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The Story of the Suburbs
by Nick Barratt
L ondoners started to complain about the suburbs almost as soon as there were suburbs to complain about. In his Survey of London, the Elizabethan antiquarian John Stow lamented that Hog Lane in Spitalfields, which in his boyhood had been lined with hedges and elms, was now “continual building”. Stow was writing in 1598, when most of what is now Greater London was still covered in forests, marshes and grassland, so his alarm may seem premature. But the outcry against London’s unrelenting growth has intensified over the centuries, and many authors since Stow — Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell among the more recent — have deplored seeing the woods and fields of their childhood swallowed up by building. Arguably the tendency of the English to view childhood as a lost paradise relates to this sense that our small island is, generation by generation, destroying what was once its countryside. Arguably, too, our national melancholy and fatalism reflect an awareness that England has at its heart what William Cobbett was already calling in the 1830s a “great wen”, meaning a tumour.
Nick Barratt does not speculate about these matters or, indeed, about any matters at all. His book is unspeculative to a degree seldom met with outside railway timetables. He says that his aim is to celebrate the suburbs, but what he actually does is collect facts on a prodigious scale and string them together chronologically, starting in Roman times and proceeding, century by century, until now. In case any facts should have been left out, he appends a “Gazetteer” tracing the history of each of Greater London’s 32 boroughs all over again. The borough where he grew up, Hampton, gets a chapter to itself.
Not that the facts lack interest. What they chiefly register is London’s spectacular growth. Realisation that the city was choking on its own numbers was already vocal at the end of the 16th century, when the development of Lincoln’s Inn Fields was opposed on the grounds that they represented “a small remainder of air”. Between 1600 and 1700 the population of the East End rose from 21,000 to 91,000 — packed together in insanitary squalor, while in the fashionable West End new streets and squares were laid out for the wealthy. The first 30 years of the 19th century witnessed another population explosion as hordes poured into London’s factories and foundries from the countryside, where unemployment was widespread. This was when William Blake observed that England’s green and pleasant land had been invaded by “dark Satanic mills” — though the only mill he had actually seen, the great steam-powered Albion flour mill in Southwark, was regarded with justifiable pride by its designers. Throughout the 19th century London’s numbers continued to swell, and some of the figures beggar belief. Between 1851 and 1901 the population of West Ham went up from 9,000 to 276,000.
It was the Victorians who had to cope with these vast increases, and they did so with unparalleled dynamism and intelligence. They revolutionised London’s transport system, with several private railway companies building underground lines that reached out to the suburbs. They provided free, compulsory elementary education for every child. They founded public libraries. In 1829 they inaugurated the Metropolitan police, replacing haphazard local provisions for law enforcement. They built prisons, sited in healthful, leafy suburbs. They gave dignity to death by creating spacious, landscaped cemeteries instead of the insalubrious, corpse-clogged graveyards of old London. Towards the end of Victoria’s reign an act of parliament empowered the London County Council to demolish slums and provide model housing for the poor. Meanwhile, public-spirited private citizens, including John Stuart Mill and Octavia Hill, the co-founder of the National Trust, campaigned to save London’s open spaces from greedy developers. Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest were both rescued as a result.
But the great hero of the reform story is Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works. A prototypical Victorian paterfamilias with enormous whiskers, 10 children and an insatiable appetite for work, he provided London with a magnificent new network of sewers (82 miles of main sewers and a further 1,100 miles of street sewers) planned with such foresight and built to such high specifications that much of it remains in service today. Bazalgette’s sewers saved London not only from intolerable stench and filth but also from the recurrent cholera epidemics that contaminated water had caused. It seems scandalous that when he died in 1891 he was not interred in Westminster Abbey, since he surely did more practical good than many who repose there.
Victorian slum clearance was meant to ensure that everyone lived in decent conditions, and subsequent schemes, such as the construction of high-rise flats for the less well-off after the second world war, had the same meritorious aim. But the sorry moral of Barratt’s narrative seems to be that it is unattainable. Suburbs, it emerges, like the human beings who inhabit them, are competitive organisms. In the fight for self-betterment some will rise and some fall. Gentrification can turn a slum into a desirable neighbourhood, but its previous occupants will be forced to live somewhere less desirable.
Barratt offers no solution to this nor to the more worrying problem of when, if ever, suburban growth will stop. In one of HG Wells’s sci-fi fantasies, The War in the Air, we are allowed a glimpse of a future Britain from an airship, and what is revealed is “a sprawl of undistinguished population” — continuous cities and suburbs, with a few last bits of agricultural land caught in the net. As a celebrator of suburbs, Barratt may welcome that prospect, and to those who find it saddening he could rightly point out that London suburbs are where people actually want to live, even in preference to their own countries. In 1911, 4% of Londoners were foreign-born. By 2006, 31% were.
What is missing from Barratt’s barrage of facts and figures, though, is any sense of how people feel about their suburbs, and what they treasure in suburban life. Literature could have helped him out — the poet Stevie Smith, for example, cherishing Palmers Green, and the “staunch and inviolate melancholy” that she finds when walking through Grovelands Park in winter rain. Alternatively, he could have turned to Anita Brookner’s Lewis Percy, a character through whom she enunciates a kind of suburban creed. “He felt that to be suburban was almost a calling in itself, involving steadiness, a certain humility in the face of temptation, social or otherwise, and a loving, almost painful attachment to home”. That, in its low-key way, sounds worth celebrating as nothing in Barratt’s book quite does.
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