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The churches in between

23 November 2012

Robert Jeffery enjoys a study of old London


Man of the hour: Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary, leaving 10 Downing Street in 1918. From Professor Ian Beckett's new book The Making of the First World War (Yale, £18.99 (£17.10); 978-0-300-16202-8)

Man of the hour: Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary, leaving 10 Downing Street in 1918. From Professor Ian Beckett's new book The Making of the First...

London: A social and cultural history 1550-1750
R. O. Bucholz and J. P. Ward
Cambridge University Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT517 )

THIS book asks the question: "What makes London London?" and provides a detailed and convincing answer. It was the period of 1550 to 1750 that turned London from a mixed city into one of the great capitals, influencing much of the world's history and economy.

The book begins by taking the reader on a tour of London as it was in 1550, and ends with an account of what it was like 200 years later. I am someone who knows London well, and has walked its streets for 70 years, but I am not sure that a reader who had never been to London would be able to follow it.

In the intervening chapters, the authors, who are historians from the United States, examine various aspects of the life of the city. So we read about its social life, the royal and civic parts that it has played, the place of the arts, popular culture, the underclasses, the place of riots and rebellion, and the effects of plague and fire.

The book contains a set of prints and maps, some of which are quite unfamiliar, and the authors draw on many writers and artists who reflect on London, such as Ben Jonson, Samuel Pepys, William Hogarth, and Samuel Johnson. Many things are explained that may have baffled people, such as the fact that Mayfair was the place where the May Fair took place, and a description of the siting of the royal palaces.

Readers might ask: where is the Church in all of this? This is an interesting question, because, while it is seen in most chapters, it is never a dominant theme, but appears alongside the markets, parks, coffee houses, and places of government. This is salutary, because it makes us realise that religion is just one aspect of social and human experience, and that is probably how it should be.

The book is finely produced and reasonably priced, but, occasionally, the authors' American origins lead them into errors. In the 1550 tour of London, they refer to Southwark Cathedral, whereas that church did not become a cathedral until the 20th century. Similarly, strangely for these publishers, American spelling is used throughout the book.

Nevertheless, it is a good read, and makes me want to wander the streets of London even more.

The Very Revd Robert Jeffery is Dean Emeritus of Worcester Cathedral.

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