Chris Bambery on the history of two great capital cities, and the architecture of power.

London has always been the ugly sister to Paris, the City of Light. For anti-capitalists there are obvious rallying points in the French capital – the Place de la République or the Place de la Bastille with their link to the city’s revolutionary heritage. In London the role of the city as the cockpit of the English Revolution of the 1640s is largely forgotten, deliberately so. Demonstrations and rallies take place at Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park or the Embankment, which while being the scenes of past protests and riots, were not built to mark any radical associations. I don’t want to enter a competition between the attributes of the two, modern cities. What I would like to look at is how both were recast in the 19th century, and in London’s case early 20th century, as imperial and capitalist cities.

What are today the main attractions of Paris are, in the main, products of a conscious decision to rebuild a rebellious city in the wake of the 1848 revolution and the coup d’état which brought Louis Napoleon to power as emperor in 1851. In the wake of this Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a Bonapartist supporter and a man who’d proved to the Little Napoleon his abilities to organise ceremonials while Prefect of Bordeaux, was put in charge of Paris.

The myth is that Louis Napoleon handed him a ready prepared map of how he wanted the city rebuilt. It’s often said that the construction of the grand boulevards and squares Haussman presided over (he wasn’t their architect) were designed to allow artillery to be deployed in any future revolutionary upheaval. That was part of the plan, so was social cleansing, the destruction of crammed popular neighbourhoods, which had been at the centre of the 1789, 1830 and 1848 revolutions. But it was also about creating a modern city linked into a developing rail and telegraph network, where the boulevards helped connect the rail stations to the centre of power, and to the rebuilt central market of Les Halles. In addition, it also aimed at creating a grand, imperial capital able to stage pageants, processions and so on. Designed and built initially in support of Louis Napoleon’s empire and then as part of the construction of a new French Republic with its celebration of Marianne, Bastille Day and so on, and of its overseas empire, second only to Britain’s. The Eiffel Tower was built to grace the 1889 Exposition Universelle, with 400 Africans put on display in the “Negro Village” (village nègre) near its foot to show the humanity of French colonialism. An interesting way to mark the centenary of the French Revolution and the Rights of Man. Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre was built, in the words of the resolution passed in the National Assembly, authorising its construction, to “expiate the crimes of the Commune.”

One consequence of the 19th century reconstruction of the city is that Paris, the actual city rather than the metropolitan area, is much less mixed socially, and ethnically, than London. If we look across the Channel the ruling class did not face such a direct revolutionary challenge as its French counter-part, though Chartism had seen the first mass working class insurgency. The British state, created by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the 1707 Union of the English and Scottish Parliaments (Wales was considered part of England) was also rather more secure. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 having set the seal on a century of wars against France; its absolutist monarchy, the revolutionary republic and then Bonaparte’s rule. Britain was also a parliamentary democracy, one of course limited to a minority of men who had wealth or property. And that’s important because the position of the British monarchy was different from that of its counter-parts.

Elsewhere in Europe, for example in Prussia, Austria, Russia, imperial France, and even Savoy, the kingdom which would essentially create the new united Italy, the monarchs were still autocrats, with control, (for the most part) over finance. In Britain even after Charles II’s return, parliament controlled the purse strings.

During the 19th century European monarchs could rebuild their capital cities in their own image – Vienna being the classic example. The old medieval city, again a hotbed of revolution in 1848, was cleared and the Ringstrasse built encircling the new city centre with its royal and ducal palaces, opera house, museums and a parliament which had much less power than Westminster but a wider franchise.

British monarchs could not spend on this scale and parliament was loathe to spend money on rebuilding London. In the 19th century London was not the centre of power that it would become. During the heyday of Liberal rule that party represented the industrial and commercial bourgeoisies of Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and other cities. Its MPs were not keen to rubber stamp spending on aggrandising London. In contrast the modern Conservative Party as it emerged under Disraeli was firmly based in London and the South East (its hold on London slipped with the rise of Labour). In addition, London did not have its own government until the London County Council was created in 1888. The Corporation of the City of London had refused to take responsibility for the areas beyond the Square Mile (essentially the old medieval and early modern London).

But there was also another reason, often forgotten. The British monarchy for much of the 19th century was far from popular. As Prince Regent and then as George IV, the ruler who oversaw the epic victories of Waterloo and Trafalgar was deeply unpopular. His successor, William IV similarly so.  Queen Victoria got off to a chaotic start but did better, but her retreat into seclusion following the death of Prince Albert, led to a fall in the status of the monarchy. This was reflected in ruling circles. William Gladstone, the dominant figure in the Liberal Party during its dominance, noted during his first premiership, 1868-1874, that: “To speak in rude and general terms, the Queen is invisible and the Prince of Wales [the future Edward VII] is not respected.” Victoria was affronted and hated Gladstone till his death. 

