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London before the War to End all Wars

At the start of the 20th century, London was a larger, busier place than it had ever been before. One could buy fresh fish from Billingsgate, meat from Smithfield Market, flowers and vegetables from Covent Garden, clocks from Clerkenwell Road, diamonds from Hatton Garden; all kinds of goods were readily available.

As a thriving centre of trade London had become very much the centre of the world’s largest empire. Giant liners traversed the oceans; electric lighting was beginning to appear, and horseless carriages could occasionally be seen on the streets. Many of the things destined to play a major part in twentieth-century life were here already. But at the same time for most people there was little difference between this London and the city of fifty years previously. Victoria was still on the throne; there was still dire poverty, and those who were without work had to survive on charity and scavenging.

The bad winter of 1902 caused great misery and degradation, and things became so desperate that an observer of the time might have felt that such a situation could not possibly go on for long. But at the time the only alleviation remained the institution of workhouses, although philanthropists were constructing almshouses, cheap housing for the poor. Ironically those same almshouses that survive today are sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

London at the time was a curious mixture of ostentatious wealth hiding harrowing poverty. Although this was a period of extraordinary prosperity, the normal working man had a hard enough time of it. The music-hall song whose chorus goes, ‘My old man said Follow the van and don’t dilly-dally on the way’ describes the plight of a couple who are leaving their lodgings owing rent and making their escape by moonlight - a predicament which was clearly one familiar to everybody in the audience. The music-hall reached its pinnacle at this time, with many new halls being built; the performers achieved great fame, but the life they sang about was the life of the audience - there was a great sense of shared experience, the feeling that they had all been through the bad times. In the burst of jingoism that came at the time of the First World War, the music halls were responsible for recruiting a large number of the young men who were to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields of France and Belgium. It was only as the war dragged on, and death came in wave after wave that the war songs of the music halls began to have a slightly plaintive quality.

As a person retains their identity as they move through a turbulent adolescence towards adulthood, so London will always remain at heart the same, despite the outward changes that will occur as this ancient city prepares to meet yet another change.

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