25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 28

Cleansing the Cities

Victorian Cities. By Asa Briggs. (Odhams, 35s.)

Sir John Simon 1816-1904 and English Social Administration. By Royston Lambert. (MacGibbon and Kee, 25s.) IN an age which is struggling to free itself from the sooty cocoon of squalid housing and ill- planned towns which make up our most obvious legacy from the nineteenth century, a study of Victorian cities is clearly an important field for the historian. In Britain. as Professor Briggs points out, it has been strangely neglected. Our local historians have tended to be either anti- quarians unravelling musty court rolls or com- mercial boosters emphasising the salubrious situation and rapid progress of a promising locality. While in America there is a whole school of urban historians with its own news- letter and conferences, in Britain only a minority of cities have histories by academic historians which cover the nineteenth century. Among them, of course, is Professor Briggs's own study of Birmingham. One of the results is that the field has often been taken by town planners; on London, for example, there is no historian's equivalent to Steen Rasmussen's The Unique City or to Edward Carter's recent The Future of London. Perhaps for this reason Professor Briggs launches a special attack on that in- cautious elder prophet of town planning Lewis Mumford, who, in his anxiety to urge the need for reducing the size and density of conurba- tions, frequently asserts that Victorian towns were anonymous, insensate and identical. These inexpert generalisations are effectively de- molished by evidence of the voluntary societies and political radicalism of the cities, the familY networks which governed Manchester and Middlesbrough, and the rivalries and contrast between Pennine Bradford and brick-built Leeds or between the small workshop society of Bir- mingham and the big cotton factory towns of Lancashire.

The task of the expert urban historian i3 difficult, an unglamorous heavy manual labour on the foundations of history. He must know the problems of national history, but at the same time forget them, 'peering through a microscope at the local forces in politics,' subjecting his city to sociological and geographical analysis, re- interpreting the comments in the national Blue Books of the 1840s in the light of subsequent medical understanding. It would be unfair, in the present state of neglect of the subject, 10 expect Victorian Cities to be more than a call for more work of this kind. In fact, the book contains little statistical analysis of factors such as health, religion and trade unionism, only two maps, and descriptions of only three cities in detail for the whole period--Birminghatn. Middlesbrough, chosen as a town which grew from nothing, and Melbourne, a colonial com- parison. The chapter on Manchester is chietlY concerned with contemporary comment on the 'shock city' of the 1840s and the chapter on Leeds with the building of its town hall, while that on London is confined to the last years of the century.

In describing London politics, moreover, Pro- fessor Briggs has relied to an unfortunate extent on Fabian sources which are, in fact, highly mis- leading. For example, Facts for Londoners was not published 'on the eve of the first LCC elec- tion' in 1889, but nine months later, and s0 far from being 'almost alone in' giving a definite lead' at this time, the Fabians played no stg- .nificant part in the formation of the LCC Pro- gressive Party. But if Victorian Cities can stimulate detailed criticism of this kind it will have succeeded; for Professor Briggs's achieve- ment in this book is to give the forgotten history of hundreds of British towns a renewed rele- vance in national history. Who else, for example, could have used a study of Manchester to illustrate the development of propagandist social- realist novels in the 1840s?

If the spectacular growth of cities in nine-

, teenth-century Britain caused appalling misery in disease and overcrowding, misery which most politicians and businessmen preferred to ignore as the cost of progress, there was a minority of outstanding Victorians prepared to fight this squalor. Among them the best known are the amateurs, Kingsley, Ruskin and, above all, Chadwick. But the most persistent of agitators came from the medical profession, and of these perhaps the most eminent was Sir John Simon, Who has now received a finely written biography which should restore some of his former fame. Although we are given some glimpses of Simon's domestic life, his close friendship with Ruskin, his home in Kensington Square hung with Morris wallpapers and watercolours by Turner, where Rossetti and 'Morris, Swinburne and Darwin, Kingsley and Renan, Jowett and Lowe were regular guests, Dr. Lambert rightly con- centrates on Simon's public life, as first Medical Officer to the City of London in 1848-55, and to the government in 1855-76. In his work Simon had the advantages of a distinguished reputation as a surgeon, and with this authority a brilliant and cogent style in writing reports, a systematic but imaginative and even oppor- tunistic approach to administration, and until his

last years an essential tact with politicians. ---..._ Unlike Chadwick, who condemned 'hypotheses and imaginations such as the theories of germs,' Simon was always anxious to exploit and ad• vance medical knowledge. It gave him profes- sional authority; and by insisting on his right to initiate inquiries, it led to a wider concept of public medicine, preventive and not merely curative. In the City he was already securing frequent and accurate statistics of sickness and death, and in his first report urging the need for large-scale slum clearance and public con- trol of working-class housing to ensure proper sanitary standards.

Under Simon, too, the system of compulsory vaccination was finally perfected, so that 90 per cent of the children in the country were im- munised and the disease at last brought under control. The crucial medical legislation of the 1860s and 1870s, in advance of any in the world, was framed by him. In this excellent biography, in which the advance of medical knowledge, the developing scope of administration. and the in- difference of politicians combine to make an unusual and dramatic story, Sir John Simon emerges as an exceptionally impressive man.