What we now know as London in the 18th century consisted of the City, the outlying settlements of Tower Hamlets and Southwark plus westwards towards the Palace of Westminster (the royal palace until it burnt down in 1698, and the seat of parliament) and Westminster Abbey. Describing it Daniel Defoe wrote ‘it is the disaster of London, as to the beauty of its figure, that it is stretched out in buildings, just at the pleasure of every builder…and as the convenience of people directs…and this has spread the face of it in a most straggling, confused manner, out of all shape, uncompact, and unequal: neither long or broad, round or square’.

Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street, for instance, were built by a property speculator, Sir George Downing, who’d served as Cromwell’s spy master before turning his coat and doing the same job for Charles II after his restoration. Samuel Pepys called him a “perfidious rogue” and Andrew Marvell “Judas.” An early tourist guide to the city described London “as the true centre of the world….Its merchants are princes; the resolves of its financiers make and unmake empires and influence the destiny of nations.”

What all sorts of people, from the composer Haydn to Frederick Engels, noted was the amount of traffic, the size of the docks, the smog and the amount of buying and selling, in other words capitalism. Monarchs had to balance the principle forces of the age; the growing bourgeoisie (which had taken power in Holland and soon would in England), Protestantism and the Catholic Counter-Revolution. Balancing all that was the old feudal ruling class, which wanted to maintain its wealth, lands and privileges, and increasingly its control of the state apparatus. 

In Britain the final victory over Napoleon in 1815 left Britain the greatest power in the world with the biggest empire, anchored on India. It had the biggest debts but unlike its rivals could afford them because of its considerable tax base, bigger than any rivals, and because of the wealth earned by industry, commerce and finance. In other words, unlike its rivals it was a capitalist economy. Yet this pinnacle of British military achievement, on sea and eventually land, took place under a king who was mad, George III, and his son the most unpopular monarch in British history, George IV.

It was under the latter that the first serious attempt to construct a grandiose capital took place with the construction of Hyde Park Corner, the terraces around Regents Park, Regent Street and Trafalgar Square. No money was forthcoming from parliament but in 1811 the leases for the crown lands in Marylebone came up for renewal. They were sold off to the rich to build grand houses, designed by John Nash, who built Regent Street to connect them with Westminster. Trafalgar Square was eventually added. This was a commercial operation but it involved social cleansing as the new Regent Street (named after George IV, then Prince Regent) was driven throw popular housing areas and separated off the new, upper class areas of St James and Mayfair from the slums of Soho and Covent Garden. Hyde Park Corner, where the Duke of Wellington’s Aspley House was, and still is, become home to a triumphal arch originally topped with a statue of the Duke, the victor of Waterloo, and a triumphal gate, linking the gardens of Buckingham Palace (a royal palace from 1761 on) and Hyde Park. These efforts of reconstructing came to a halt with the economic difficulties of the late 1820s yet the recasting of London would continue for the rest of the 19th century with private developments; hotels, department stores, banks, the construction of the gentleman’s clubs of St James, the new mansions of Kensington, developed by the Duke of Westminster on marshy land next door to Buckingham Palace. Added to this were the new rail stations.

One exception was the construction of the Embankment, the channelling of the River Thames and its subsidiaries. MPs voted the money for this in 1862 in fear of their own lives and health after the “great stink” four years earlier when the noxious air from the river left them in fear of TB, cholera and all sorts of ills. Prior to the creation of the London County Council the building of new homes for working people was left to charitable bodies. So in 1874, the Artisans, Labourers & General Dwellings Company (now part of Sun Life insurance) began the construction of the Queens Park Estate to provide 2000 two up-two down homes for “respectable” working people, many railworkers at Paddington. No pubs were allowed. It was here that Queens Park Rangers was founded.

The London County Council would build homes for working class people, the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch opened in 1900 is a classic example of model housing built on the site of a notorious slum (whose inhabitants were not given the new homes because they were not “respectable”). But it was also determined on projects which had a strong element of social cleansing. One was the construction of Kingsway, linking the Strand with Holborn and driven through one of the most populated areas of London, a warren of medieval and Tudor buildings, which, while home to many businesses, was a slum. Seven thousand people lost their homes.

