Centre for Metropolitan History



John Noorthouck

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'Preface', A New History of London: Including Westminster and Southwark (1773), pp. I-VIII. URL: Date accessed: 21 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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As a meer collection of facts brought together without order or connexion, resembles the indigested compilation of a news-paper, rather than a regular history; the author of the ensuing work esteems it incumbent on him to premise a general view of the subject, and to say something relating to its execution.

The history of London includes more than the words at first sight seem to import; local as it may appear, the undertaking is no less than an history of the operation of manufactures and trade in civilizing the natives of a rude and barbarous island. The ancient Britons, separated from the rest of the world by a sea little navigated, became an easy prey to foreigners better practised and skilled in the art of war than themselves; and they remained long in a state of subjection that checked all efforts at improvement. Under the antient feudal system of policy, when soldier and freeman were synonymous terms, when arts were despised, and were no farther exercised than to procure an immediate supply of such necessaries as suited the military stile of life then cultivated, artisans and traders were little known, and less esteemed (fn. 1) . But as the insular situation of Britain protected the English greatly from all enemies, excepting the Picts and Scots on the north; they had little occasion to handle arms in the south, but to decide their own intestine quarrels: hence the warlike disposition of the Saxons and Normans at length relaxed and gave way by degrees to more civil institutions. The utility of manufactures extorted regard from those who required them, but would not deign to work at them; and thus it was that artists and traders obtained the protection their labours deserved.

Boroughs and corporations at their first establishment proved excellent asylums for artisans from the arbitrary claims of their feudal lords; and an early privilege took place, as will appear in the course of this work (fn. 2) , that if a servant remained a year and a day in the city of London, without being claimed by his lord, he became a freeman, and was exempted from the yoke of his former servitude: a franchise which was afterward extended to all other cities and boroughs. We see in this instance without farther anticipation, that commerce was the original parent of English liberty; they have ever since mutually advanced each other; and we may continue free, rich, and happy, so long as we guard against the enticements of prosperity, and against the extension of military power; which since the restoration of Charles II. has been again growing up in another form, and which, however plausible in its present institution, may, without due circumspection on the part of the people, be some time or other fatally misapplied.

Wealth, the produce of industry, as it has always given the citizens of London great influence in the general affairs of the nation, of which they form a considerable part; so this circumstance has uniformly disposed the legislature, in whatever hands it was lodged, since civil policy began to be properly understood, to protect that commerce on which their ability to assist the government depended. This mutual convenience generally created a good understanding between the city and the ruling power for the time being; and may account for the conduct of the citizens in particular cases, which, if not always consistent, was at least often prudent. From these causes the municipal government of the corporation was seldom disturbed from without; and being mostly engaged on the current annual business within, the materials it furnishes fit for history are but occasional; and having often no chain of connexion but with the political concerns of the nation, these must be so far kept in view. The expediency will hence appear of attending somewhat more to those domestic state transactions by which London was affected, than other historians of the metropolis have done: for where causes are not well explained, their effects will be ill understood.

As it appeared needful to enter farther into the causes of some events, than had been done in former works of this nature, so the various transactions that took place afforded occasional opportunities for general remarks on their tendency and consequences; and on the influence the advancement of commerce had on the improvement of civil policy. This task has been also in great measure left for the present writer to perform in an history of London: how far he has properly availed himself of such opportunities, or used the liberties he has taken, must be determined by the public, to whose candour his work is submitted.

