Haunted London

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Dr. Johnson’s Opinions of London.—“It is not in the showy evolution of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations, that the wonderful immensity of London consists…. The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. I will venture to say there is more learning and science within the circumference of where we now sit than in all the rest of the kingdom…. A man stores his mind [in London] better than anywhere else…. No place cures a man’s vanity or arrogance so well as London, for no man is either great or good, per se, but as compared with others, not so good or great, and he is sure to find in the metropolis many his equals and some his superiors…. No man of letters leaves London without regret…. By seeing London I have seen as much of life as the world can show…. When a man is tired of London he is tired of life, for there is in London all life can afford, and [London] is the fountain of intelligence and pleasure.”—Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Boswell’s Opinion of London.—“I have often amused myself with thinking how different a place London is to different people. They whose narrow minds are contracted to the consideration of some one particular pursuit, view it only through that medium, a politician thinks of it merely as the seat of government, etc.; but the intellectual man is struck with it as comprehending the whole of human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible.”—Boswell’s Life of Johnson (Croker, 1848), p. 144.

















This book deals less with the London of the ghost-stories, the scratching impostor in Cock Lane, or the apparition of Parson Ford at the Hummums, than with the London consecrated by manifold traditions—a city every street and alley of which teems with interesting associations, every paving-stone of which marks, as it were, the abiding-place of some ancient legend or biographical story; in short, this London of the present haunted by the memories of the past.

The slow changes of time, the swifter destructions of improvement, and the inevitable necessities of modern civilisation, are rapidly remodelling London.

It took centuries to turn the bright, swift little rivulet of the Fleet into a fœtid sewer, years to transform the palace at Bridewell into a prison; but events now move faster: the alliance of money with enterprise, and the absence of any organised resistance to needful though sometimes reckless improvements, all combine to hurry forward modern changes.

If an alderman of the last century could arise from his sleep, he would shudder to see the scars and wounds from which London is now suffering. Viaducts stalk over our chief roads; great square tubes of iron lie heavy as nightmares on the breast of Ludgate Hill. In Finsbury and Blackfriars there are now to be seen yawning chasms as large and ghastly as any that breaching cannon ever effected in the walls of a besieged city. On every hand legendary houses, great men’s birthplaces, the haunts of poets, the scenes of martyrdoms, and the battle-fields of old factions, heave and totter around us. The tombs of great men, in the chinks of which the nettles have grown undisturbed ever since the Great Fire, are now being uprooted. Milton’s house has become part of the Punch office. A printing machine clanks where Chatterton was buried. Almost every moment some building worthy of record is shattered by the pickaxes of ruthless labourers. The noise of falling houses and uprooted streets even now in my ears tells me how busily Time, the Destroyer and the Improver, is working; erasing tombstones, blotting out names on street-doors, battering down narrow thoroughfares, and effacing one by one the memories of the good, the bad, the illustrious, and the infamous.

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