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Cities through ancient documents

Front page of L'Univers de Jules Janin - reproduction © Norbert Pousseur

London between 1827 and 1840


London and the Thames - engraving reproduced and digitally restored by © Norbert Pousseur
London from the Thames, unsigned engraving circa 1840

See also in these pages:
London and Westminster Abbey
London and the Thames
London and the Bank of England



Text and engraving from the book
"L'Univers collection des vues les plus pittoresques du globe" by Jules Janin - edition ~1840

So far the appearance of the roads and rivers is what has struck me as most surprising in England: it is there that one must admire the genius of a travelling nation. There are cities which are daily traversed by two hundred public carriages going to and from Rome; the rivers, the gulfs, the mouths of the rivers, the inlets are covered with vessels of all sizes, which, impelled by a magic power, advance towards their goal without sails or oars, bringing to the ways of the sea the tributes of the whole earth. The inconstancy of the winds can no longer stop the march of these astonishing machines. Vessels, subject to another empire than that of their former element, cross the seas like couriers, and the clouds of steam which they leave behind them as they cut through the waves have changed even the appearance of the Ocean. I have already been told of steam carriages which I shall see from the road to Scotland. This mechanical genius, which presides over human society here, has something frightening about it; it supplements life, but it does not give it.

The English stagecoaches, which are called stages, are one of the principal ornaments of the roads of this country; copied in small size they would form charming children's toys. They are seen to run away as on garden paths carried with the speed of the wind by four superb and elegantly embellished horses. They are loaded with women whose toilette, though not in good taste, is almost always neat, and with men whose cold but polite manners are, in general, less vulgar than those of our French bourgeois; This society, which might be thought to be select, so decent is its tone, is grouped in a strange manner around the carriage which carries it, and to which it gives the form of an inverted pyramid, for the quantity of people with whom the imperial is overloaded makes the carriages appear much wider from above than from below.

London seems to me to be more unpleasant than any of the other great cities of Europe; the uniformity of the towns and houses produces only a sad effect. Without variety there is no harmony, since harmony is only the result of the agreement of diverse parts joined together to form a whole. One would look in vain for great architectural effects here: everything is alike in London, and yet it cannot be said that this city is built regularly; for regularity would presuppose art, and there is none in the regular uniformity of those little brown huts which line all the streets of this immense city. They may be called houses, but the strange way in which the roofs are placed on the walls, without friezes or cornices, makes them look like unfinished buildings, which are covered with straw or boards to protect them from the winter rains. This singular want of taste gives the whole of London the appearance of a city in the making rather than the aspect of a rich and long-populated capital. Everything here grieves the eye, and the unpleasantness of the climate disposes neither mind nor body to enjoy the advantages which England has acquired only by dint of civilisation. Besieged by columns of thick air, crushed by a leaden sky lined with smoke, I feel all day long as if I were in a damp, dark dungeon, with autumn winds blowing through. Nothing can distract the imagination from the sadness inspired by this climate, and the most intrepid curiosity would not resist the continual discomfort produced by the pitiless monotony that presides over the arrangement of life in the temple of boredom.


The Thames and St Paul's in London - reproduction © Norbert Pousseur
London, the Thames and St Paul's, unsigned engraving circa 1830,
taken from the Précis de la Géographique universelle by Malte-Brun

We in France have a very false idea of the way foreigners are treated in London. Except for the aspirants to the role of dandy, everyone here seems to me to have a stubborn kindness which covers up the almost habitual bad temper of women and the pride of men. I agree that there is a certain lack of kindness, but there is no lack of helpfulness. I experienced this benevolent disposition on leaving Lady ***'s house. I returned home alone and on foot, and wandered through the beautiful district of London where the streets are so wide, so monotonous and so deserted as soon as the night is a little advanced. Lost in the midst of this immense labyrinth, I stopped sadly at the entrance to these sorts of galleries lined with pavements, where two rows of houses extended to a distance that was discouraging for the poor pedestrian; I did not know which way to turn when I saw a well-dressed man following the pavement opposite to the one I was walking on. I went to him and asked him to show me the way to my street. He said he could not show me the way, but that he would lead me, and on the way he asked me if he had not just met me at Lady ***'s. I replied that I had just come from her house, and I laughed, thinking that I must have been recognised by my strange face. Then my guide redoubled his efforts to accompany me to my door, which was at least half a league from the place where we had met, and, as I learnt, still a long way from the neighbourhood of my obliging driver. We parted without asking each other our names. I know few Frenchmen who would have taken this trouble for a poor foreigner lost at night in the streets of Paris.

A few days ago I went to Gravesend, ten leagues from London, to return by the Thames on a steamer. This excursion is, without doubt, the most curious of all those that one can make in this country. The river is lined for four leagues with buildings which give a high idea of British power. London has founded on the banks of the Thames like a colony destined to supply the world. This mass of buildings, singular in their diversity and immensity, cannot be called either a town or a village; it is a line of innumerable commercial establishments, shops, workshops, ingenious machinery of extraordinary strength; it is a line of warehouses built so close to the water that they can be filled and emptied without transport by the aid of revolving cranes; finally, it is a port two leagues long and so crowded with ships that the Thames, in this place, resembles a flooded land. For the first time, the work of men produced on me an impression analogous to the effect of the great scenes of nature. I shall never forget these islands of ships rising majestically in the midst of the waters, while the banks of the river themselves disappear behind other groups of vessels whose masts extend as far as the eye can see with their points half hidden in the mist, and make the whole river like a deep valley all obstructed by forests and submerged by a lake!
I passed through this labyrinth at sunset, and the aspect of so many ships with their sails, masts, and ropes lit by the tints of a stormy twilight, made me forget the richest country in the world; I thought I was travelling through a wilderness, or dreaming of some theatrical decoration destined to represent a hellish scene. These double, triple rows of buildings frighten the imagination with the idea of a power without measure; the whole world hardly seems sufficient to make such means of transport work. Imagine near the Pont-Neuf, in Paris, the houses of the city becoming floating and extended for two leagues! Whoever entered London by this maritime avenue and returned the next day by one of the stagecoaches of which I have spoken, would think he had read a fairy tale, and would take away a far greater idea of England than that which one forms of it after a few weeks' stay.

( Extract from a trip to London in 1827.)

In the first engraving, the Thames is much less crowded than the text says,
and in the second, notice the sail that reads "Rose in june of London".
Use the zoom function after clicking on one of the thumbnails

To zoom in: London and the Thames - reproduction © Norbert Pousseur  To zoom in: The Thames and St Paul's in London - reproduction © Norbert Pousseur



For more views of the Jules Janin universe, go to his presentation page




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