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Richard Jefferies in the City of London

October 12, 2011
by the gentle author

Often when I set out for a walk from Spitalfields, my footsteps lead me to the crossroads outside the Bank of England , at the place where Richard Jefferies – a writer whose work has been an enduring inspiration – once stood. Like me, Jefferies also came to the city from the countryside and his response to London was one of awe and fascination. Whenever I feel lost in the metropolis, his writing is always a consolation, granting a liberating perspective upon the all-compassing turmoil of urban life and, in spite of the changes in the city, his observations resonate as powerfully today as they did when he wrote them. This excerpt from The Story of My Heart (1883), the autobiography of his inner life, describes the sight that met Richard Jefferies’ eyes when he stood upon that spot at the crossroads in the City of London.

“There is a place in front of the Royal Exchange where the wide pavement reaches out like a promontory. It is in the shape of a triangle with a rounded apex. A stream of traffic runs on either side, and other streets send their currents down into the open space before it. Like the spokes of a wheel converging streams of human life flow into this agitated pool. Horses and carriages, carts, vans, omnibuses, cabs, every kind of conveyance cross each other’s course in every possible direction.

Twisting in and out by the wheels and under the horses’ heads, working a devious way, men and women of all conditions wind a path over. They fill the interstices between the carriages and blacken the surface, till the vans almost float on human beings. Now the streams slacken, and now they rush again, but never cease, dark waves are always rolling down the incline opposite, waves swell out from the side rivers, all London converges into this focus. There is an indistinguishable noise, it is not clatter, hum, or roar, it is not resolvable, made up of a thousand thousand footsteps, from a thousand hoofs, a thousand wheels, of haste, and shuffle, and quick movements, and ponderous loads, no attention can resolve it into a fixed sound.

Blue carts and yellow omnibuses, varnished carriages and brown vans, green omnibuses and red cabs, pale loads of yellow straw, rusty-red iron clunking on pointless carts, high white wool-packs, grey horses, bay horses, black teams, sunlight sparkling on brass harness, gleaming from carriage panels, jingle, jingle, jingle! An intermixed and intertangled, ceaselessly changing jingle, too, of colour, flecks of colour champed, as it were, like bits in the horses’ teeth, frothed and strewn about, and a surface always of dark-dressed people winding like the curves on fast-flowing water. This is the vortex and whirlpool, the centre of human life today on the earth. Now the tide rises and now it sinks, but the flow of these rivers always continues. Here it seethes and whirls, not for an hour only, but for all present time, hour by hour, day by day, year by year.

All these men and women that pass through are driven on by the push of accumulated circumstances, they cannot stay, they must go, their necks are in the slave’s ring, they are beaten like seaweed against the solid walls of fact. In ancient times, Xerxes, the king of kings, looking down upon his myriads, wept to think that in a hundred years not one of them would be left. Where will be these millions of today in a hundred years? But, further than that, let us ask – Where then will be the sum and outcome of their labour? If they wither away like summer grass, will not at least a result be left which those of a hundred years hence may be the better for? No, not one jot! There will not be any sum or outcome or result of this ceaseless labour and movement, it vanishes in the moment that it is done, and in a hundred years nothing will be there, for nothing is there now. There will be no more sum or result than accumulates from the motion of a revolving cowl on a housetop.

I used to come and stand near the apex of the promontory of pavement which juts out towards the pool of life, I still go there to ponder. London convinced me of my own thought. That thought has always been with me, and always grows wider.”

Richard Jefferies (1848-1887)

Archive photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

8 Responses leave one →
  1. October 12, 2011

    This is great; thanks! I love the pictures from then and now taken from the same place. When I first arrived in London in February 2005 to take care of my mother she was at Barts (St. Bartholomew’s Hospital) and I would take the DLR to Bank and walk from there, so I climbed up the stairs to that corner and then past Mansion House, along Poultry to Cheapside, Newgate Street, and up, every day for many, many days then and later.

    I always liked walking past Old Jewry, Ironmonger Lane, Milk Street, and coming back to the Underground station always noted Bucklersbury, now just a little passageway in a modern building on Poultry. It being London, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn recently that that was the remnant of Bucklersbury, which, according to the Encyclopedia of London, was known as a street since the 14th century, near where Thomas More lived. It was full of apothecaries, and the peculiar smell of which is mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor. That’s one of the things I love most about London – walking along streets that have hardly ever been empty of footsteps for more than 1000 years.

  2. Ree permalink
    October 12, 2011

    Would that I had grown up in London…I’d have visited every nook-and-crannie…Such as this photographic spot in the City…An other really wonderful little article…

  3. Susan Lendroth permalink
    October 12, 2011

    Thank you Gentle Author and Richard Jeffries for a wonderful piece about the pulse of the city and humanity. And thanks also to Gillian Bagwell for her comment about a thousand years of footsteps on London streets. I can’t wait to return to the city to add my steps to the thrum.

  4. Chris Dyson permalink*
    October 12, 2011

    I love the forrays out into the City of London, they seem like great adventures…dynamic and interesting linking our place to the city and to the world beyond. the context of these important instuitutions now in many cases moved on yet the handsome architecture prevails …a lesson indeed for all concerned in making new projects…number one poultry looks very dandy alongside all these buildings handsome in scale and respectful of context…perhaps you should interview the architect Laurence Bain of Sir James Stirlings’ office, i think he would make an interesting read his knowledge of this area is extensive as the building of number one poutlry went through appeal and much historical research for Lord Polumbo the client.
    the end result has created one of the citiees first gardens at roof top level with breathtaking views all around.
    Chris Dyson RIBA FRSA

  5. andrea permalink
    October 12, 2011

    I am not familiar with Mr. Richard Jefferies, but his take on the scene is certainly a melancholy one. It’s as if he is looking at an anthill.

  6. jeannette permalink
    October 13, 2011

    i think you’d like this book. it includes analysis of some of the great walkers or “flaneuses” of london such as v. woolf and, i think, amy levine. i can’t remember whether or not it analyzes the great post-blitz walking tour taken by doris lessing in the beginning of The Four-Gated City.

    but it touches on many of the points mr. jefferies makes. thank you.

  7. October 15, 2011

    Many thanks for this delightful post. Perhaps you know about the Richard Jefferies museum at his birthplace in Swindon – if not, there are pictures, articles and lots of links here and most of his books, including ‘Story of My Heart’, are on Project Gutenberg for free download for anyone who’s interest has been quickened.

    Thanks again – the pictures are marvelous.


  8. Libby Hall permalink
    August 5, 2012

    Once again another astonishing discovery I might never have made without Spitalfields Life.

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