To fund the new scheme the LCC used £2 million from the rates it collected but it raised £4 million by selling off the land that was cleared to property developers. Kingsway and Aldwych at its southern end were built for profit, to ease communication and as slum clearance. The original plan was that the buildings would all have the same façade, as with Haussmann’s boulevards in Paris. But because the building and design was left to private developers that was not to be.

By the close of the 19th century the Ancien Regime had survived in most of Europe, weakened but alive. Faced with the challenge of, first, Jacobinism, then of a growing working class, the need to advertise the glory of monarchy grew. In Germany unification under Prussia in 1871 was followed by the construction in Berlin of wide streets, tree lined squares and monuments including the Column of Victory, the Reichstag, the Siegesalle and the Cathedral.

In Britain, as Queen Victoria’s rule entered her final three decades there was growing concern in ruling circles about her retreat from public ceremonial and about the scandals associated with her relationship with her Highland ghillie, John Brown.

The radical politician and historian, Frederic Harrison, argued in 1892 that “London, with the grandest river of any capital in Europe, with a rich and glorious history, with boundless energy, wealth and culture, suffers itself  to be put to  shame by Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Chicago and New York, and is content with its narrow lanes and hugger-mugger traditions of street architecture.”

The Tory, Benjamin Disraeli, more acceptable to Victoria than Gladstone, persuaded her in 1877 to become Empress of India, beginning the royal cycle of jubilees, weddings, births and marriages we are so familiar with today. The fact she could not keep Disraeli in office and had to stomach his electoral defeat by the hated Gladstone showed that royal power decreased during her reign. Conversely however, the royal ceremonial increased.

The building of what was effectively a procession route for royalty came late, after Victoria’s death in 1901. By then the British state had faced the renewed challenge of its own working class, the New Unionism of the late 1880s, followed by the more powerful Great Unrest of 1910-1914, was facing an arms race with Germany, had only just scraped to victory in the Boer War and was becoming increasingly worried about Ireland, while some of the more foresighted sensed women’s suffrage might soon become a challenge.

There was a conscious effort to build up the popularity of the monarchy around the commemoration of Victoria and the unlikely figure of that aging rake, Edward VIII. Between 1906 and 1913 the Queen Victoria Memorial Committee, chaired by that eminence grise of pre-First World War governments, Lord Esher, commissioned the new façade of Buckingham Palace (the one with the balcony they all wave from), the Queen Victoria Monument in front of it, the Mall and Admiralty Arch linking it to Trafalgar Square. Both the London County Council and Westminster Council refused to pay for this and it took a campaign culminating in a petition signed by half of all the MPs and letters from every newspaper editor to force a compromise whereby the costs were split between the LCC and the government. Parliament Square also took the shape it has today with the government ministries facing west, Middlesex Guildhall (now the Supreme Court), Westminster Abbey, substantially “improved” and the Palace of Westminster. Across the river was the headquarters of the new London County Council, County Hall. Edward VII revived the State Opening of Parliament with all its ritual and in 1923 the Duke of York’s wedding (that of the future George IV and the Queen Mother) was held at Westminster Abbey rather than at Windsor. By then the House of Windsor had a virtual monopoly on royal pageantry with the demise of nearly all its cousins. 

London had a ceremonial stage but there was never any sweeping plan to construct an imperial capital. Rather the vast majority of development was private, and still is. Admiralty Arch has been sold off to be developed into a luxury hotel. That also meant while there was social cleansing of the working class it was not on the scale achieved in Paris, inside today’s Périphérique, built along the line of the last remaining city walls. London is not separated into rigid upper, middle and working class areas like other British cities. The catastrophe of Grenfell Tower reminded us that even the most expensive bits of London, Holland Park and Notting Hill, are cheek by jowl by working class areas.

In recent times such obvious contrasts between rich and poor have fed into the city’s periodic riots. The privatisation of housing which has gathered pace since Thatcher’s sell off of council homes has also created an even greater “them and us;” with few under 40s ever likely to own their own home.

The British ruling class keeps re-inventing tradition in order to bolster its fading power, with the Royal Family and Central London key to that. They have not run out of tricks but on run down estates and amidst overcrowded homes the charm cuts less ice. The West End and the City, to the rest of Londoners, can feel alien, foreign territory.

London has its own insurgent history of riot, protest and strikes which is less spectacular than Paris’s but is very real. It is, of course, far bigger, and more multi-racial as a city. I have a feeling a new chapter in that turbulent history will open none too soon.




Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.