Holiday Reading (3) Building Jerusalem

Holiday Reading (3) Building Jerusalem


Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City
by Tristram Hunt
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £25, pp472

There is a great deal to admire about Building Jerusalem – its scope, its clarity and the enthusiasm with which it celebrates its subject.

He has devoted much of his preface to an assault on the way in which civic history is now written.  Victoria’s reign was not ‘above all the age which confirmed the historic truth that vibrant civic life has always been fundamental to an intellectually adventurous society’. 

But Hunt helps to excite the reader about the way in which Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield developed in the spirit of the time. The watchword was ‘progress’.

The Victorian reformers made progress from what modern statisticians would call ‘a low baseline’. Hunt, using fiction as well as fact to illustrate his narrative, quotes Oliver Twist’s description of the London of the early 19th century: ‘A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen… covered ways and yards… disclosed little knots of houses where drunken men and women positively wallowed in filth.’

The originality of Building Jerusalem lies in its prescription. Hunt is not a latterday Cobbett sighing for England’s Arcadian past. He believes that redemption lay in better cities. Robert Southey’s regret at the passing of pre-industrial innocence is explicitly disowned with a quotation from Victorian England’s greatest historian. ‘We might, with some plausibility, maintain that people live longer because they are better fed, better lodged, better clothed and better attended in sickness.’ To a certain extent, Lord Macaulay. The cities were also riddled with disease, crime and poverty.

The most inspiring chapters of Building Jerusalem describe the great campaigns for social reform. That, of course, makes Joe Chamberlain the story’s hero. George Dawson, a Baptist minister, is exalted as prophet of the ‘civic gospel’. But it was Chamberlain who put the principles into practice. To him, ‘a city meant something besides the policeman and the scavenger. It had a larger and higher function than to maintain public order and to provide for the public health’.

Hunt might have argued that even the universal acceptance of those limited aspirations would have been progress in itself. But he demands more. The Victorian city is, or should be, ‘the modern incarnation, with all its theological connotations, of the institutions which had traditionally bound civic society together’.

It is Hunt’s romantic conviction that the great edifices of Victorian municipal enterprise – Leeds town hall, St George’s hall in Liverpool and the town hall in Manchester – embodied and stimulated the spirit of adventure – commercial, artistic and intellectual – which he so admires. Perhaps. But there is a less metaphysical but no less important explanation of those magnificent buildings’ historic significance. They represented the imperial confidence which made the progress possible.

Hunt’s occasional flights of fancy should not be allowed to obscure his generally objective scholarship. Admiration for Chamberlain does not prevent him from putting radical Joe’s achievements into the context which most historians ignore. Manchester built a gas works in 1817, 50 years before Chamberlain followed suit in Birmingham; by 1870, ‘there were some 40 municipal gas undertakings’. In 1866, Glasgow, inspired by Haussmann’s plan for Paris, planned to rebuild the town centre.

Chamberlain’s hopes of ‘open boulevards’ in Birmingham came after a warning that continued civic neglect would encourage socialism. Chamberlain, Hunt argues, gave a ‘philosophical voice to the growing momentum towards municipalisation’. Hunt believes that local government inherited virtues from the cities which transcended its practical achievements.

And he hopes that the spirit of progress which Victorian cities embodied can be revived, together with improved civic architecture. I admire, but do not wholly share, his optimism. Municipal expenditure is too much under the influence of what 19th-century Victorian Birmingham called ‘men of the unprogressive tradesmen class’. The real message of this book is that, without vision, the cities perish.


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