Gissing and the Topographies of Lambeth, Part Two: From Lambeth Walk to Brixton and Beyond

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientific


Opening paragraphs in lieu of abstract:

Actsof naming and definitions of spatial boundaries recorded in literature,especially in realist fiction such as George Gissing’s with its precision abouttoponyms, not only record but actually structure people’s urban lifeexperiences. Around the edges of late Victorian and Edwardian London newdistricts were created when railway lines were built into areas of fieldsformerly beyond the city’s boundaries, making the population increasingly“distributed into social areas” that were physically separate from one another.[i] The naming of stations andthe simultaneous construction of houses around them could suddenly bring anarea into being that had never been before, as at Golders Green in North Londonwhere the northern terminus of the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railwayopened in June 1907. Such new districts of very large cities have a nebulousexistence until sufficient signs and labels become attached to them for theirexistence to seem reliable and secure.

Insteadof standing distinct from one another like country villages surrounded byfields, the numerous new districts blurred into one another, and theirrelationship was one of grading, of the threat of rise and fall. Suchgradations and shifts could be detected throughout the nineteenth and twentiethcenturies, at levels ranging from the individual house to entire sectors of thecity. Jerry White shows, quoting the writer John Holloway’s later memoir of a1920s childhood in Norwood, how people in outer South London then wereconscious of “the slightest distinctions between the streets”.[ii] The same applied atStepney, in inner East London, where one side of a street considered itselfmore genteel than the other because the houses there had basements, accordingto the Jewish East End memoirist Willy Goldman.[iii] A name attached to adistrict could become a millstone, if the name became linked to slumminess orsome other sort of bad reputation. As well as appearing, whole districts couldshift, expand and contract, or even disappear altogether. Today, Lambeth shadesinto Waterloo, Kennington and Vauxhall. “Horsley Down” was written in largeletters over a portion of London immediately south of Tower Bridge on an 1891map, but no Londoners alive a hundred years later would ever use the name for aLondon district.[iv]Cities have a remarkable ability to forget, or rather perhaps what istransmitted between human beings of different generations is a tiny proportionof what the earlier generations knew and felt.

Gissingis well known as a writer of place, but the definition of localities throughthe establishment of boundaries and the application of names which might ormight not stick in the longer term are more important to his writing than hasso far been appreciated.[v] Whereas much of Gissing’s1880s fiction memorializes threatened and disappearing slums in Victorian innerLondon, the work of his 1890s fiction, vitally, is that of creating the SouthLondon suburbs. This act of creation exists in productive abrasive dialoguewith another such act, namely the official creation of new metropolitanboroughs, municipal boroughs and urban districts in the reformed localgovernment environment of late Victorian England.

[i] Hugh Clout, TheTimes London History Atlas (London: Times Books, 1991), p. 88 (the samepage containing a map of “London’s Growth 1800–1914”).

[ii] Jerry White, London in the Twentieth Century: A City and Its People (London:Viking, 2001), p. 124.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Stanford’sLibrary Map of London and its Suburbs (London: E. Stanford, 1891), sheet11, reproduced in Peter Barber, London: AHistory in Maps (London: London Topographical Society in association withThe British Library, 2012), p. 271.

[v] The cartographic approach developed by RichardDennis, for example in “Mapping Gissing’s Workersin the Dawn,” Gissing Journal46:4 (October 2010), pp. 1–20, and “Thyrza’sGeography,” in George Gissing, Thyrza,ed. Pierre Coustillas (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2013), pp. 560–567, is animportant precursor to these articles. But I perhaps see place as morefleeting, more imagined, more evasive than Dennis does.

Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Pages (from-to)25–43
JournalThe Gissing Journal
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2018
MoE publication typeB1 Article in a scientific magazine

Cite this