I Will Arise”: Charles Dickens and the City

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. . . . Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth.”

This was London in the early 19th century, the city that writer, journalist and reformer Charles Dickens knew, the decaying metropolis in which he had lived as a child. Dickens’s London—decrepit, congested, and in large part dangerous to live in—was a powerful presence in much of his writing.

We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.” 

Philip “Pip” Pirrip, in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

For many 19th-century observers, London’s problems were endemic to the concept of city; the features that defined it as a city were the very things that produced and harbored crime, disease and moral corruption. The teeming population encouraged both prostitution and disease, and the dark, labyrinthine streets were perfect for criminals who would hide from the public eye. In Dickens’s London, sanitation, education and sewage systems were oversubscribed and outdated, and the city retained the same crumbling, partly mended feel that had existed since 1666—the year of the Great Fire.

Clearly London has changed since Dickens immortalized his view of it. On the face of it, the city today—like many Western metropolises—is strikingly different. Yet certain characteristics remain familiar. Many still see cities in general as progenitors of social ill, while traffic congestion and pollution of various kinds are as much a complaint today as ever. Thus criticisms of the city Dickens knew, despite numerous reforming initiatives, remain relevant.

The writer’s enduring popularity is a reflection of his prowess with plot and social commentary. Could his depictions of London reveal anything about today’s urban spaces and their future? Are we well on our way to resolving the issues Dickens wrote about so eloquently? Alternatively, is the very concept of people gathering into cities wrong-headed and in need of a rethink?

Crime, Filth and Misery

The problems that made 19th-century London such a dark, squalid space were many. Dickens described one part of town in particularly desolate terms: Its “ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery” (A Christmas Carol).

The city’s sewage system was perhaps the most shocking aspect: in many homes waste was dropped through a hole from the privy to a cesspool beneath. According to England’s 1829 Annual Register, it was into one of these that a Mrs. Wennels of Woolwich “was precipitated, with her infant in her arms.” According to the account, the decayed flooring of the privy had given way, and both were drowned.

Crime was rife, and people walked around with no trust in the notorious beadles, who were hired to police the streets but were more often found drunk and asleep. It is said that the loneliest people are found in the most crowded places, and London was no different. Dickens wrote that “there is a very numerous class of people in this great metropolis who seem not to possess a single friend, and whom nobody appears to care for.” The city was corrupt and warped, and those who lived there were forced into similarly crooked shapes.

Britain and its empire were nearing their zenith at the time. Many Britons lamented the tawdry state of their capital city, whose expanding suburbs and growing population had made Greater London the most populous city in the world. According to historian Jerry White, “there were, for nineteenth-century Londoners, almost no saving graces in old London.” Many called for change. Dickens was a significant part and promoter of this and far from a lone voice.

Amid a welter of private and government-sponsored initiatives, London began to be reshaped. The city’s famed public transport systems—tube and train—were created in the middle of the century, as were many of the city’s vast series of public gardens and squares. The grand projects of architect John Nash (who designed Regents’ Park and remodeled Buckingham House to create Buckingham Palace) and civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette (the creator of London’s revolutionary sewer network) were among those commissioned in Dickens’s time, cutting great swaths through the debris that was old London. Victorians often included the poor among the refuse, pushing them from their homes to the increasingly congested margins of the city in favor of wider and cleaner thoroughfares.

Moneyed Victorians made similar efforts to reform the city morally. There were new schools and police services, and ongoing modifications to labor and criminal justice laws. Dickens was involved with Angela Burdett Coutts in setting up Urania Cottage, a reform home for prostitutes. After the young women were trained and educated in the ways of ladyship, they were prepared for relocation to Australia or other colonies. (Many of them inevitably did not want to move, however, and in the absence of any alternative returned to their previous occupation.)

Much of what we know as modern London was formed in Dickens’s day. It was a great era of change, with one of the most striking improvements being a significant reduction in illiteracy. In addition, the city was healthier and better governed. What had been uninhabitable at the beginning of the century became, by 1900, brighter, greener, grander, airier and more mobile.

The Ghost of Cities Past

Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of London, observes that if the metropolis were “a living thing,” then today we would call it optimistic and confident and say that “once more it has become a youthful city.” He adds, “That is its destiny. Resurgam: ‘I will arise.’ It was the word found upon a piece of stray and broken stone just when [Christopher] Wren began his work upon St Paul’s Cathedral; he placed it at the centre of his design.”

Tearing down the old and making way for the new is certainly part of the character of today’s cities. This regeneration continues in London today and in urban spaces across the world. Optimists point to improvements and argue that the renewal follows a broadly maturing trend. Perhaps such a desire for perfection has one eye on the “model” cities of a Golden Age, embodied in the Atlantis of legend, or in historic Alexandria, Athens or Rome.

But is this desire to renew the old really a sign of what Ackroyd calls the “destiny” of the city? Further, has reforming zeal against various social ills in our urban environments traced an inexorably upward path?

The problem of the Housing of the Working Classes in London lives on through the centuries. It occupied the attention of our grandfathers, and it is exceedingly probable that it will be a burning question when our grandsons have attained a green old age.” 

George R. Sims, Living London (1902) 

Perhaps what we can say is that the development and containment of urban social ills is now more nuanced. On the one hand, we can still observe varying levels of poverty, greed, overcrowding, crime and the private seclusion of mass living in our modern cities. On the other, in terms of combating disease and poor sanitation, standards have improved markedly: no one in modern London is in danger of falling through the privy floor into a cesspit.

