This map plots the settings and references in A Tale of Two Cities

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London, England
City of London, c.1750
Public DomainCity of London, c.1750 - Credit: Samuel Scott

London in the late 18th century was a robust and rambunctious place with all classes and trades--aristocrats, merchants, workers and poor--rubbing coat-tails in a Hogarthian panorama.  By 1800, it was the greatest metropolis in Europe, with a population of  1.1 million.

The Great Fire of 1666 reduced much of the city to ash, so the next century saw unprecedented building work, making it a rambling amalgamation of the Tudor, Restoration and Georgian building, development and neglect, shopfronts and rooming houses.

The better end of town, the West End, was full of neo-classical dwellings only recently completed, with building sites and builder's rubbish everywhere.  Beyond, the rest was neither new nor pristine...

For London was home to the industries which had made the city rich--global banking and mercantile interests--as well as being the centre of government, home to the Judiciary, and a great port.

Old London's slums had the most notorious reputation:  the 'Mint'--a place of uninhabited ruins, leaning precariously over their foundations.  There was the Almonry too, called 'the Devil's Acre', and St. Giles, called the Rookery or Little Dublin because of its predominately Irish population.  Soho was home to the large population of French emigres who'd fled the Revolution, while St. Katherine's was known for its Indian and Asian population.

The names of the streets evoke most effectively this London:  Dark Entry, Cat's Hole, Pillory Lane--mazes of streets with evil reputations and a gin shop on every corner, into which wayfarers were said to vanish and never emerge.

The roads and streets were clay poured onto grit--with a central gully to serve as an open sewer--turning to sludge-soup in heavy rain.

Visitors were often by struck by the beauty and magnificence of the great monuments such as St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and the "tumult and blaze", the noise and coal smoke and fog--a dull grey blanket hanging perpetually over the city, which could be smelled and tasted on the wind from as far away as 50 miles.

by M.M. Bennetts