The huge city perhaps never imprest the imagination more than when approaching it by might on the top of a coach you saw its numberless lights flaring, as Tennyson says, “like a dreary dawn.” The most impressive approach is now by the river through the infinitude of docks, quays, and shipping. London is not a city, but a province of brick and stone. Hardly even Loin the top of St. Paul’s or of the Monument can anything like a view of the city as a whole be obtained.
It is indispensable, however, to make one or the other of these ascents when a clear day can be found, not so much because the view is fine, as because you will get a sensation of vastness and multitude not easily to be forgotten. There is, or was not long ago, a point on the ridge which connects Hampstead with Highgate from which, as you looked over London to the Surrey Hills beyond, the modern Babylon presented something like the aspect of a city. The ancient Babylon may have vied with London in circumference, but the greater part of its area was occupied by open spaces; the modern Babylon is a dense mass of humanity.
The Empire and the commercial relations of England draw representatives of trading committees or subject races from all parts of the globe, and the faces and costumes of the Hindu, the Parsee, the Lascar and the ubiquitous Chinaman mingle in the motley crowd with the merchants of Europe and America. The streets of London are, in this respect, to the modern what the great Palace of Tyre must have been to the ancient world. But pile Carthage on Tyre, Venice on Carthage, Amsterdam on Venice, and you will not make the equal, or anything near the equal, of London.
Here is the great mart of the world, to which the best and richest products are brought from every land and clime, so that if you have put money in your purse you may command every object of utility or fancy which grows or is made anywhere without going beyond the circuit of the great cosmopolitan city. Parisian, German, Russian, Hindu, Japanese, Chinese industry is as much at your service here, if you have the all-compelling talisman in your pocket, as in Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Benares, Yokohama, or Peking. That London is the great distributing center of the world is shown by the fleets of the carrying trade of which the countless masts rise along her wharves and in her docks. She is also the bank of the world. But we are reminded of the vicissitudes of commerce and the precarious tenure by which its empire is held when we consider that the bank of the world in the middle of the last century was Amsterdam.
The first and perhaps the greatest marvel of London is the commissariat. How can the five millions be regularly supplied with food, and everything needful to life, even with such things as milk and those kinds of fruits which can hardly be left beyond a day? Here again we see reason for excepting to the sweeping jeremiads of cynicism, and concluding that tho there may be fraud and scamping in the industrial world, genuine production, faithful service, disciplined energy, and skill in organization, can not wholly have departed from the earth. London is not only well fed, but well supplied with water and well drained. Vast and densely peopled as it is, it is a healthy city. Yet the limit of practical extension seems to be nearly reached. It becomes a question how the increasing multitude shall be supplied not only with food and water, but with air.
The East of London, which is the old city, is, as all know, the business quarter. Let the worshiper of Mammon when he sets foot in Lombard Street adore his divinity, of all whose temples this is the richest and the most famous. Note the throng incessantly threading those narrow and tortuous streets. Nowhere are the faces so eager or the steps so hurried, except perhaps in the business quarter of New York. Commerce has still its center here; but the old social and civic life of the city has fled. What once were the dwellings of the merchants of London are now vast collections of offices. The merchants dwell in the mansions of the West End, their clerks in villas and boxes without number, to which when their offices close they are taken by the suburban rail-ways. On Sunday a more than Sabbath stillness reigns in those streets, while in the churches, the monuments of Wren’s architectural genius which in Wren’s day were so crowded, the clergyman sleepily performs the service to a congregation which you may count upon your fingers.
It is worth while to visit the city on a Sunday. Here and there, in a back street, may still be seen what was once the mansion of a merchant prince, ample and stately, with the rooms which in former days displayed the pride of commercial wealth and resounded with the festivities of the olden time; now the sound of the pen alone is heard. These and other relics of former days are fast disappearing before the march of improvement, which is driving straight new streets through the antique labyrinth. Some of the old thoroughfares as well as the old names remain. There is Cheapside, along which, through the changeful ages, so varied a procession of history has swept. There is Fleet Street, close to which, in Bolt Court, Johnson lived, and which he preferred, or affected to prefer, to the finest scenes of nature. Temple Bar, once grimly garnished with the heads of traitors, has been numbered with the things of the past, after furnishing Mr. Bright, by the manner in which the omnibuses were jammed in it, with a vivid simile for a legislative deadlock.
Society has migrated to the Westward, leaving far behind the ancient abodes of aristocracy, the Strand, where once stood a long line of patrician dwellings, Great Queen Street, where Shaftesbury’s house may still be seen; Lincoln’s lnn Fields, where, in the time of George II., the Duke of New-castle held his levee of office-seekers, and Russell Square, now reduced to a sort of dowager gentility.
Hereditary mansions, too ancient and magnificent to be deserted, such as Norfolk House, Spencer House and Lansdowne House, stayed the west-ward course of aristocracy at St. James’s Square and Street, Piccadilly, and Mayfair; but the general tide of fashion has swept far beyond.
In that vast realm of wealth and leisure, the West End of London, the eye is not satisfied with seeing, neither the ear with hearing. There is not, nor has there ever been, anything like it in the world. Notes of admiration might be accumulated to any extent without aiding the impression. In every direction the visitor may walk till he is weary through streets and squares of houses, all evidently the abodes of wealth, some of them veritable palaces. The parks are thronged, the streets are blocked with handsome equipages, filled with the rich and gay. Shops blaze with costly wares, and abound with everything that can minister to luxury.
On a fine bright day of May or early June, and days of May or early June are often as bright in London as anywhere, the Park is probably the greatest display of wealth and of the pride of wealth in the world. The contrast with the slums of the East End, no doubt, is striking, and we can not wonder if the soul of the East End is some-times filled with bitterness at the sight. A social Jeremiah might be moved to holy wrath by the glittering scene. The seer, however, might be re-minded that not, all the owners of those carriages are the children of idleness, living by the sweat of another man’s brow; many of them are professional men or chiefs of industry, working as hard with their brains as any mechanic works with his hands, and indispensable ministers of the highest civilization. The number and splendor of the equipages are thought to have been somewhat diminished of late by the reduction of rents.
The architecture of the West End of London is for the most part drearily monotonous; its forms have too plainly been determined by the builder, not by the artist, tho since the restoration of art, varieties of style have been introduced, and individual beauty has been more cultivated. It is the boundless expanse of opulence, street after street, square after square, that most impresses the beholder, and makes him wonder from what miraculous horn of plenty such a tide of riches can have been poured. . . .
A beautiful city London can not be called. In beauty it is no match for Paris. The smoke, which not only blackens but corrodes, is fatal to the architecture as well as to the atmosphere. More-over, the fine buildings, which if brought together would form a magnificent assemblage, are scattered over the immense city, and some of them are ruined by their surroundings. There is a fine group at Westminster, and the view from the steps under the Duke of York’s column across St. James’s Park is beautiful. But even at Westminster meanness jostles splendor, and the picture is marred by Mr. Hankey’s huge tower of Babel rising near. London has had no edile like Haussmann.
The Embankment on the one side of the Thames is noble in itself, but you look across from it at the hideous and dirty wharves of Southwark. Nothing is more charming than a fine water street; and this water street might be very fine were it not marred by the projection of a huge railway shed. The new Courts of Law, a magnificent, tho it is said inconvenient, pile, instead of being placed on the Embankment or in some large open space, are choked up and lost in rookeries. London, we must repeat, has had no edile. Perhaps the finest view is that from a steamboat on the river, embracing the Houses of Parliament, Somerset House, and the Temple, with St. Paul’s rising above the whole.