Levels of crime in London were rising rapidly during the 18th century and undoubtedly the major reason was poverty. With an increase in the population and greater wealth there was more opportunity for criminal activity. Pickpockets and footpads operated throughout the metropolis and highwaymen took advantage of those travelling to and from London. Prostitution was rampant, with many brothels as well as women walking the streets. A number of clubs for homosexuals – ‘mollies’ – also operated illegally around the Covent Garden area.
The main response of the authorities to the rising level of crime and disorder was to increase the severity of punishment. Laws were created by the governing classes and in their minds the theft of property was little different to murder, both punishable by execution. Hangings were almost always open for the public to watch in order to reinforce the message of what faced those found guilty of a felony. They were occasionally carried out at the place where the crime took place but by far the majority were at Tyburn, the modern Marble Arch.
Anyone providing information leading to the arrest of a criminal could receive a reward, leading to the rise of professionals known as ‘thief-takers’, effectively private detectives. The most notorious of the period was Jonathan Wild who was himself masterminding a crime-syndicate that stole goods and returned them to owners for cash. At the same time he received rewards by passing information to the authorities of any criminal who would not cooperate with him. Two other celebrated villains of the period were the highwayman Dick Turpin and the serial-escapee Jack Sheppard.
The organisation of apprehending criminals began to improve in the mid-century, notably with the appointment of former playwright and barrister Henry Fielding as justice of the peace at Bow Street Magistrates Court. Fielding organised a small force of honest and diligent constables, the first steps towards a reliable police force for London.
From 1729 the former Spring Gardens at Vauxhall came under the ownership of Jonathan Tyers. A talented entrepreneur, he elevated Vauxhall Gardens to become the leading place throughout the 18th century for Londoners of all social strata – from servants to aristocrats – to spend their leisure time.
London was a great commercial centre yet remained somewhat of a backwater in the arts. In the opinion of connoisseurs – generally men who had witnessed masterpieces while on the Grand Tour – truly great art derived from the masters in Italy, France and northern Europe. British painters were overlooked until the second half of the 18th century, yet there was in London a cosmopolitan scene of foreign-born artists. Giovanni Antonio Canal – known as ‘Canaletto’ – had made a name for himself supplying souvenir paintings of his native Venice to Englishmen arriving there on their Grand Tour. In 1746 he arrived in London to be closer to his patrons and over the following nine years produced a number of romanticized scenes of the capital. A rare exception was James Thornhill who achieved fame after he won the commission to decorate the dining room at the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich and he became the catalyst for a generation of British art. One of Thornhill’s students at his school at Covent Garden was the young engraver William Hogarth. A proud, pugnacious, ambitious, skillful but generous man, Hogarth led the charge on behalf of himself and his friends and colleagues to create a market for British art, becoming in the process popular with the public, although never winning over connoisseurs. Hogarth was one of the founders of the St.Martin’s Academy, the most prominent of several art schools that existed around Covent Garden in the first half of the 18th century. It was from this institution that the Royal Academy eventually evolved in the second half of the century.
George Frederick Handel moved to London from Germany in 1723, settling at 25 Brook Street where he lived for the rest of his life. He used the house as both his home and place of work and there composed the majority of his famous works including the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, Music for Royal Fireworks and Messiah. He was a prolific composer of operas and both George I and George II were patrons.
The major stage success of 1728 was John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Shortly after, and prior to becoming a magistrate and law-enforcer at Bow Street, Henry Fielding had some success as a playwright, producing a number of successful scripts for London theatres.
Since the Restoration in the 17th century there had been only two companies in London licensed to perform plays, one of which reopened as the Covent Garden Theatre at Bow Street in 1732. The Italian Opera House in the Haymarket circumvented the law by performing musical works and was noted throughout the first half of the century for staging Handel’s operas. The actor Henry Gifford also quietly opened a new theatre at Goodman’s Fields. Located to the east of Aldgate it was situated where it would not ruffle any feathers. However, in October 1741 he cast an aspiring, unknown actor in the lead of Richard III. Overnight David Garrick became a sensation, with everyone in town clamoring to obtain tickets for subsequent nights. The spotlight had unwittingly been turned on Goodmans Fields theatre, which was forced to close, with Garrick going on to become the great star of Drury Lane.
With thanks to Ursula Jeffries for help with fact-checking and proof-reading.