neglect of these largely plebeian Londoners goes some way to explaining why the city’s animals have also been so overlooked. Horses and livestock in Georgian England spent most of their lives with low- born workers but generally only attract attention when they were being ridden by, admired or painted for the elite. By foregrounding the city’s animals, therefore, I hope to give further momentum to social history from below.

Smithfield Drover in William Henry Pyne’s Costume of Great Britain (1804). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

I also want to shift the focus of animal-related enquiry away from debates centred on intellectual history, the rise of humanitarianism and welfare legislation; towards the integration of animals into wider debates about urban life. In doing so, I seek to reassess what Georgian London was, what the city was like to live in, how it functioned and what role it played in some of the major developments of the period.

Social historians of the early modern period have often been tempted to present urban animals as case studies of nuisance but rarely consider their vital contribution. Such a one-sided approach threatens to underestimate contemporary urban governance, caricature the challenges posed by animal behaviour and neglect the complexities of human–animal relationships. While I certainly don’t shy away from filth, stench and disorder in the book, I’m far more interested in how animals empowered, encouraged and made things possible for Georgian Londoners.

For the first time, I place horses, cows, pigs, sheep and dogs centre stage in the major themes of eighteenth-  and early nineteenth-century English urban history: trade and industry; the consumer revolution; urban expansion and improvement; social relations, crime and disorder.

I challenge several misconceptions about the city, including that it was a bit player in the Industrial Revolution; that it was agriculturally unproductive; that sociability drove recreation unchallenged; and that Londoners were helpless victims of rising property crime.

Readers will, I hope, see that these animals exerted huge influence through their diverse interactions with the city’s population. To give you a sense of the entwined lives that underpin the book, allow me to hand over to some of the Londoners who have guided me through their streets over the last decade:

To a great number of Tradesmen, a Horse is as absolutely necessary as a shop or warehouse. There are also 800 Hackney Coachmen… 420 free Carmen… [and] an innumerable number of Higlers, &c who cannot carry on their business without Horses. Now to all these honest industrious poor People, the raising the Price of Hay is equally oppressive with the raising the Price of Bread.

The Citizens of London to Parliament, Lloyd’s Evening Post (17–20 March 1758)

 

I saw my sow safe… while I was cleaning the sty… I turned her into the yard; she cost me 5l. before she pigged: when I had done the sty I could not find her … she never strayed.

Old Bailey testimony of William Hatfield of Kennington (6 December 1827)

 

As her Colours are ground in HORSE-MILLS, of which there are not the like in England, they are prepared in much greater Perfection, and Sold considerable Cheaper than by any of the Trade that have not such Conveniences.

Advert for Elizabeth Emerton (paint manufacturer) in Common Sense (27 March 1742)

 

‘[Whitbread’s steam engine] has saved much animal labour. But there remains much labour that cannot be saved. This particularly impressed the King; for he saw … 80 horses all in their places … [and] accurately guessed the height of [one] … which was really remarkable, no less than 17 hands three inches’.

The London Chronicle (26 May 1787)

 

We then walked soberly round the park and saw our friends and acquaintances, and, turning down the drive, I determined once more to try my horse’s disposition … I flitted down Rotten Row like Faust on the demon horse.

Frances Anne Kemble (Hyde Park rider), diary entry, 24 January 1832 

 

I heard the dog bark, and a call of ‘Watch’. I ran out, and found the prisoner in Thompson’s custody; I found the [roof] lead tied in a handkerchief.

Old Bailey testimony of John Philpot (21 April 1819)

 

 

City of Beasts: How Animals Shaped Georgian London
is available from Manchester University Press

Read about more new books here

 

About the Author: Dr Thomas Almeroth-Williams is a Research Associate of the University of York’s Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies and a Research Communications Manager at the University of Cambridge. In addition to human–animal interactions, his main interests lie in urban life and the world of work in Georgian Britain. City of Beasts is his first book. For more information see https://www.cityofbeastslondon.info/

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