by mattpBritish History in the Long 18th Century Chancery Lane: politics, space and the built environment, c. 1760-1815 Francis Boorman (IHR) 19 October 2011
Sandwiched between the west and east ends of London, Chancery Lane was a focus point in England’s capital city and therefore an ideal place for lawyers to set up shop. It is hard to imagine what life would have been like there in the eighteenth century. The roads were tight and dangerous and represented an old, much smaller sized London than what had grown up around it over the last 100 years or so. According to Francis Boorman the clash of classes was extremely evident here, with robberies common in its narrow streets as the rich fell foul to the poor, and as a place where women regularly prostituted themselves. There were also many pubs and coffee houses in the district which can only have intensified matters. With a distinct lack of street lighting this was a seedy place to hang around, but it was also a centre of law and order.
This paper focuses on the politics of public space in London and particularly its importance to radicals and conservatives in the long eighteenth-century. Francis Boorman argues that Chancery Lane’s geographical and topographical location in London and its specific importance for the legal profession were crucial to its formation as a built environment. Geographically Chancery Lane is located right in the middle of the west and east sides of London and fell under various jurisdictions. Topographically Chancery Lane had narrow but busy streets causing congestion problems and encouraging high levels of accidents.
In addition Chancery Lane was viewed as the physical manifestation for the reputation of the lawyers who worked there. For example building works by lawyers gave manifest significant criticism of the legal profession from the public. People felt that lawyers were improving their place of work and getting rich off of other people’s money. In the long eighteenth-century there was a very real perception that lawyers were dishonest, greedy, and untrustworthy.
Boorman explains all these issues in clear detail to show why the expansion and improvement of the road took so long to be achieved. Even despite the money and workforce available through the Westminster Paving Committee and numerous complaints that the Lane was dangerous (especially near Fleet Street) nothing happened. The main reasons for this was arguments between the local residents and the lawyers on who should pay as well as the difficulty of convincing the various jurisdictions under which Chancery Lane fell that they should act in unison.