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Imagining low life before the East End’s invention, c.1780s to 1840s

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Anglo-American conference 2009: Cities
Imagining low life before the East End’s invention, c.1780s to 1840s
Vic Gatrell (University of Cambridge)

Abstract: This paper looks at East London life before Victorian observers ‘invented’, ‘ideologically constructed’, ‘mythicised’, or ‘problematised’ the ‘East End’ (as the fashionable phrases nowadays go). It sets aside the Victorian judgements and anxieties through which many historians still filter their views of East London and, without denying its deprivations, it speculates how best we might treat its ‘low life’ in its own and more positive terms.

Recalling Dr Johnson’s advice to Boswell in 1783 to go with curious eye and philosophic mind to Wapping the better to measure London’s ‘wonderful extent and variety’, the paper focuses on the century after 1750 or so, to wonder what it was that outsiders were responding to when they described East Enders as ‘happy’, and allowed them their own exuberant vitality.

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