In Tobias Smollett's great, romping 18th-century novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, our hero Matthew Bramble, a country squire, leaves his adored estate Brambleton Hall and spends a season in London. Writing to his doctor, he asks what would possess a man to live in a city where "every corner teems with fresh objects of detestation and disgust".
His lodgings are frowzy, the air putrefying. Disease and pestilence are only kept at bay by the acid clouds of sea-coal burnt in every hearth and furnace. The locals are ugly, sallow and languid compared to the ruddy swains of Brambleton country.
Sleep is impossible as the watchmen bawl the time down the streets every hour and knock thunderously at every door. Unrested, he starts out of bed at five o'clock because some dreadful fellow is shouting "pease pudding" beneath his window.
The water, dragged from open aqueducts and the Thames, is undrinkable, laced with putrefying animal carcasses and the scourings of wash-tubs, kennels and sewers. The bread is poison, the meat tastes of dung hills and the milk has been frothed with bruised snails. In short, he concludes, "From this wild uproar of knavery, folly and impertinence, I shall fly with double relish to the serenity of retirement . . . and protection of the rural gods."
This is how we like to imagine London in the 18th century: dirty, dissipated and populated by rakes, harlots, hucksters and knaves, so depraved and lawless as to send country bumpkins running back to their shires. This is the London described in Vic Gatrell's The First Bohemians and Lucy Inglis's Georgian London: Into the Streets. Both relish the seediness and debauchery of the town — and the creativity that it fomented.
Gatrell's theatre is Covent Garden and its satellites: St Giles's, Leicester Square, Drury Lane and their playhouses, bagnios, coffee shops, artists' studios and gambling dens. His heroes are William Hogarth, Henry Fielding, Thomas Rowlandson, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.
Gatrell sets out his thesis in a rollicking introduction. "Covent Garden's bohemian credentials," he writes, "knock the later bohemian credentials of Chelsea, Hampstead and even Soho sideways, while they make those of the Left Bank, Montmartre or Greenwich Village look pallid."
And with that we are off into the world of stews and bordellos, ulcerated cherry sellers, Gin Lane, drowned puppies, "lecherometers" and the exploits of Moll Hackabout and Fanny Hill.
He leads us on a raucous tour. By the 1740s one house in every five or six around Covent Garden sold gin or was a brothel and the parish of St Giles's was said to furnish the American plantations with more convicts than the rest of the country put together. Prostitutes could be paid with a pint of wine and a shilling, and there were girls who made rods and birches their speciality and set about their clients in "Secret Work-Rooms of Iniquity".