The London Writers You’ve Never Heard Of



If you start collecting London books you’ll quickly have your shelves filled to breaking point. More pointless volumes about the East End’s artisanal muesli vendors arrive with each passing day, yet there are dozens of fascinating London writers who failed to remain in print. The most interesting thing about them is the insight they give into London life in past eras. But you have to watch your step, for the city’s chroniclers were often its biggest liars.

Elizabeth Fowler (probably a relation) was the daughter of a London shopkeeper, born at the end of the 17th century, and wrote scandalous bodice-ripping satires and allegories featuring prostitutes, charlatans and social climbers. Although ‘The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless’ was a sophisticated, multiple-plot novel that advanced female literature, featuring a strong-willed woman fighting society’s pressures to marry, it wasn’t as much fun as ‘The Distress’d Orphan – or Love in a Madhouse.’

Arthur W Symons is a virtually lost poet, playwright and essayist (1865-1945) who had this to say about city light; ‘A London sunset, seen through vistas of narrow streets, has a colour of smoky rose which can be seen in no other city…it weaves strange splendours on its edges and gulfs of sky. At such a point as the Marble Arch, you may see conflagrations of jewels, a sky of burning lavender tossed abroad like a crumpled cloak, with broad bands of dull purple and smoky pink, slashed with bright gold and decked with grey streamers.’ Clearly this only applies to London before the Clean Air Act.

For another taste of the capital here’s ‘The English Sappho’, forgotten poet Mary Robinson, on a London summer morning; ‘Now begins the din of hackney-coaches, waggons, carts; While tinmen’s shops, and noisy trunk-makers, knife grinders, coopers, squeaking cork-cutters, fruit barrows, and the hunger-giving cries of vegetable-vendors fill the air.’Fig2

Richard Steele co-founded The Spectator in 1711 and has disappeared despite his evocative writings on London’s street life, its bawdy wenches, beggars and assorted ‘ragged rascals’. Octavia Hill (1838-1912) has had better luck because her campaigning essays remain relevant. She believed in ‘space for people’ and established London’s Garden City movement, co-founding the National Trust.

A personal favourite? George Augustus Sala, whose ‘Twice Round the Clock: Twenty Four Hours in Victorian London’ (1859) is a fabulous, exhausting, baroque and frequently annoying kaleidoscope full of gin shop drunks, beaten urchins and dead cats. A great many of the sentences in this chronological tour of the metropolis will make you reach for a dictionary; ‘Smoke has been merciful to Covent Garden market, and its cornucopia is not as dingy as a ramoneur’s sack.’ But if Victorian London was as gloriously colourful as this, you’d want to live there.

For those who get the London book collecting bug there are also specialist non-fiction volumes on London doors, lions, graves, gates, paintings, sculptures, sewers, rivers, tunnels, pubs, language, decorations, markets, museums, shops, neighbourhoods, fashions, protests, transport, film locations, gardens and of course, people.

13 comments on “The London Writers You’ve Never Heard Of”

  1. snowy says:

    Forgive me if I have mentioned him before, if Sala is to your taste, then:

    Henry Mayhew, co-founder of Punch, an influence on Dickens, Kingsley among others. Wrote a sort of ‘faction’, he interviewed members of the London working class, didn’t reveal he planned to publish their words and profit thereby. Some were not best pleased with him… Got a bit heated. [Could be cited as a pioneer of ‘reality’ entertainment, displaying the lives of the less fortunate for the entertainment of the ‘better’ classes.]

    His best known work covers similar ground to Engels ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, but Mayhew is much less didactic and much more convivial.

  2. Vivienne says:

    Yes, just bought Mayhew at a Christmas fair, and Augustus Hare’s 2 volume Walks in London. Haven’t yet got round to seeing what’s still there and what’s missing- it’s very dense. Is A J Symons the man who wrote Quest for Corvo?

  3. Roger says:

    There’s also Life in London and The Finish to Life in London by Pierce Egan (whose Boxiana is some of the earliest boxing journalism). Among poems, as well as Johnson’s London there’s John Gay’s Trivia.

    A. J. A. Symons (of Corvo fame) was no relation to Arthur W Symons, but was Julian Smons’s brither.

  4. Helen says:

    “The History of Miss Betty Thoughtless” is my new favorite title.

  5. davem says:

    I recently purchased an old edition of ‘Old and New London’ (Illustrated), Vol. VI, The Southern Suburbs, by Edward Walford.

    Totally fascinating.

    It includes comprehensive chapters on Southwark, Rotherhithe, Deptford, Greenwich, Blackheath, Charlton, Eltham, Lee and Lewisham. Very unusual for old books which normally concentrate on the centre.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    It seems a good place to ask so here goes, I was listening to The Kinks ‘Waterloo Sunset’, and it made me wonder what would be the best songs to sum up London or at least give a snap shot of a time and place, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ seem mainly to be US versions too, although I do have an odd version by Anthony Newley.


  7. Roger says:

    Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a whopping (or Wapping) big London Symphony; there’s Elgar’s Cockaigne. Holst’s Brook Green and Hammersmith Suites are fine music, but bear bo resemblance to their subjects.

  8. Vivienne says:

    Hard to beat Waterloo Sunset. Was working on South Bank when it came out. Worked with Julie who was going out with Terry. What about Finchley Central?

  9. Davem says:

    Wayne, loads of Pogues songs that invoke London such as The Old Main Drag, Dark Streets of London, Misty Morning Albert Bridge, and numerous others.

  10. snowy says:

    My first thought was ‘I Don’t Want to go Chelsea’, followed swiftly by ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’.

    Most if not all of the Ian Dury songbook?

    Not forgetting, of course:

    *tinkles ivories*

    *takes a deep breath*

    A-Hooo, A-Hooo, Werewolves of London

  11. sirhenry says:

    Have to chip in and give a mention to Gerry Rafferty’s BAKER STREET.

  12. Vivienne says:

    Oh, failed to mention earlier, also bought a book called Paperboy at said fair. Might be about London too.

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    Thanks for the London songs and music. I must hunt down The Holst, I’ve not listened to Ian Dury lately, must put that right.



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