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London after the Fire… the beginning of urban elective sociability?

September 5, 2016



351 years ago today, the Great Fire of London finally abated.  Fascinating things happen when major cities burn down.  After Chicago burned down in the nineteenth-century, sociology and anthropology flourished in its aftermath.

The grandiose street plans offered by Wren (and others) for London’s rebuilding never materialised – largely because of the economic necessity to get people trading as soon as possible – which in turn meant respecting pre-conflagration property lines.  You can’t trade if people aren’t sure what belongs to whom.

But the city that emerged would be very different from the city that was incinerated.

By 1700, London differed from its 1660s predecessors not just in terms of building materials and architectural style but critically in terms of its sociability.   The blaze destroyed a great many churches and with them, London’s parochial character.  Though a large city by any global standard, the 1660s city still divided people into tiny geographical jurisdictions.  The parish clerk of each of these parishes pretty much knew who the parishioners were and where they lived.  1700 London had nobody who really knew who people were and where they lived.   The High Anglican Queen Anne was particularly keen to rebuild these CoE churches, as a way of challenging the dissenting interest in London, restoring a sense of parochial division and order to an unruly metropolis.

By 1700, all Londoners were new Londoners.  The city around them was unfamiliar to them.  Parishes are harder to sustain in large cities in any case.  If you don’t like your parish church, there’s another place of worship just a stroll away.  And by 1700 you see a fully fledged club culture of a kind that 1660 did not know.  This club culture, documented above all by the incomperably Ned Ward, illustrates people socialising not by geography but by affinity.  You might not know your next door neighbours in the Big Bad Smoke – but that’s partly because your next door neighbours seem kind of dull – particularly when there’s a place just off Fleet Street you can visit every other Wednesday, knock three times and ask for “Steve”.

A construction boom, an influx of new Londoners and a physical London that nobody recognises means that you really don’t have to bother talking to your immediate tedious parochial neighbours, because somewhere in this immense but still walkable metropolis, there are going to be people worth talking to.

Elective sociability destroys parishes and creates London as a site of exciting anonymity.   Nobody in your immediate neighbourhood knows your name, but you can (to some extent) decide who does and doesn’t know who you are.  Your address no longer defines you.  Your sense of space and time itself becomes more elective and improvised.

All this awaited the bewildered denizens of a ruined landscape blinking at the amount of work to be done, three hundred and fifty years ago today.


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