Religion and Urbanity in Hell? A Satirical Description of London from 1729
— Martin Christ
When we think of London today, we might think of the many opportunities this provides. A global and cosmopolitan metropolis, that has much to offer to people from all walks of life: tourists come to marvel at Big Ben or Buckingham Palace, people looking for work relocate to the capital to work in business or media and artists hope to find new inspiration and audiences in one of the most important cities of Europe. But there is also another side to this story. As in any city, there are not just possibilities, but also problems and limitations. To name but a few exmaples, the attractiveness of London coupled with urban density results in landlords exploiting their powers in order to increase their profit, there is a signifcant number of rough sleepers (which increased further during lockdown) and worsening divisions between those who can afford to live in an expensive city and those who are pushed out of the centre.
London, therefore, stands for one of the key features the KFG explores in its work: the fact that cities are both heaven and hell. We have used the image and idea of Babylon to describe that the city is not just a site for opportunities, but also a place for vice and corruption. Simultaneously, urbanity provides great chances and great challenges. Religion always played an important role in this context, as it could be used to conhure images such as the Heavenly Jerusalem (Rüpke and Rau: 2020), but preachers could also rail against the sinfulness of an urban life.
In texts on early modern London, both positive and negative aspects featured, especially in the eighteenth century. Authors wrote tracts, which were largely descriptive or praised London, for example Robert Seymour’s A Survey of London (1734) (see Bucholz and Ward: 161–163). These kinds of guidebooks described London as the seat of the monarchy and government, with a booming economy and well-ordered urban structure. Many of them comapred London favourably to other urban centres, such as Rome or Paris, and were based on earlier descriptions. Seymour makes this explicit on the frontispiece, where he writes that the book was ‘an improvement of Mr. Stow’s, and other surveys, by adding whatever Alternatives have happened in the said cities, & to the present Year; and by retrenching many Superfluities, and correcting many Errors in the former Writers’. Some of these texts also functioned as guides for those who came to London for the first time.
This entry focuses on a satirical text that argues quite clearly for a more critical interpretation of the city. The anonymous pamphlet Hell upon earth, or, The Town in an uproar was published in 1729 by J. Roberts in London. Indeed, we know even precisely about the localities of printing: ‘Printed for J. Roberts in Warwick-Lane, and A. Dodd without Temple-Bar, 1729’. The first page also tells us that to purchase the text, one had to pay just one shilling. A small sum, for a pamphlet that formed part of the lively and vast print culture of early modern London (Black: 1987). Many of these pamphlets helped shape public opinion and formed a crucial aspect of early modern sociability (Withington: 2007). Some of them fulfilled the function of newspapers, while other, such as Hell upon earth were more satirical in tone. This was another interpretation of London than the guidebooks or “tourist guides”, we encounter in the same period. The annoynmous author was not alone in drawing on these themes and other examples include Ned Ward’s The London spy (1698-1700), in which the author described how he entertained others with his witty comments (Davison: 2014: 942).
Hell upon Earth is a fascinating account of early modern London that can be read in a range of ways and is at the same time entertaining and fascinating in terms of the depiction of London’s society. As part of my project on burials and death in early modern London and Munich, I have been working on this text, as there are also passing references to the dead. The hustle and bustle of the metropolis is described (‘Coaches, Chaises, Chairs, Phaetons, and Hackney Horses’, 2) in a vivid manner and all manner of urban phenomena are described, including a fake menu of the vain that includes a ‘viper soup’ and a ‘Couple of Roast Hedghogs’ (31). Bon appétit!
The pamphlet, the author calls it a ‘humble Essay’ (15), is divided into two parts. The first one provides an hour-by-hour account of a Sunday in the city. The author makes the connections to Sunday as the Christian holy day explicit when he (judging by the text, the author is likely male) entitles this section ‘The usual Obersvations of the Sabbath, in the good Cities of London and Westminster, and Parts adjacent’. But rather than this being a day of church-going and contemplation, the author paints a very different picture. Some examples, which focus on the clerical aspects include for eleven o’clock: ‘Fine Fans, rich Brilliants, white Hands, envious Eyes, and gold Snuff-Boxes displaying in all Parish Churches. – Many excellent stollen Sermons preaching by some Clergymen who won’t take Pains to make worse of their own’ or, for three o’clock, ‘Young handsome Wenches in Churches demanding Adoration instead of paying it’. The pamphlet covers all groups present in London: artisans, servants, housewives, apprentices, the wealthy as well as the poor as well as clergy and parishioners, who are supposed to attend the sermons. Hardly any of these individuals are described in a favourable manner.
