City of London

The City is the “general name for London within the gates and within the bars”—the gates marking the boundaries of the original city wall, and bars marking the extended boundaries beyond the wall, as areas were annexed to accommodate an expanding population who maintained the status of citizens of the city (Wheatley, London Past and Present, 1:400–401). By the late eighteenth century, the gates and bars had been removed—except for Temple Bar, designed by Wren and erected after the Great Fire—yet the City had acquired a distinct identity as “an enclave within London”. Within the sprawling metropolis, the City had become “purely a place of business”, “the financial capital of the world”, albeit not “in itself the capital of England” (Ackroyd, London: The Biography, 519). Thus, in “Harry and Lucy . . . Vol 1” (chap. 1), when Mamma mentions that Papa has gone to the “city”, she refers to this financial center, where John James Ruskin and his partners maintained their business premises.
For other contexts in which the young Ruskin encountered neoclassical architecture—particularly, the transformative Greek Revival “improvements” that altered the style and experience of urban settings in the early nineteenth century—see The Colosseum, Hornorʼs London Panorama, and the London Diorama in Regentʼs Park; Early Victorian Cemetery Architecture; Neoclassical and Napoleonic‐Era Architecture in Milan and Northern Italy.
Billiter Street and the Premises of Ruskin, Telford, and Domecq
For Walter Besant writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the district of the City where John James Ruskin worked was defined by the ancient boundaries of two gates, Aldgate in the east and Bishopsgate on the north. Leadenhall Market marked one of the districtʼs oldest functions, while a more modern landmark was the headquarters of the East India Company. The district also contained the Jewish quarter (Besant, London City, 146). In Ruskinʼs youth, the East India House was the 1799 neoclassical structure, featuring an Ionic portico; and in the year of Ruskinʼs birth, James Mill began his career in the building, with his son, John Stuart, starting work there as a clerk four years later (Wheatley, London Past and Present, 2:2–3).
The business premises of Ruskin, Telford, and Domecq was located in Billiter Street, which runs between Leadenhall and Fenchurch Streets. Once called a lane, Billiter Street is very old, its structures having escaped the Great Fire. By the eighteenth century, observers regarded the streetʼs buildings as antiquated and “mean” except for those built in their own time in Billiter Square, on the west side of the street. Billiter Square was considered “airy” and lined with “good new brick buildings, very well inhabited”, according to eighteenth‐century sources quoted in the 1850 Hand‐book of London, which also notes that, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, those residences were gradually converted to businesses (Cunningham, Hand‐book of London, 54; Besant, London City, 150). One of these respectable buildings in Billiter Sreet was owned by Henry Telford, who became the sleeping partner in the firm of Ruskin, Telford, and Domecq (Hilton, John Ruskin: The Early Years, 6).
In the 1820s and 1830s, besides John Jamesʼs firm, other import businesses were headquartered in the neighborhood, such as the large West India House, which operated the West India Docks (Chancellor, Squares of London, 385). For such companies, Billiter Street was convenient to the London Docks, which were situated east of the nearby Tower of London. A more auspicious neighbor for Ruskinʼs career was the shop of Smith, Elder, first located in Fenchurch Street, around the corner from Billiter Street, where the company supplied stationery to the East India Company, and later located in Cornhill, where the company went on to develop its publishing arm (see Smith, Elder, & Company).
According to the 1891 updated edition of the Hand‐book of London, toward the end of the nineteenth century Billiter Street became “very different” with the erection of “large and lofty piles of offices” and “a handsome avenue opened to Lime street”, which runs parallel to Billiter Street (Wheatley, London Past and Present, 1:185).
The London Docks
In “Harry and Lucy . . . Vol. 1”, Mamma remarks to Lucy that Papa has “got to go to . . . the city and then to the docks” (chap. 1), and Ruskin later includes an illustration, “Harryʼs Dock,” [Plate] “8,” [“Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 1] . By the 1820s, when Ruskin was writing, new docks had been recently completed or were under construction to service the enormous increase in trade. Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, rapidly growing congestion at the quays had become untenable, causing damage to ships, and creating conditions of lax control that resulted in huge losses due to thievery and smuggling. Consequently, within the first decade of the nineteenth century, a legislative and engineering feat was undertaken to construct extensive new wetdocks, an accomplishment was celebrated as a testimonial to Englandʼs commercial might (though the new docks would soon be made obsolete by growing size of ships powered by steam). To manage trade with India, the new West India Docks were built in the Isle of Dogs, and the new East India docks arose at Blackwall. Closer to the City, the new London Docks were built at Wapping. As Ruskin was writing his first “Harry and Lucy” volume, the St. Katherine Dock was under construction near the Tower. It opened in 1828 (Marriott, Beyond the Tower, 96–103).
Initially, Ruskin, Telford and Domecq must have done business at the London Docks in Wapping, opened in 1805, since it held a twenty‐one‐year monopoly on imports of tobacco, rice, wine and brandy, other than the Indies trade (a monopoly that backfired during the Napoleonic Wars, when imports of wine were disturbed). When the monopoly expired, and a free‐trade legislature was disinclined to renew it, the case made for the openly competitive St. Katherine Dock was led, among others, by wine merchants who complained that the London Docks lacked adequate warehousing for the barrels that now crowded in shipments from the reopened Continent (Broodbank, History of the Port of London, 1:114, 140, 157).
John Marriott comments that the London docks, “more than any other feature of the industrial landscape”, acquiried “extraordinary symbolic power” as representing “metropolitan modernization”, yet “the vast body of casual labourers” unsteadily employed there “struck at the very heart of the social, moral and political concern exercising the minds of nineteenth‐century middle‐class observers in London, who . . . singled out the figure of the casual dockworker as the most degraded form of human existence” (Beyond the Tower, 104, 107). In Fors Clavigera, letter 12 (December 1871), Ruskin perhaps meant to invoke such an impression when referring to “the men at St. Catherineʼs Docks . . . under Tower Hill”, who by implication rank among the lowest and most neglected of the “host of earth”. Perhaps this reference was also personal, meant to include his own family among the “religious friends” he mocks in the letter as claiming to “ʼhave nothing to do with it—you are very sorry for it—[but] . . . the power of England is coalʼ” (Ruskin, Works, 27:206, 205, 204).
[More to come.]
Back to top