While the most appalling pockets of poverty have disappeared since the time of Dickens, author and journalist Anna Minton suggests that relative deprivation in government-subsidized housing is nonetheless on the increase today. One issue with such communities is that they have been designed with security in mind, a model that paradoxically serves to inflate the fear of crime. Of course, the media play their part in magnifying fear by bringing what localized crime there is to our individual and collective attention, but it seems that controlled environments are also playing a central role in a way not seen in Dickensian London. In Minton’s words, “stark divisions in cities, stamped on to the psyche of places by security-conscious architecture, are a key factor behind rising fear of crime.”

But what is driving such an environment? Minton raises the subject of closed-circuit television, which is seemingly everywhere in today’s fear-filled cities: “When we think of CCTV, we probably think we’re being watched by the government, or the police. In fact, CCTV is often monitored by private companies.” Large areas of British cities, like many cities across the world, are owned by multinational property corporations whose primary motive is to turn a profit. The security cameras are there to help prevent crime, which undeniably cuts into profits.

Fear of crime is not linked to actual crime—fear of crime comes with distrust of strangers. . . . Are the decisions we’re making about how to design our cities making us less happy and more fearful as a result?”

Anna Minton, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City (2009)  

In addition to making the urban populace constantly aware of the threat of crime, developers effectively marginalize those who are less able to contribute to their goal. Minton argues that business improvement districts in Britain are about “creating places which are for certain types of people and certain activities and not others.” The emphasis is on encouraging shoppers and discouraging a far wider group of people than just “the usual suspects of beggars and the homeless.” The resulting social and economic divide is reminiscent of the Victorian practice of evicting the poor from planned redevelopment sites without providing for their relocation, leaving them no option but to move into the unhealthy and increasingly congested pockets of old London.

Joseph Rykwert, a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that the diversity, fragmentation and strife found in our modern cities means that the city “must therefore have many faces, not one.” It’s a way of saying that any attempt at unity must address and build on inevitable diversity. But he makes another, perhaps more poignant observation: “The global village of the futurologist’s imaginings is, note it well, a village, not a town or city.”

The City: Its Origins and Its Future

Anthropologist John Reader of University College London has argued that “the advent of the city as a centre of human activity” many millennia ago simply “freed ever-increasing numbers of people from the burden of finding food and shelter for themselves, directly from the land.”

But is the history of urbanization so straightforward? The book of Genesis records that when Cain murdered his brother Abel, he was sent into exile to be a wanderer, having refused to take personal responsibility to “rule over” sin (Genesis 4:7). Cain had been “a tiller of the ground” (verse 2), but following his murderous act, God decreed that the ground would “no longer yield its strength” to him, and he was to be “a fugitive and a vagabond” (verse 12). Genesis relates that Cain then “went out from the presence of the Lord” and built a city (verses 16–17). The indication is that he was motivated by the same attitude as the one that led to construction of Babylon several generations later: “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:4). The emphasis was on self-governance and defiance of God. These early developers sought the advantages of banding together for security against outsiders, without their Creator.

A century or more of regeneration notwithstanding, Dickens’s sense of the city as a place where social ills are somehow concentrated and magnified is as true today as it was when he wrote. It might therefore be tempting to point to the city as essentially flawed in its very concept, but this would be both unsound and reductive. The Bible does cite a number of examples of corruption in urban spaces (e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah) and of their destruction; but the prophet Ezekiel foretold a time when “the waste and desolate and ruined cities” will once again be inhabited with “flocks of people” (Ezekiel 36:33–38). This suggests that cities of themselves are not the problem but rather the conduct of people within them.

The Bible even promises a future “New Jerusalem,” a “Great City” coming down out of heaven to the earth. This city will be full of the ways and laws of God, and those within it are described as being in total accord with that way of life and richly enjoying its benefits: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

The fact is that very little real progress can be achieved in turning our cities around without a fundamental alteration in human behavior. What needs changing is not so much the concept of the city but the hearts of those who dwell within its gates.

As already noted from the biblical example of Cain and Babylon and from Minton’s observations concerning modern development in London and other cities, one of the behaviors that tends to manifest itself in large cities is self-protection, securing the self against outside threats. This can lead to a self-absorbed independence (from both God and fellow man) and often results in the loss of any real sense of community—of neighbors looking out for one another and working together for the common good.

It is thus worth recalling Rykwert’s observation about size—that the global village should indeed be viewed as a village or a small town, a community of concerned and caring individuals. This is in keeping with the biblical instruction to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Galatians 5:14). While that simple-sounding directive is difficult to put into full practice in the best of circumstances, in large, impersonal cities it presents an even greater challenge.

This human tendency to insulate the self against the needs or even the existence of others, to put one’s own needs or desires ahead of other people’s, is at the heart of most urban troubles. What we see in Ackroyd’s resurgam, the cycle of regeneration, is that many of the city’s problems simply reappear in slightly different form over time.

The good news is that a way has been prepared in advance to heal, once and for all, the breach between humanity and God—a breach dating all the way back to the time of Adam and Eve and their son Cain (1 Peter 1:20). It is only by the institution of that Way on a universal scale that the cyclical trap of resurgam, of the wrong-headed intent behind the old city model, will cease forever.