Extracts from Daniel Defoe’s Account of London
Introduced and selected by Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
The description of London appears halfway through the second of three volumes in Defoe’s Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–26). This placing, as the fifth of ten sections on England and Wales, reflects the fulcral role of the capital in the political, religious, economic, social and cultural life of the nation—aspects of Britain that the work analyses in depth. This emphasis is made explicit in the opening words of the section: “As I am now near the center of this work, so I am to describe the great center of England, the City of London, and parts adjacent.” Equal significance attaches to the fact that this segment occupies almost one hundred pages in the first edition, around seven percent of the entire work: London housed about a tenth of the English population when Defoe was writing (four times the proportion of Parisians among the French people, as E.A. Wrigley noted). Only Edinburgh, capital of the semi-dependent territory of Scotland, gets as much as a fifth of this coverage. Moreover, the text is peppered with reminders of “the general dependance of the whole country upon the City of London, as well for the consumption of its produce, as the circulation of its trade.”
There is one feature of the coverage of London in the Tour very seldom noted. This is the way that it benefits from the surrounding elements in the narrative. It is preceded by four sections, which have described the hinterland of the capital: first in the immediate vicinity of the Home Counties (Essex, Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire), and then widening out to the more distant parts of the West Country before returning through Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Immediately afterwards, the itinerary leaves London to explore further regions, again making its way initially through Middlesex and Hertfordshire, which were in some respects junior partners of their dominant neighbour.* In due course we are drawn back to the starting point after visiting Wales and the Midlands, this time taking in Bedfordshire. Most of the principal highways along which the narrator makes his way radiate across the country from a single source. By the end of the second volume, we have travelled through all the thirty-three English counties south of the River Trent, as they then existed. We are shown the connections that bind each historic shire to the main hub of the nation. By this means, these segments articulate the interplay between the city and the nation.
Of course, the author was prone to exaggerate the omnipresence of London, since he was not merely born (and seventy years later would die) there, but also held the treasured names of a citizen and a liveryman. Nevertheless, his exceptionally long and observant sojourn in his hometown equipped him to write what has become the best known and most cited survey from the eighteenth century devoted to the place. Defoe gives us minute particularities which enable us to follow the narrator in the tiniest crannies of the urban jungle. His line marking the boundaries of the city is traced with fastidious detail: “Then going away east till it meets the buildings near Hoxton Square, it turns north to the north west corner of the wall of Ask's Hospital, then sloping north east, it passes by Pimlico, the Cyder House, and the two walls to the north end of Hoxton, when it turns east, and inclosing the garden walls, comes into the Ware road, just at the King's Head in the new buildings by the Land of Promise.” You would not do much better with a GPS system. But the interest is far more than narrowly topographical: the writer knows the places but also the people, the institutions, the streets and markets, the palaces and the slums. Above all, he understood the commercial life of the City of London, as one who had begun life as a (largely unsuccessful) businessman. For that matter, when he compiled his list of gaols in the capital, he could draw on his own experience in daunting locations such as Newgate and the Fleet, as well as recalling enough about places of temporary custody such as sponging houses to add a barbed comment on “Tolerated Prisons.”
The extracts here present the full text of 1725, except for the omission of a few brief linking passages. It follows the spelling of the first edition, but typographic features such as capitals and italics have been brought into line with modern practice.
For a good annotated version of the work, see A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, ed. John McVeagh, 3 vols (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2001). For fuller annotation and illustration, see A Tour thro’ London about the Year 1725, ed. M.M. Beeton and E.B. Chancellor (London, 1929; reprinted New York, 1969).
* Note that the opening pages of the sixth section, which cover Middlesex and part of Hertfordshire (including what were then outlying villages such as Hampstead, Edgware, Kensington and Chelsea) are not reproduced here.