This first part, covering about ten pages of the 62-page pamphlet, is written in a way that makes it seem as if the author was wandering about, describing objectively what he sees on the streets of London. But the description is not that of a flaneur in the sense of Georg Simmel. Rather, this observer of the urban humdrum focuses on individuals and their vices and is anything but blaseé about urban life. The way the text is written and structured, divided by hyphens and frequently in half sentences, strengthens the feeling that the author is jotting down observations, one after the other, all of them showing the vices and sins of Londoners. To give a flavour of this the author records, for instance:
Hired Servants got together railing at, and reviling the Families that entertain them, and advancing the old Doctrine of there being more Places than Parish Churches. – Sober Families going to Evening-Lectures, or performing religious Duties at home. – Pick Pockets following to rob them. – Rakes and Reprobates running into Bawdy-Houses and Taverns. – FootSoldiers drunk with Geneva.- People of Qualities Servants just got to Dinner.-‘Prentices prattling Politicks in rippling Houses.-Drunken Christenings and Funerals going forward at St. Giles’s in the Fields, Stepney and Cripplegate Parishes, & c.Hell upon Earth, p. 6.
The pamphlet focuses on an urban rhythm (Rau: 2019), defined by ‘vice and pleasure’, with little regard for the holiness of Sunday. Every hour, the author observes new vices of the city and the little respect that is paid to religion. Both clergymen and parishioners would rather spend the day in alehouses, than perform Christian actions. The passage above contains two references to urban religion. On the one hand there are pious individuals, so not all is lost (‘Sober Families going to Evening-Lectures, or performing religious Duties at home’). But even these few individuals will not be tolerated in the urban environment, for pick pockets are already following them. And, secondly, even those who attend services, do not do it in a pious manner, as they should: people come drunk to christenings and funerals.
With this urban rhythm, the author followed other texts, which were structured around the hours of the day or other temporal rhythms. Jonathan Swift’s Description of a Morning (1709) provides a description of the start of the day in the city, while Richard Steele’s essay “The Hours of London” (1712), in the words of Bucholz and Ward, ‘replaces the seasons of the year and hours of the agricultural day with the different rhythms and populations of the city’ (161). In some of these other examples, we can find more explicit references to the rural world, contrasting the simple but pious life of the countryside with the corrupt and sinful lifestyle in the city. London’s urban rhythm also found its way into other genres, most notably in William Hogarth’s Four Times, which is divided into morning, noon, night and evening.
The focus on a Sunday as a particularly stirking way to illustrate urban vices was also a common theme, though Hell Upon Earth was an early example to employ this tactic. Around 1776 A Sunday Ramble; or, Modern Sabbath-Day Journey followed, as did A Modern Sabbath, or a Sunday Ramble in 1794. Hell upon Earth therefore fits broader patterns of literature and art concerned with life and society in London. Other texts influenced it, just as it went on to enter the discourse on the problems and sins of Londoners and therefore contributed to oher texts and genres.
The second part of the pamphlet is more thematic in nature and contains further observations. It covers topics, such as murder, cursing, and sodomy, all of which are abundant in London, according to the author. There are also some xenophobic stereotypes and anti-semitic tropes the author deploys. (On xenophobia in early modern London, see Luu (2010) In another part, the author describes various ghosts that haunt the city, for instance the ghosts of fashion (49). Throughout, the author criticises how little attention the inhabitants pay to their church, concluding that ‘The Town is now come to that Height of Wickedness, that every Parish might now employ five or six satyrists, besides as many Parsons’ (43). The author comments that it is the role of the preacher to ensure the proper lifestyle in the parish, he should call out people directly: ‘A hah, you Mr. ___, with the black Wig and plush Coat, how dare you keep a Rendezvous for Gaming, Drinking, and Whoring?’ (45). Yet nothing of the sort happens and the clerics do not call out their parishioners, and neither do the latter listen to anything they have to say. The many pleasure available in the city make everyone forget about their duties.
