Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City
By Tristram Hunt
Metropolitan Books, 576 pp., $32.50
In the early decades of the 19th century, factories, canals, railroads, and the steam engine made England, almost overnight, a nation of city dwellers. The key statistics are startling. In 1831, 75 percent of the populace lived in the countryside; by 1851, however, nearly half of the English were urban residents. In 1800, England could count only one city (London) with more than 100,000 people; in 1851 there were nine. Such rapid changes disturbed many Victorians, not least reactionary prophets Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, who saw the belching smokestacks and crowded warehouses of Manchester and Liverpool not as signs of progress, but harbingers of decay.
It's easy to draw up a long bill of indictment against the Victorian city. Who would want to live in Charles Dickens's immortally grim Coketown, ''where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gasses were bricked in?" For all their industrial might, Liverpool (average life expectancy in 1841: 28.1 years) and Manchester (26.6 years) were nasty places, plagued by filth and squalor, shoddy housing and crime, poverty, and disease. Historian Tristram Hunt rightly contends that there was much more to the Victorian city than this, even if ''Building Jerusalem," a 495-page objection to Carlyle and company, is ill-written, riddled with clichés, and much too long. (My Penguin edition of Asa Briggs's classic ''Victorian Cities" runs to 384 pages of text -- couldn't Hunt have been pressed to trim his manuscript?).
Part of the problem lies in his approach. Hunt argues that recent urban history has left out the ideas and ''retreated into a tale of bureaucratic development." Point conceded, but Hunt is so eager to redress the imbalance he lavishes his text with unwieldy digressions on a myriad of Victorian intellectual debates. This discourse has a place in the story, though cities are not fashioned from words, but from mortar and brick, sweat and toil. I wish Hunt had worked harder to convey the nitty-gritty physicality of the places he describes.
Still, Hunt compels us to go beyond the grime of Coketown and look closer at the achievements of the Victorian city. For all their flaws, they were places of innovation and learning, entrepreneurship and economic ferment, religious and cultural diversity. Moreover, the world of the Victorian city is in many ways our own. ''Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, London . . . constituted the vanguard of the modern city," comments Hunt. These cities grappled with dilemmas -- over governance and taxation, schooling and housing, sanitation and transport -- that still test any big city mayor. Thomas M. Menino and Michael Bloomberg, take note.
The heroes of ''Building Jerusalem" are the newly enfranchised Victorian middle classes, which did not shrink from the challenges before them. As Hunt argues, the rise of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Leeds were deeply linked to the rise of urban bourgeoisie, which broke the hold of the landed aristocracy on British society. The cities offered new opportunities, an escape from feudal ties and the stranglehold of ancient social relations. They were apostles of a civic gospel founded on free inquiry, reason, and religious pluralism. (The vast majority of this ''indigenous circle of middle-class civic patriots" were religious nonconformists -- Presbyterians, Unitarians, Methodists). Reform-minded and fired by a can-do work ethic, they broke the hold of the landed aristocracy on British society, and sought to mitigate the ills of the city, founding workman's colleges (called Mechanics Institutes), voluntary societies, and philosophical and literary circles. At midcentury, writes Hunt, ''Liverpool could boast a Ladies Benevolent Society . . . Blind School, Charitable Society, Charitable Institute House, Catholic Orphans' Society and numerous other worthy causes." This was all well and good, but the problems of urban living proved too much for private initiatives and laissez-faire economics.
A key policy development that Hunt traces is the evolution of a philosophy of municipal governance in Manchester and Birmingham. The central figure in this movement was ''one of the most enterprising, buccaneering capitalists in mid-Victorian Britain," a screw manufacturer-turned-politician named Joseph Chamberlain. Elected mayor of Birmingham in 1873, Chamberlain was faced with a daunting task. A weak city council stocked with hacks and a general suspicion of government had left his city a mess. Birmingham was ''a mean congeries of bricks," sneered Carlyle: ''The streets are ill-built, ill-paved, always flimsy in their aspect . . . torrents of thick smoke . . . are issuing from a thousand funnels."
Chamberlain was undeterred, and set out to transform his city through the power of the state; he knocked down slums, built housing for the poor, and established free libraries and galleries. But his chief triumph was to take the city's gas, water, and sewage systems out of private hands and into public ownership. It's an amusing irony that what would come to be known as ''gas and water socialism," a creed that would inspire the English left, was the product of a businessman who believed deeply in enlightened self-interest. After all, public utilities benefited industry with cheap and reliable energy.
The reign of Chamberlain represented a high-water mark for the Victorian city. In Hunt's telling, it was all downhill from there, and the concluding sections of ''Building Jerusalem" make for depressing reading. The garden city movement of the 19th century lured the middle classes to suburbia, and ''resulted in the devastating disavowal of the Victorian civic spirit." Changes in the 20th-century global economy drastically altered the fortunes of Britain's provincial metropolises, which sank into decline.
London, of course, has never stopped thriving, and urban hipsters have brought new life to the urban cores of Manchester and Leeds. This is not enough for Hunt, who hopes, perhaps in vain, for a new generation of Chamberlains to lead Britain's cities into the 21st century.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The Boston Globe.