Dr Matthew Phillpott looks back on examples of narratives that focus on the experience of walking around 18th-century London, such as John Stow’s 16th century survey of London to Virginia Woolf’s essays on The London Scene published in the 1930s. He says these works of literature allows us to examine a wide range of contemporary perceptions of place, topography, and social activity, but wonders how we can capture this variety of experience and interpretations and understand them in a coherent way.

In 1775 an anonymous author put to print a small book called A Sunday Ramble. Across six chapters, the author told a ‘performance’ of a walk across London taking in colourful scenes of Sunday life in the capital. When passing near the Foundling Hospital, for example, the two walkers observed ‘a group of wretches, male and female, round a kind of cauldron filled with an infusion of sassafras, well known by the name of saloop’. When arriving at the top of Highgate Hill they observed ‘the beautiful prospect’ and at the Bank Coffeehouse near the Royal Exchange, they chatted with a struggling scholar who could only get employment as a ‘hackney-writer’.

At its heart A Sunday Ramble is a morality tale, recounting ordinary activities of a dubious nature such as gambling, drinking, illicit affairs, cuckolded men and ‘wanton’ women of both low and high birth. It is just one example of a narrative focused on the experience of walking around London.

London offers a host of unique spaces, a variety of characters, and numerous cultural microcosms, upon which a study of human interactions, expectations, and purposes can be explored. Londoners and visitors in all periods have moved through the metropolis for a variety of purposes and have perceived the city in a number of ways. Between 1550 and 1950 there is a multitude of writings – both fictive and factual – that describes London in terms of an experience of walking. Some of this material is purposely ‘walking literature’ while in others, the detail is incidental. In some cases the texts are literary fiction, in others autobiographical journals, and in others official records.

One of the earliest such published examples can be found in John Stow’s A Survey of London. Stow gives a vivid image of late 16th-century London and contrasts it to the past.

For example, Stow argues that it was once: ‘common practise in the City, that a hundred or more in a company, young and old, would make nightly invasions upon houses of the wealthy, to the intent to rob them, and if they found any man stirring in the city within the night, that were not of their crew, they would presently murder him: insomuch, that when night was come, no man durst adventure to walk in the streets’. Stow, 1603 ed, pp. 99-104

In his own day, Stow asserts that it was safer to move around at night, ever since Henry III introduced night watchers to observe the peace. Three hundred years later, Virginia Woolf described Oxford Street as a place of ‘too many bargains, too many sales, too many goods marked down’.

Although, better known for her literary works using London as her setting, Woolf’s ‘London Scene’ gives an equally vivid non-fiction account of moving through London. The early 20th-century beginnings of consumerism is clearly demonstrated here, as Woolf ‘walks’ towards Marble Arch, reflecting on the ‘garishness’ and ‘gaudiness’ of the street shops: ‘as one saunters towards the sunset – and what with artificial light and mounds of silk and gleaming omnibuses, a perpetual sunset seems to brood over the Marble Arch – the garishness and gaudiness of the great rolling ribbon of Oxford Street has its fascination’. Woolf, The London Scene (1931)

Taking in the range of writings from John Stow’s survey of London published in the last years of the 16th-century to Virginia Woolf’s essays on The London Scene published in the 1930s, we can examine a wide range of contemporary perceptions of place, topography, and social activity.

How, though, do we capture this multitude and variety of experiences and interpretations and understand it in a coherent manner? This is the purpose of the Passage Project, an interdisciplinary examination of writings about walking, focused specifically on the city of London between 1550 and 1950.

The French novelist and playwright, Honoré de Balzac captures one of the central problems that Passage is interested in examining when he wrote his Théorie de la Démarche.

‘Isn’t it really quite extraordinary to see that since the time when man began walking, that no one has wondered why man walks, how he walks, if he can walk better, what he does while walking, if there would not be a way to impose, to change, to analyse his walk.’ Honoré de Balzac, Théoriede la Démarche (Paris, 1853), p.7

Balzac asks us to consider the process and experience of walking. Why do we walk? How do we walk? What do we do while walking? Through the prism of written accounts, topographical surveys and maps, and other sources, Passage is an attempt to learn how writers have, in the past, described the act of walking and attempted, whether intentionally or not, to capture the essence of that experience.

Passage is a collaborative project between the Centre for Metropolitan History (Institute of Historical Research), Senate House Library and the School of Advanced Study, which began in 2015. The project website was launched in February 2016 with its first ‘episode’, focused on what A Sunday Ramble (1794 edition) can tell us about the experience of walking and understanding of place in 18th-century London. More ‘episodes’ and one-off posts are forthcoming.

Dr Matthew Phillpott manages various websites for the School of Advanced Study (SAS), including PORT, SAS-Space and SAS Open Journals. His research interests include husbandry, the English reformation, the history of the book and early modern scholarly networks. He is particularly interested in ideas of knowledge transmission in the early modern period, particularly in the 16th century, and is currently exploring the first English language beekeeping manuals that were printed in England.