The Twilight City

Historical Eye

MA work

While I hope others enjoy this work, perhaps they can also spare a thought about today's society when reading it. Sadly many of the problems described are still with us.

Welcome to the Twilight City


My decision to study London in the late 19th century was an easy one; I like to see the threads between then and now, and many of today’s urban foundations across the globe were first embedded in London circa 1880-1905. It was world city at the heart of a trading nexus that was almost second to none. Only precocious New York City seemed to threaten its pre-eminence in this era. London was also a city in flux, being built and rebuilt upon, as new and fabulous technologies were introduced seemingly every day. This included telephones, records, domestic gas supply, running water, automobiles and moving pictures. Artistically, the boundaries were pushed further than ever before, changing the parameters of what art could conceivably be. The same is true with language. As literacy levels rose, the late Victorians and early Edwardians adapted English away from verbosity towards an increasingly clear and uncluttered text.


The late Victorians and early Edwardians were a people in a rush to reach the future, a pattern we now see in parts of the world that seize today’s zeitgeist, such as Shanghai or Mumbai. Just like these modern megacities, London in this era suffered horrific pollution, overcrowding and grinding poverty. Indeed, the army of underemployed and underpaid workers could expect lives filled with ill health, poverty and the threat of early death. But to dwell solely upon London’s poverty does the city and its people something of a disservice because the city was also a place of pleasure, entertainment and pageantry that all of its inhabitants could enjoy to varying degrees. The burgeoning middle classes was rich and getting richer, while the wealthiest in society achieved earnings that, in real terms, probably still surpass the fortunes of our 21st Century oligarchs. London was also a melting pot, with migrants settling and adding their own expectations, manners and mores into society's mix. Too often we forget that the metropolis was also an imperial city, the lodestar of an immense empire that straddled the globe.


Initially, I had thought of making a comparison between the twin dichotomies of what I rather unoriginally labelled London’s Bright Light City and London’s Twilight City, the zones of pleasure and leisure juxtaposed with the zones of work and poverty. However, I quickly realised that the scale and scope was simply too great. It would have demanded an analytical intensity impossible to deliver within the timeframe of my studies or within the tight word count demanded. With that in mind, I decided to centre my attention on the Twilight City and specifically those deemed to have fallen through the cracks: the vagrants and prostitutes, the ‘People of the Abyss’, as Jack London labelled them. The primary sources I assessed were overwhelmingly written by those looking from the outside in and I soon discovered that little by way of documentation survives from those who were being analysed and recorded. But if I dug deep enough, would I be able to find some of their voices and, if so, what would they tell me? Secondly, would they overturn or confirm the immense historiography that surrounds the period? It was with these thoughts in mind that I started my dissertation.


Going underground (click here to continue)


Creed of the Assassins


New York Saloons 1845-1895


Cathedrals of consumption


TheTwilight City


William Morris and the Thames


Top of the docks


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