First aired: 2012
Broadcaster: BBC Four
Reviewer: Liz Round
This programme offers to explore London through a comparison of two different written accounts of the city, one from 1598 (John Stow’s Survey of London), the other from 1720 (John Strype’s Survey of London), and in this respect, it achieves its aim – exploring London on a thematic basis, striving to chronologically explain the success of London as a trading metropolis in the seventeenth century. Indeed, this is explicitly stated at the beginning as Dan Cruickshank, the presenter, explains the difference in Stow and Strype’s perspective of the Thames. Stow regarded the Thames defensively, but for Strype, it offered trading opportunities – a gateway to the world – that meant by the end of the century, some three-quarters of England’s commerce with the world was conducted through London. The programme explores the growth of that trade; the shipyards and the prostitution that moved from Southwark to the East End; the growth of market gardens and the resulting substantial increase in population; the growth of west London; the impact of the civil war on London and the rise of the coffee house; the great plague, followed by the Great Fire; and the beginnings of immigration and London‘s growth from the labour of skilled migrants. The substantial events of the seventeenth century are covered; merely hinted on in some cases, but always with a London-centric focus.
John Stow, Survey of London (1598)
As a local historian, much of this programme speaks to me. Part of the Leicester approach to local history involves using landscape awareness – visiting places – to better understand the documentary evidence, and Cruickshank was certainly doing that, and taking the viewer along with him. For example, the part where he explains how the steps down to the entrance of the Church of St. Olaves (in Hart Street) were built because the churchyard was swollen with the bodies of over 300 plague victims from 1665. This is driven home when he sits on the bottom step – the top step is almost of a height with his head, demonstrating more than any documentary source could have said, the horror of the plague for Londoners. Another part of the Leicester approach – reference to maps and topography – is used too with the frequent references to maps of London, showing how the city grew over the 122 years separating the two surveys. This helps those who are not so familiar with London to orientate themselves as well as contextualising the larger city from the location being discussed at the time.
Cruickshank doesn’t just restrict the programme to the surveys of Strype and Stow, however. Watching this programme as a historian, it seems in many respects, to give a little bit of an insight into the work of a historian: not in the sense of wandering the streets and looking meaningfully into cameras (which almost all television historian presenters seem to do) but in the sense of working with documentary sources, and sometimes, bringing newly discovered sources to wider historical awareness. This is alluded to when Cruickshank discusses the discovery and importance of Roger Morrice’s Entring book, and refers to Morrice as ‘the first investigative journalist’, who was working for a small group of opposition politicians, gathering gossip and information for them. His manuscript had gone unnoticed until 1999, partly because it had been regarded as a religious specialist work and partly because parts of it were written in a shorthand code. Cruickshank’s discussion with Professor Mark Goldie, where he explains the importance of the source for social and cultural London, and the difficulties of deciphering and transcribing the text, will echo with any historian that has spent time transcribing manuscripts of any date.
One part of a historian’s craft that was not shown was that of questioning the sources. Indeed, that did not seem to happen at all, nor were the motives of either Stow or Strype for writing this survey discussed, other than a brief reference to Strype’s work being an extension, a revision of Stow’s. Both Stow and Stripe omitted information from their Surveys: there is no mention of the theatre or Shakespeare in Stow, for example. In addition, what was not mentioned by Cruickshank, at all, was that after the 1598 edition of Stow, it was expanded five times in the first half of the seventeenth century, with extensions being written by Stow’s friend Anthony Munday in 1618 and 1633. Indeed, when Strype came to revise the work in 1720, he was unable to tell the difference between Stow and Munday and had to include a conflated version of Stow/Munday in his own text, adding his own, clearly identified words to that original text. Although much of the fine detail of this need not have been included in the programme, it could have added to the background of the two sources if it had at least been mentioned – something as simple as the fact that it had been reprinted, revised (by others), and extended in the 122 years between the two, would have sufficed.
John Strype, Survey of London (1720)
That said, the overriding impression that I come away with, is that there was almost too much information for one programme. Perhaps the production company, or the BBC, was not confident of the success of this kind of programme – very much bottom-up history, devoid of the elements that normally ensure the success of a history programme (such as monarchy of some kind). Had the programme been extended, split into two or even three parts, then it would have allowed for greater discussion of the background of the two men, the sources themselves, and more background to the general history of the period. In the programme, certain references felt rushed, thrown away – at one point it seemed to suggest that Cruickshank was about to explore the fortifications of the city in the civil war, for example, but instead, it turned out to be a segue into the increase of pamphlets and mass media. This feels a bit like a missed opportunity to explore more of ordinary seventeenth-century London, away from the power at Westminster, and as such, rather a shame.
Liz Round is an AHRC M3C-funded History PhD student in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. Her research explores clergy-lay relationships in seventeenth-century Herefordshire. For more information, click here.