How, if at all, did the lives of Londoners in the seventeenth century differ from those who lived in the larger provincial towns?
Life in a metropolis inevitably resembles but is also invariably different to that in its smaller cousins, in the relative complexity of its social make-up, in the economic activities of its residents, their status within the nation and, most importantly, in the everyday experience of those who make it their home - How, if at all, did the lives of Londoners in the seventeenth century differ from those who lived in the larger provincial towns? introduction. Hence, the experiences of seventeenth century Londoners did differ from those in the larger provincial towns (by which is meant regional centres like Norwich, York and Exeter) in many ways and that as the population of London swelled, these divergences became even more acute.
In elucidating this, it is useful to define what is meant by, or what constitutes a ‘life’, for a comparative study of every aspect of human existence is plainly impossible. Several key areas that can be compared, and affected the lives of all urban dwellers, are health and disease, recreational habits, the local economy, the political context of human existence, and the social geography of the conurbation in question. Taken together, these factors should give a fair indication as to whether the aforementioned comparison is indeed valid, but it admittedly will remain a generalization.
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Another point to consider is the nature of urban development over the seventeenth century, and the existence of fluctuations over time. It may well be found that at certain times London life became more or less akin to provincial life, but in general the latter trend predominated and London developed a metropolitan consciousness quite unique within the British nation. Before individual experience can be considered it is important to identify the broad demographic context of London and of its provincial counterparts.
Firstly, the sheer size and rate of its growth of London as the seventeenth century progressed set it clearly apart from all other British cities. By 1700, the population had reached 490,000 and had more than doubled in the past hundred years, radiating urban sprawl around the nuclear core of Westminster and the City and in the process generating a social context in which lives quite different from either traditional rural or provincial urban life were lived. Provincial urban centres, on the other hand, failed to experience such an explosive growth, most increasing slowly in size.
Norwich, for example increased from 20,000 inhabitants in 1600 to 30,000 in 1700 which relative to London was negligible and Norwich was England’s second city at that time. No provincial centre could match London’s growth rate. The increase in London’s population was also accompanied by the ‘suburbanisation’ of its geography and rapidly developing seas of urban squalor amongst which the majority of Londoners lived, a phenomenon which had not occurred in any provincial city by 1700 and made it necessary for Londoners to live in new, unorthodox ways to survive.
In the outer parish of Botolph’s Without Bishopsgate, ‘substantial’ households made up just one percent of the total in 1638. For the more central parish of St. Mary Le Bow, the percentage was forty six, and even just inside the city walls, in St. Martin Ludgate twenty eight percent could be thus described1. In these outer suburbs, beyond the city walls, there were very few wealthy households and many tenement style dwellings, a small elite, a growing middling sector of the population but a large proportion of poor.
No other city had such a fungal coating, in the form of suburban slums. For the wealthy, the population explosion in London created economic opportunities and access to the most diverse, cosmopolitan urban population in the country. In this way, the upper echelons of London society saw a fusion of different aristocratic, professional, political and mercantile interests, linked by the mutual desire for profit, entertainment and social control over the city’s massive population.
This aided socially mobile middling traders or artisans, who through the livery companies and the vibrant London economy could seek freeman status and climb into the higher branches of cosmopolitan society. But in provincial centres such a climate could never develop, either because the city in question was dominated by landed interests, politically serene and economically or demographically stagnant, specialized around one key industry or a combination of these factors.
Hence, a city like Exeter which, as Goose explains2, was dependent upon the cloth trade, with the majority of employment dedicated to maintaining the vitality of that key industry, did not develop London’s diversity. Although possessing a wealthy elite, Exteter could never, therefore, have offered London’s range of luxuries and entertainments, as it could not attract the diverse business, political and social interests to develop such a choice.
Life in Exeter for the wealthy few would hence have seemed banal and decidedly ‘provincial’ compared with that of London. This distinction is particularly acute in terms of entertainment and recreation. For the masses, no city in England had as many drinking establishments relative to population as did London and in the suburbs, it has been suggested that more than one sixth of all dwellings acted in some capacity as a drinking establishment3.
The nature and atmosphere of alehouses in London would have differed from those in provincial towns as well, London having for much of the seventeenth century, such a high proportion of young males compared with other cities, owing to rural depopulation and a high mortality rate. It should be noted, however, that this did not necessarily hold true for the whole century; in 1640, for example, the parish of St Peter Cornhill contained fifty six percent males and forty four percent females4. In 1695, however, Gregory King attested to a surplus of females in the City, yet for most of the century males were in the surplus, not females.