The mercantile connexions of the city of London extend much farther than the power of ancient Rome ever reached by the sword; and the former derives more solid advantages from a reciprocation of friendly offices with all the world, than the latter ever enjoyed from an overgrown hostile dominion. In Rome, the state collectively was powerful indeed, but individuals were poor; until the plunder of provinces enriched her commanders: when she soon fell a prey, first to her own treacherous servants, and afterward to rude northern invaders. In London we see individuals wealthy; because they are industrious; the conveniencies of polished society being enjoyed, in some degree, by all ranks of her citizens: the aggregate therefore is powerful; for riches are the sinews of war, to a proverb. The liberties of the citizens of London have already existed under a continual increase, longer than those of the aspiring Romans; and they still flourish by the cultivation of the peaceful arts, which the citizens are nevertheless always ready and able to protect when disturbed. But while London appears superior to Rome, when their circumstances are thus contrasted, the comparative advantages of their historians are inverted. The glare of martial atchievements; when magnified by the animating powers of language, gives brilliancy to the epic page: on the contrary, the records of the useful labours of commerce, where the writer dares not knowingly take any liberty with truth, and where there are few events to surprize and captivate the imagination, seldom interest any but the serious and contemplative. The senators of Rome, moreover, were the national legislators; the aldermen and common-councilmen of London are merely municipal lawgivers, subordinate to the state; and whose power extends no farther than their own precincts. Hence the history of London is chiefly employed on transactions of a lower order, (though not therefore less worthy of attention) and is obliged to descend to more minute particulars than consist with the objects of national history. Many incidents, that were of a casual or local nature, unavoidably appear in the form of detached narratives; and sometimes interrupt the connexion of matters that have a natural dependence on each other. For these reasons alone, were there no other cause for disclaiming pretensions to it, elegance of diction is more than the writer of this history can promise: he will only plead his endeavours to render the work faithful and accurate.

The several charters of the city of London, with other papers of record relating to the corporation, necessary to be introduced, are classed together in an Appendix, properly numbered and duly referred to. By this method the course of the history is not broken by the intervention of materials, which those only who are interested in the affairs of the city may want to consult occasionally.

The casual purchase of a scarce and curious publication, which the author had long sought after, but did not procure until his work was nearly compleated at the press, and which ought to have been referred to in the due order of time, reduced him to the necessity of making Addenda to the Appendix; as it was too valuable to be omitted at any rate. This was a small book published by authority of the corporation, intitled, "The order of the hospitals of K. Henry VIII. and K. Edward VI. viz: St. Bartholomew's, Christ's, Bridewell, St. Thomas's. By the maior, cominaltie, and citizens of London, governors of the possessions, revenues and goods of the sayd hospitalls. 1557." In this last department the reader will also find several chronological and other tables, which need not be specified, nor their utility insisted on, in this place.

The earliest account we have of the city of London was written in the twelfth century by William Fitzstephen monk of Canterbury; but this, curious as it is on the score of antiquity, is rather a loose panegyric than a professed description, and was meerly a short introduction to his life of archbishop Becket. John Stow is the first author who treated expressly of the city, its government, and public buildings: his work appeared in quarto, in 1598, and has served as a foundation for all those who have followed him on the same subject. Stow's Survey, though the second edition in 1603 was confessedly left defective by his ill state of health, is a very valuable performance, as containing many historical facts relating to the metropolis overlooked by the historians of England; and being executed within threescore years after the dissolution of monastic foundations, many local circumstances were preserved by him, that could not so easily, if at all, have been recovered after a greater interval of time: in brief, he not only wrote before the memory of the many alterations produced by reforming the national religion was lost, but before the great fire had destroyed the old city. The task of his subsequent editors was principally to trace the changes produced from the time of his writing to those in which they published; and this was undertaken by two or three hands, the principal of whom was Strype. Considering the time when Stow wrote, the distribution of his subject is clear and concise; and though the distance of time between him and his last considerable improver, Maitland, furnished the latter with a variety of recent materials to enlarge with, yet it is observable that he with his continuator have extended their details with abundance of frivolous particulars; and have destroyed the connexion and unity of the whole, by labouring at what proves at last to be a perplexed arrangement.

Maitland's Survey of London being thus rendered bulky, expensive, tediously prolix, though often obviously defective, some crude attempts have been made at giving meer abridgements of it with the titles of new performances; which have been executed both under real and under fictitious names.