In the same vein, the author writes that ‘I live in a Parish, which to its Honour, be it spoken, is one of the largest and most populous […], yet a Man might wear out a pair of the best Shoes in Christendom in it, before he finds a Person truly virtuous, except it be my self, and two or three of my Acquaintance’ (44). Strikingly, therefore, the author does not include himself among the urban sinners, but sees himself as one of the few individuals, who are actually pious and God-fearing.
The vices of the city are not only dangerous in this life and destroy the city, turning it into the Hell on earth mentioned in the title, but the inhabitants even lose their salvation and destroy future generations. The author makes this explicit in a particularly vivid and daunting passage that describes the loss of salvation at the hands of sin:
As there is nothing more Lawless than the Passions, when they are left to themselves, what a miserable Slave must that Person be, who gives himself up to their Dominion: All he studies is present Gratification, let the Consequence be what it will, the Gallows or Damnation. One Libertine, for the Enjoyment of a beastly Strumpet, poifon’d with Quicksilver and the Pox, flings away his Health and risques his Soul, kills or rather murders his Innocent Wife, and most paternally entails Rottenness and an infamous Example upon his Posterity. Another mad with Wine and Wrath runs his Sword into a poor Man’s Heart, and sends him into another World, with all his Sins upon his Head; and perhaps at the same time makes Beggars of a Widow and a House full of Children, who all depended upon that one Life. A third is under the absolute Government of Pride or Ambition, and ruins his Fortune and his Family by Expence and Equipage ; and makes himself Little by striving to be Great, and Poor by endeavouring to be Rich.Hell upon Earth, pp. 62-63.
Towards the end of the pamphlet, the author deploys another rhetorical strategy. He uses fictious characters to describe certain professions, Tim Turbulent, a ‘practitioner of vast Business in the Law’, deafens those around him with all his talk, yet the only case he argued in court was when he had to defend himself. Tom Terrible wants to be an atheist, ridiculing the notion of a deity, yet every night he wakes up, scared by spirits and, in fact, he ‘never ventures to Bed without Prayers’. (57) Here, then, the author shows that even those city-dwellers, who claim to be atheists still believe, in fact.
The anonymous Hell upon earth, or, The Town in an uproar (1729) provides a fascinating account of early modern London and its vices. In sometimes graphic detail, it describes the impious and sinful lifestyle of Londoners, more interested in drinking, gambling and vanity than religion. But this is nothing like a secular city. The author and his friends remain steadfast in their faith (not exactly a token of modesty on the author’s part), and it turns out that even the urban atheist retained his faith, in the end. Religion continues to be a crucial factor of life, even if many do not pay as much attention to it as they should. In the opinion of the author, true religion should be much more important in the hell of London.
Martin Christ is a KFG post-doctoral research fellow working on the urban dead in early modern Munich and London.
Jeremy Black, The English Press in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1987).
Robert O. Bucholz and Joseph P. Ward , London. A Social and Cultural History, 1550–1750 (Cambridge, 2012).
Kate Davison (2014), ‘Occasional Politeness and Gentlemen’s Laughter in 18th-century England.’ The Historical Journal, 57(4) 2014, 921-945.
Lien Bich Luu, ‘Taking the bread out of our mouths’: Xenophobia in early modern London.’ In Immigrants & Minorities Historical Studies in Ethnicity, Migration and Diaspora, 19(2) 2000, 1-22.
Susanne Rau, ‘Rhythmusanalyse nach Lefebvre.’ In: Taktungen und Rhythmen. Raumzeitliche Perspektiven interdisziplinär, ed. by Sabine Schmolinsky, Diana Hitzke and Heiner Stahl (Berlin and Boston, 2018), 9-24.
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Karl Tilman Winkler, Wörterkrieg: politische Debattenkultur in England, 1689 – 1750 (Stuttgart: 1998).