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London, 1745
King George II
Public DomainKing George II - Credit: Thomas Worlidge

Tom Jones was published in 1749, and set during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.  King George II was on the throne, the Whigs were in Parliament, and England was engaged in several foreign wars.  The industrial revolution had yet to begin.  Poverty in the countryside was driving people to the cities.  The Church of England was being challenged by an Evangelical revival and the new Methodist religion, which reached across class barriers and promoted social justice.  Philanthropists and writers were increasingly concerned with social problems, and agitated for the founding of hospitals and orphanages, the abolition of slavery and prison reform.

A Rake's Progress, Plate 3
Public DomainA Rake's Progress, Plate 3 - Credit: William Hogarth

London was a place of fashionable coffee houses and theatres, gaming houses, and gin shops which allowed the poor momentarily to forget their troubles.  For much of the city’s population, life was characterized by poverty, gambling, prostitution and heavy drinking. 

The gentry were moving into luxurious new town houses in areas such as Grosvenor Square and Hanover Square. They attended masquerade balls, went to the theatre, read newspapers and engaged in clever conversation.  But the line between wealth and poverty was often precarious, and many gentlemen and women languished in debtors’ prisons as a result of gambling habits or changing fortunes.

The poor lived in ramshackle tenements and shacks along dark and dirty alleys.  The city’s buildings were relatively new; much of London had been rebuilt after the fire of 1666. But housing for the poor was hastily erected and of bad quality.  Collapsing houses were fairly common, often killing occupants and passers-by.  In 1738 Dr. Johnson described London as a city "where falling houses thunder on your head."  Tenements jostled with slaughterhouses and tanneries.  The worst slums were concentrated around Covent Garden, St Giles, Holborn and the older parts of Westminster in the west. To the East, they spread through Blackfriars and beyond the Tower, to Limehouse Reach, Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliffe Highway, Southwark, Stepney and Whitechapel.

Gin Lane
Public DomainGin Lane - Credit: William Hogarth 1751

Drowning one’s sorrows was a popular pastime.  In 1751, more than 11 million gallons of gin were consumed in the city (the population had yet to reach one million).  In the same year, more than 9,000 children died of alcohol poisoning. 

Prostitution was ubiquitous. Dan Cruickshank, in The Secret History of Georgian London, suggests that one in five of London’s female population was engaged in prostitution.  The Strand was lined with brothels, alongside gentlemen’s coffee shops.  Country girls arriving in the city were quickly snapped up by procuresses, as illustrated by the fate of Fanny Hill in John Cleland’s 1748 novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and Moll Hackabout in Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress engravings.  A visitor at the time noted, 'no place in the world can be compared with London for wantonness.'  Venereal disease was rife; syphilis and gonorrhea observed no class distinctions.

A Harlot's Progress
Public DomainA Harlot's Progress", Plate 1, Moll arrives in London fresh from the country - Credit: William Hogarth

Newgate Prison and Bridewell swallowed up those poor who fell foul of the authorities.  Every six weeks, wooden carts would roll along what is now Oxford Street, taking the condemned to the communal gallows at Tyburn (opposite present-day Speakers' Corner).  “Poor’s Holes” were scattered around St. Martin’s, St. James’s and St. Giles: large open pits filled with the corpses of those whose families could not afford burial.