Another brilliant book (actually, three books) for dipping into, Henry Benjamin Wheatley’s London Past and Present (1891) is an encyclopaedia of the ‘history, associations and traditions’ of London.
Wheatley himself is commemorated by the Wheatley Medal of the Society of Indexers, awarded for ‘an outstanding index published in the United Kingdom’. He may be regarded as the founding father of professional indexing, having written What Is an Index? (1879), and How To Make an Index (1902), as well as How To Form a Library (1886) and How To Catalogue a Library (1889). He also wrote Samuel Pepys and the World He Lived In (1880), as well as publishing (between 1893 and 1899) the most reliable edition of Pepys’s Diaries available until the Latham/Matthews edition of the 1970s.
His father had died before his birth in 1838, and his mother died soon afterwards. He was then brought up, and apparently educated, by his brother Benjamin Robert, who was nearly 20 years older, and a professional bibliographer. Henry rose rapidly through the ranks of what one must assume was a relatively new profession: as clerk to the Royal Society he catalogued its manuscripts, he edited bibliographical journals, was a co-founder of the Library Association and of the Early English Text Society, and wrote on antiquarian and topographical topics for many learned periodicals. From 1879 to his retirement in 1908 he was assistant secretary to the Royal Society of Arts, an organization which, as his ODNB biographer notes, had many fingers in many pies, and was thus ‘very much suited to Wheatley’s own modus operandi’.
The London Past and Present books (divided A–D, E–O and P–Z) provide information on London places, and the people who lived and worked in them, from Abbey Road, St John’s Wood, to the Zoological Gardens. Wheatley fully acknowledges in his Preface that his own work derives from and expands a sequence of books begun in 1849 by Mr Peter Cunningham with his Handbook of London. The Introduction gives a brief overview of the city’s history, from ‘British’ and ‘Roman’ London to the (then) present day. While it applauds the various improvements – especially the Thames embankments – that have resulted in a healthier environment, nevertheless, ‘the Londoner will, as an archaeologist, regret the many interesting relics of the past which have been swept away’.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the work is precisely its coverage of the bits of London that are no longer there: churches destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and never rebuilt, ‘Bermondsey Spa’, closed in 1805 and built over, but ‘a minor Vauxhall’ in its heyday, the Boar’s Head Tavern where Falstaff caroused (finally demolished in 1831), or the Smyrna coffee house in Pall Mall, frequented by Jonathan Swift, and where later Beau Nash would ‘wait a whole day at a window . . . in order to receive a bow from the Prince, or the Duchess of Malborough’, and then turn graciously to acknowledge the awed by-standers.
And then there are the people: Mr John Moore of Abchurch Lane, ‘author of the celebrated worm-powder’, mocked by Alexander Pope; the clerk of St Sepulchre’s church, Newgate, reciting the ‘repentance’ verses to those condemned to be executed the following morning; Mr Charles Jamrach, naturalist, who could furnish you with anything ‘from an elephant, giraffe, or rattlesnake to a dormouse or a Java sparrow’; Mr Kerby in Shoe Lane, from whom Isaak Walton bought his fish-hooks; the Earl of Dorset, stunned by a copy of Paradise Lost in a bookshop in Little Britain, which the proprietor begged him to tell all his friends about, as he couldn’t shift the books . . .
Wheatley and his predecessors cite Stowe and Aubrey, Elizabethan dramatists, Pope and Swift, the Gentleman’s Magazine and the Calendar of State Papers, Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb, Dickens and Thackeray. Anyone interested in London (and when you are tired of London, you are famously tired of life) simply won’t be able to put them down: you look up one thing, it leads to another, and another – and then several hours have (most agreeably) passed!