From this short review it appears that while many ingenious pens have been exercised in tracing the political history of England, its commercial history, which belongs properly to the metropolis, has been too much overlooked; and resigned to the hands of the followers of one old writer, who after all was rather a topographer than an historian. This neglect might be owing to the immediate movements of government attracting the principal attention of historians, while the concerns of commerce were considered in such a subordinate point of view as to require only occasional remarks: whereas in fact the latter had a secret progressive operation on the former, first by destroying personal slavery, and then by producing two convulsions of the state, that overthrew the tyranny of an insolent priesthood, and reformed the exercise of regal power. Hence the history of London appeared to merit more consideration than had hitherto been bestowed on it, and the only work of this kind that deserved notice having, as before-mentioned, been unnecessarily swelled to two bulky volumes in folio, we come down to the first intention of the present undertaking. This was to execute a new work more extensive in its object, yet to be comprehended in a more convenient size, and purchased at an easier price: by contracting verbose details to bring the interesting matter closer together; and by a proper abridgement of events of less moment, to afford room for the due consideration of those of more importance. A labour not altogether so easy, as may at first view be imagined, nor yet so honourable as to afford any great expectation of applause to reward the execution.

It will neither be supposed, nor is it pretended, that no use has been made of Stow and Maitland in the ensuing work: as Maitland followed Stow and Strype, so an acknowledgement is here made that his work has been consulted as a general guide throughout. When different persons travel the same journey, it will be almost impossible for those who follow last to avoid tracing the footsteps of those who went before; especially in places where the road happens to be confined and narrow: nor ought they affect to avoid them without due cause. Where the writer preferred other relations, as more satisfactory, or where he discovered facts that escaped his predecessors, which circumstances became frequent in the latter periods of the history; the authorities from whence they were derived are produced as vouchers for the compiler, and for the satisfaction of the reader.

The author considers it peculiarly incumbent on him to acknowledge the great assistance he received from two elaborate and valuable works; Anderson's history of Commerce, and Hume's history of England. From the one he derived the knowledge of a variety of curious particulars, the peculiar objects of his undertaking; and from the other, a clear and ingenious deduction of the progress of the English constitution down to its present frame.

Rapin was indeed a careful and impartial collector of facts, and if but little use has been immediately made of his history, the reason was that Maitland appeared to have collected from it already: the present writer therefore, to enlarge his sources of information, preferred Mr. Hume, whose learning and sound judgment dictated a history from more enlarged views, than as a meer journal of events. When this work, prematurely ending with the Revolution, failed of farther assistance, Tindal's continuation of Rapin presented itself as the best authority to consult so far as it went. This however closing with the reign of George I. he then availed himself of Dr. Smollet's history, which, though agreeably written, has been open to the objection of not producing authorities for the matters related: but as it was taken up at a late period, almost within memory, this defect cannot impeach the use made of it; especially as recourse was at the same time had to cotemporary materials. From the year 1764, where Smollet concludes, Dodsley's Annual Register, and other periodical memoirs of our times have been examined to bring the history down to the close of the year 1771: and these will appear of sufficient authority when we consider that the public transactions not only of the government but of the corporation of London have of late years been fully laid before the public by the parties concerned, and as carefully collected by the industry of our periodical compilers. Other authorities, occasionally consulted from time to time, are specified in the notes.

