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   Chapter 29 PART I. No.29

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 5561

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Wealth of London.

If a new world was opened to the adventurous in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, this new world two hundred years later was only half explored and was constantly yielding up new treasures. The lion's share of these treasures came to Great Britain and was landed at the Port of London. The wealth and luxury of the merchants in the eighteenth century surpassed anything ever recorded or ever imagined. So great was their prosperity that historians and essayists predicted the speedy downfall of the City: the very greatness of their success frightened those who looked on and remembered the past.


(From an engraving by Kip.)

Though the appearance of the City had changed, and its colour and picturesqueness were gone, at no time was London more powerful or more magnificent. There were no nobles living within the walls: only two or three of the riverside palaces remained along the Strand: there were no troops of retainers riding along the streets in the bright liveries of their masters: the picturesque gables, the latticed windows, the overhanging fronts-all these were gone: instead of the old churches rich with ancient carvings, frescoes in crimson and blue, marble monuments and painted glass, were the square halls-preaching halls-of Wren with their round windows, rich only in carved woodwork: the houses were square with sash windows: the shop fronts were glazed: the streets were filled with grave and sober merchants in great wigs and white ruffles. They lived in stately and commodious houses, many of which still survive-see the Square at the back of Austin Friars Church for a very fine example-they had their country houses: they drove in chariots: and they did a splendid business. Their ships went all over the world: they traded with India, not yet part of the Empire: with China, and the Far East: with the West Indies, with the Levant. They had Companies for carrying on trade in every part of the globe. The South Sea Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, the Turkey Company, the African Company, the Russian Company, the East India Company-are some. The ships lay moored below the Bridge in rows that reached a mile down the river.


(Built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1670; taken down in 1878 and since rebuilt at Waltham Cross.)

All this prosperity grew in spite of the wars which we carried on during the whole of the last century. These wars, though they covered the Channel and the Bay of Biscay with privateers, had little effect to stay the increase of London trade. And as the merchants lived within the City, in sight of each other, their wealth was observed and known by all. At the present day, when London from nightfall till morning is a

dead city, no one knows the wealth of the merchants and it is only by considering the extent of the suburbs that one can understand the enormous wealth possessed by those men who come up by train every day and without ostentation walk among their clerks to their offices in the City. A hundred and fifty years ago, one saw the rich men: sat in church with them: sat at dinner with them on Company feast days: knew them. The visible presence of so much wealth helped to make London great and proud. It would be interesting, if it were possible, to discover how many families now noble or gentle-county families-derive their origin or their wealth from the City merchants of the last century.

In one thing there is a great change. Till the middle of the seventeenth century it was customary for the rank of trade to be recruited-in London, at least-from the younger sons. This fashion was now changed. The continual wars gave the younger sons another career: they entered the army and the navy. Hence arose the contempt for trade which existed in the country for about a hundred and fifty years. It is now fast dying out, but it is not yet dead. Younger sons are now going into the City again.


The old exclusiveness was kept up jealously. No one must trade in the City who was not free of the City. But the freedom of the City was easily obtained. The craftsman and the clerk remained in their own places: they were taught to know their places: they were taught, which was a very fine thing, to think much of their own places and to take pride in the station to which they were called: to respect those in higher station and to receive respect from those lower than themselves. Though merchants had not, and have not, any rank assigned to them by the Court officials, there was as much difference of rank and place in the City as without. And in no time was there greater personal dignity than in this age when rank and station were so much regarded. But between the nobility and the City there was little intercourse and no sympathy. The manners, the morals, the dignity of the City ill assorted with those of the aristocracy at a time when drinking and gambling were ruining the old families and destroying the noblest names. There has always belonged to the London merchant a great respect for personal character and conduct. We are accustomed to regard this as a survival of Puritanism. This is not so: it existed before the arrival of Puritanism: it arose in the time when the men in the wards knew each other and when the master of many servants set the example, because his life was visible to all, of order, honour, and self-respect.


(From an engraving by John Dunstall.)

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