London’s diverse economy is exemplified nowhere better, therefore, than in by its burgeoning sex industry, involving mainly the impoverished suburbanite males and migrant females from rural areas. In provincial centres, prostitution was common, inevitably so, but not on the scale of London, and did not cater to such a ravenous market. The everyday lives of Londoners in the suburbs would in part, therefore, have been characterized by open prostitution, drunkenness but also by concomitant reactions to vice, such as libelous messages on doorways, or campaigns of vilification5.
The sheer presence of such activity sets London quite apart from provincial towns like York in which religious influence over everyday attitudes was far stronger and the prostitutes still active but were also regularly banished from the city center by official decree. Entertainment for the London elite developed throughout the seventeenth century but especially from the Restoration period onwards, and the city became seen as much a cultural centre as much as a political or economic one.
The theatre industry became almost the exclusive preserve of the wealthy, driven chiefly by profit, the London marriage market bloomed with diversity and with style, and gentlemen’s clubs prospered. Increasingly, London society became a central point in which to accumulate connections and status, and its membership diversified, merchant financiers lending money to aristocrats and the daughters of aristocrats marrying businessmen.
Life for those with access to such society earned enough in wages, or brought it to the metropolis, to fuel a cycle of ‘conspicuous consumption’ which promoted the expansion of the service sector in London and encouraged the importation or production of luxury goods. Compared with London life, most provincial towns could not compete in terms of consumption, the goods were simply not available, and society did not demand them. Admittedly, in some cases, the town evolved to provide recreational, or ‘leisure’ services, as Shrewsbury did in the Restoration period.
In this case, wealthy provincials could enjoy the services of a tobacconist, a gunsmith and even a dance teacher by 17506, but such towns were rare and could offer limited entertainments to the cosmopolitan man of wealth. York, for example offered weekly races and concerts, but could not rival London’s social scene, fashions, theatres and their concomitant allure. The experience of a London socialite would have been far more diverse than that of a provincial contemporary.
Perhaps the most profound difference in the lifestyles of Londoners and provincial town dwellers, however, was in their fundamental outlooks, the manner in which they conceived community and the levels of fear (or security) with which they could encounter their peers. In London, for the majority of the inhabitants, their outlook would have been influenced by the experience of rural urban migration, and the feelings of social alienation unavoidable when undertaking such a move.
Owing to the deficit of births compared to deaths in London during the seventeenth century, and the actual rise in population of around three hundred thousand people, it has been calculated that an influx of about 8,000 people into the capital per year would have been required to achieve such a rise7. No provincial town experienced such immigration, and few in such towns could have experienced the emotionally profound experience of moving away from a rural lifestyle, to the urban frenzy.
For the 750 or so of these 8,000 of landed extraction, this experience might have been very exciting, London offering the attractions of the Royal Court, centralized Bureaucracy, Inns of Court, City financial institutions, and thousands of masters under which to be securely apprenticed. Alongside the recreational, social and intellectual attractions of the metropolis, it seems reasonable to label London a ‘city of opportunity’ where fortunes could be made, and a return to landed society or continued urban luxury could, with great effort, be obtained.
For most, however, the urban environment, conditions of squalor and poor nutrition, lack of relatives close to hand and plain loneliness would have promoted an intense, if potentially transient, sense of confusion. It might be an exaggeration to use the word ‘alienation’ in this context, because London neighbourhoods could exhibit cohesion and fairy accessible networks of personal support. For example, discontented tenants could protest against an unscrupulous landlord, or neighbours might cooperate to defame the character of a putatively ‘wayward’ figure. But kinship links and the harsh environment did contribute to a sense of confusion through dislocation.
In provincial towns, the poor could at least have seen green fields, and have had access to the countryside which in London was all but impossible, and this is not a trivial distinction. Many could not adjust and lapsed into vagrancy or crime, for which London acquired a national reputation9, and the official policy towards vagrancy also set London apart from provincial centres, with the institution of ‘hospitals’ for vagrants, where they could be hidden from public view10.
Although there were towns that received migrants from the countryside, the experience of those who settled into London life differed markedly from any others. Theirs was generally an altogether shorter, more vibrant, lonelier, less secure and more confusing existence. For seventeenth century urbanites, wherever in the country they dwelt, disease, and in particular plague, was a fact of everyday life. This was, however, more deeply felt in the London suburbs where disease was more prevalent and mortality rates far higher than in provincial towns or the wealthier areas of the capital.
Hence, in five epidemics between 1563 and 1665, on each occasion in excess of one fifth of London’s population perished, and on a day to day level, diseases like Influenza, Cholera and Typhoid were constant companions, particularly to the impoverished. That is not to say that plague was a phenomenon unique to London, for almost all towns were badly affected, more so than rural areas, as in Leicester in 1615 and York in 1604 where about one third of the population died.