As a clear chronology is an indispensable requisite in history, the reigns of all the kings of England have been traced as head titles to the right-hand pages, and the years as constantly continued down the margins, to assist the reader in turning backward or forward to any desired points of time. Wherever acts of parliament are mentioned, the particular statutes have been referred to in notes at the bottoms of the pages; and as the author has thus given every kind of assistance in his power to prevent confusion or disappointment in consulting this work, so he hopes no material errors have escaped his attention. He never felt any violent inclination to distinguish himself in political controversy: here however he has been sometimes unwarily betrayed into the hazarding incidental remarks which the subjects before him naturally suggested. But as they are such as resulted from an obvious view of circumstances, without being abstruse or far fetched; the reader, whose abilities penetrate deeper into causes and effects, will rather derive satisfaction in discovering any mistaken opinions in the relator, than be offended at the free expression of his sentiments. It is hoped at least that his sincerity will be admitted; since had his pen been guided by any indirect views, he would certainly have been more reserved in his comments on some recent occasions: he is however bold to say, that his sole view, throughout, was to produce every fact he could collect by diligent search, for the reader's information; without intentionally altering or suppressing any circumstance to mislead his judgment.

Thus much it was thought needful to lay before the reader as to the conduct of the historical department of this work; it may be as necessary to add something relating to the execution of the descriptive part.

As the writer was born a citizen of London, and has spent the greatest part of his life in the metropolis, it may be supposed his descriptions of places and things are drawn from actual knowledge; and this is materially true in most instances, though it cannot extend to all cases. No faithful accounts of the same objects can substantially vary; and though, for his own ease in so multifarious an undertaking, he has frequently availed himself of delineations drawn up, and remarks made, by other hands, which in the most material instances are acknowledged, (as he wishes not to decorate himself with borrowed plumes) yet the frequent correction and addition they required, have in truth given him an exclusive property in almost whatever descriptive articles he has adopted. His acknowledgements are moreover due to several gentlemen for hints of private information, as well to some whose names he is not at liberty to mention, as to those whose favours have been authenticated in the notes.

After all, considering the great compass of matter comprehended in this volume, he is far from being so confident of his own care as to suppose it clear from errors; those already minuted down would have been sufficient to check any such presumption: ill as a table of errata appears in any work, it became a duty to point out what mistakes were discovered; and the author would be happy to find that the list is compleat. Some of these errors admit of being corrected with the pen, by such purchasers as will take the trouble, and those articles may then be cancelled in the table by drawing a stroke over them.

The copper plates, though the size of the page would not allow them to be designed upon a large scale, will, it is hoped, be found sufficiently expressive to convey a distinct and agreeable idea of the objects represented: one or two of them have indeed fallen short of what the author had a just right to expect; but there are several of them that do credit to the names of the engravers: the general plan of the metropolis, with the map of the country from thirty to forty miles round, may be affirmed superior both in size and correctness to those contained in any other work.

No literary performance beyond the size of a pamphlet can be deemed compleat, in the usual sense of the word, without a good index; yet the labour of making and digesting it is a duty that few authors will submit to themselves; though they may justly be supposed the best qualified to analyse their own compositions. By the general arrangement, head titles, marginal dates, notes and references, any article may be easily found throughout this volume: but beside these chronological outlines, some attention has been bestowed on forming a particular and full index of every material historical circumstance, person, and place mentioned, to prevent any disappointment in consulting it.

The author declined the task of soliciting permission to dedicate his work to any particular gentleman, though a respectable patron is a sanction generally coveted: it is obvious that if a performance is found undeserving public attention, no private patronage can support its credit; and if it should appear to merit regard, no particular interest is necessary. As this volume is not calculated to serve the purposes of any party, so the writer was cautious to prevent the stamp of party being fixed on it, by sheltering it under the name of either courtier, or patriot of any complexion: dedications are the public proclamations of flattery; while true respect never exceeds the limits of sincerity, by adopting the stile of adulation. As every citizen of London is interested in the welfare of the metropolis, this history is inscribed to the representative body of the corporation; the reception it meets with will be the true criterion of its merit; and the author will only add in conclusion, that he shall reap a sufficient recompence from his labours, if he finds they afford his fellow citizens and countrymen in general the same satisfaction in perusal, that he derived from the execution.

Bernard's-Inn, Holborn.
March 28th, 1773.


1 Vid. p. 22, note.
2 Vid. p. 91.