THOMAS WRIGHT'S LONDON
About 650,000 people lived in the London of Thomas Wright, around 10% of England’s population. London covered an area of five miles from Hyde Park to Limehouse and two and a half miles from Clerkenwell to Bankside.
Thomas had humble beginnings. His father was a scavenger in the City of London. Scavengers were paid by the parish to keep the streets clean. Each day except for Sundays and religious holidays, they would ring their bell to alert householders then wait for the rubbish to be brought to their carts. However they were notoriously bad at their job and the streets were pretty dirty. In 1742 Benjamin Franklin noted that the roads were disagreeable and unsafe due to the offal, dead cats and other rubbish which was thrown into them and which mingled with the horse manure from 18th century traffic. The dirt that scavengers did collect was sold to market gardeners on the outskirts of London in places like Islington and Mayfair. Streets were not officially swept but on wet days you could pay a penny for a crossing sweeper to clear you a path so you could cross the road and in fact Dulwich had a crossing sweeper near the College until as late as 1922, a man nicknamed ‘Old Strawberry’. In 1765 the City of London began paving its streets, a huge project which took eight years. By 1773 the streets were paved with Scottish granite setts from Temple Bar to Aldgate which kept them much cleaner.
Thomas Wright’s London would have been full of animals. Apart from the horses used for transport, livestock from Kent would have passed his business on London Bridge on their way to Smithfield. Most animals made their way without ado but some got free and caused havoc on the narrow London streets. As Thomas was a member of the City’s Court he may have been at the Guildhall in 1767 the day an ox ran into the room while the Court was sitting. The ox ran straight back out again, people said because it did not like the company it found itself in. One unusual animal in Thomas Wright’s London was the Bengal elephant paraded from Rotherhithe to Buckingham House (soon to be Palace) in 1763. London was noisy. The noise from the animals being driven through the streets would have been joined by the screech of iron wheels on the granite setts, the clatter of horses’ hooves, the barking of dogs and the cries of street sellers.
Sedan chairs were still a popular mode of travel in Thomas’s time as it was quicker to walk through London than to ride due to the narrow streets and the amount of wheeled traffic, including wagons up to four pairs of horses long. Thomas may have had his own private sedan chair or he could hire one from a rank, just like taxis today. Public sedan chairmen wore a distinctive blue and buff livery and their chairs were not as well upholstered as private ones. They are named for the town of Sedan in France where they were first used but they did not take off at first as Londoners thought it cruel to make men do the work of horses. Sedan chairmen were available twenty-four hours a day, were very fast and had to be dexterous to manipulate the chairs through London at speed. Foreigners often commented how remarkably few accidents there were.
Until 1729 when Putney Bridge was built the only way across the river was London Bridge or by boat. Thomas could have used a wherry, a small and fast open rowing boat, and of course he would have travelled in the Lord Mayor’s barge as part of the parade. The decorated barges were called floats and this word is still used today to describe the vehicle carrying a display in a procession.
As his business was on London Bridge Thomas would have been aware of the problems the bridge created for the watermen. Its stone piers impeded the waterflow and acted like a partial dam. The water sped up as it went through the gaps between the piers and became a raging torrent. Passing under the bridge during tidal periods was known as ‘shooting the bridge’, something only to be undertaken by a highly skilled waterman. If passengers were travelling downriver they left the boat on the upstream side of the bridge and met it again downstream near Billingsgate. This meant that there were lots of people passing Thomas’s shop on London Bridge, making his business highly visible. London Bridge was rebuilt in 1761 by the architect who probably built Bell House.
Horses were the main mode of travel and again could be hired or privately owned. Once his business was successful Thomas had his own carriage which was just as well as in 1760 when Thomas was still living in the City, King George died and there was not a horse to be hired anywhere as people rushed to pass the news on to the rest of the country. If there was a big event in London such as a coronation, horses again became difficult to find, and people complained of how London was full of the gentry from out of town.
Hackney cabs were popular though uncomfortable. In his almanacs Thomas Wright published the official distances and rates for them. For example, from Westminster Hall to Bloomsbury Square or from Grey’s Inn to Sadler’s Wells both cost a shilling. Similar pre-set routes are still used by black cab drivers today when learning ‘the knowledge’, the training course required to gain a licence.
Bell House would not have had piped water, heat or waste when it was built. Water would be drawn from the well in the cellar or delivered by cart twice a week and transferred to a lead storage tank in the cellar. The house would have been heated with wood from the land Thomas rented in Dulwich or from coal delivered by cart. Toilets with U-bends to avoid the smell were not invented until 1775 so chamber-pots would have been used with the waste collected by night-soil men.
Thomas had been a servant himself but the role of servants changed greatly during his lifetime. Domestic servants went from sharing their master’s quarters to moving behind the green baize door and being neither seen nor heard. When Thomas was living near London Bridge most household staff were paid a low wage but received a high level of tips and it was said to be cheaper to eat in a tavern than a private house but tipping had more or less died out by the time he moved to Dulwich. Servants were hired through recommendation, either by friends or their clergyman or by advertisements. Ann Wright may have tried to hire girls who had recently arrived from the country: they could be paid less and were less likely to have learned ‘London ways’ but had the disadvantage that they needed to be trained and were not immune to London germs. Sick servants had to be looked after except if they contracted smallpox when they were usually discharged. When a servant got too old to work there were no formal pensions.
Most domestic staff were female, when the family was represented outside the house, in public, the servants were male. The Wrights would prize a good coachman for his knowledge of horses, the mechanics of the coach and his dexterity in driving the coach through the narrow gates of Bell House. Footmen needed to look the part. They were prized for their height, with taller men paid more and they were well-dressed with a smart uniform so as to do the family credit when they were out and about running errands. Gardeners were hired on their knowledge of produce, especially more exotic kinds such as apricots, grapes and figs.