However, the scale of London epidemics dwarfed those in provincial towns, both killing more people overall and having a more acute influence on the institution of marriage, owing to the general disparity between males and females throughout the century, and as a corollary the level of fertility of the London population. Hence, marriage was far rarer in London during the seventeenth century than elsewhere, and girls married younger, probably because the demand for a spouse was so high amongst the male population11.
Outside marriage, birth remained low for social and religious reasons and hence the fertility rate in London remained comparatively low. For the wealthy in London, the presence of death would have been palpable, and the rich were not immune to epidemics, but the differences between their experiences of pestilence and those of wealthy provincials would not have been as great as that of poor Londoners and poor provincials, the sheer concentration of misery which London could become guaranteed that such was the case.
It should be added as a qualifier that after 1665, however, as plague epidemics abated in all urban areas, this particular aspect of urban life would have become noticeably less important in day to day life. Politically, London society differed hugely from that of provincial towns, which, in their regional capacity fulfilled the function of administering the local rural areas and, owing to their size, could deal more directly and easily between town government and local people.
In London, the disparate, anarchic geography of the city, and the transient nature of the population meant that links between government and individuals were weak – at a metropolitan level at least. The wealthier City parishes, which were typically central, were administered strongly, in comparison with the sprawling suburbs, over which official power was diffuse and difficult to focus. Hence is explained the looseness with which many masters applied apprenticeship in outer London, and the elements of free market competition which developed, slowly at first, but faster in Restoration times.
As a city with such a large migrant population too, ‘Civic consciousness’, by which is meant a common reverence for both administrative institutions and the symbols of unity such as grandiose public buildings, was weaker in London than in say, Gloucester, in which town a sense of community was continually renewed through the reading of the Parish Bede Roll from the pulpit12. Such rituals of community, which included secular events like markets and fairs, and brought town and country together, did not really exist in London.
The sense of an individual belonging to a city, alongside a nation, as we might experience modern day London, was not present whereas a form of this spirit was typical of most provincial centres. Similarly, the size of London and the anarchy inherent in its development meant that the spread of official propaganda or doctrine was harder than in provincial towns, where the people were closer to government.
Hence, the influence of Puritanism would have had less bearing on the life of the average Londoner (depending on their piety of course), than someone in Gloucester where Puritans dominated local government in the early seventeenth century. For the politically conscious wealthy too, the scale and political constitution of London meant that, compared to provincial towns, they had less influence over civic affairs, although when in office their potential power was far greater.
It meant also that social mobility depended more upon wealth and success than on birth in the metropolis (excepting the highest ranks of peerage and royal court) and that failures could fall farther than their provincial counterparts. Landed magnates could dominate Leicester society at times but none could truly dominate London, save perhaps the Monarch. In everyday life, this contributed to the prevalence of petty crime, as well as organized crime (like swindlers) in outer London, and to changes in the economic structure of suburban life in particular.
Although livery companies remained influential, especially amongst artisans and masters, and the status, benefits and support they provided to artisans was very visible in London life, the power of the guilds was weaker than in provincial centres and, importantly, apprenticeship became in many places loosely enforced. Thus, along with a widespread confusion which was the consequence of migration, should be considered the economy of London which offered social mobility and insecurity, poor relief through parish and livery, but an abyss of desperate poverty.
Inherent in the lives of Londoners was this dichotomy of choice, or fate, in which men could rise to great power and wealth or fall, from any height, to any depth. This was rarely the case with provincial towns that were structured along broadly traditional lines. It should not be assumed however, that the term ‘provincial towns’ is adequate in a comparison of London lifestyles with those of other Englishmen, for within that group of cities which could be described as regional capitals, variations in custom, economic emphasis and general lifestyle existed.
Although the difference between, for example Newcastle Upon Tyne and Exeter was far less than between London and Exeter, it is important to remember that the two towns performed different roles, over different regions and in different ways. The case of Shrewsbury as a leisure town, Exeter as a cloth market, Chester as a port (as long as it possessed a harbour) and Newcastle as an administrative and trading centre for north England and south Scotland are good examples.
In as much as the nature of different commodities determines the way in which people work, trade and interact, residents of these towns would have lived noticeably different lives and of course, within these towns, the mixture of poor, rich, vagrant or middling people would have varied as well. However, the size and specialization of such provincial towns means that although they differed significantly, they would have differed to a greater degree with London, as would the lives of their residents.
By 1700, London was both the wealthiest and the most impoverished city in the nation, with a vivid spectrum of experiences, so we should remember that the term ‘Londoners’ is similarly disingenuous. However, diversity of population in terms of occupation, marital custom, recreational habits, social origin and probably most importantly, wealth, such as was experienced by those resident in seventeenth century London and which became accentuated as the century climaxed, would have set them apart from their provincial cousins.