Introduction to Modern London (1804)


The opening plate of Modern London, showing the city as seen from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

The ‘Advertisement’ which opens Modern London; being the History and Present State of the British Metropolis, presumably written by its publisher, Richard Phillips, provides a clear rationale for the book’s production:

NO apology can be requisite for presenting to the world the History and Present State of the British Metropolis, at a time when the English language is destitute of any modern work of adequate consequence on the same important subject.


The present publication addresses itself, in a popular and inviting form, to foreigners who may wish to convey to their respective countries correct ideas of London; and it also recommends itself to Englishmen, who cannot find in Stowe, Maitland, or Pennant, those facts relative to the actual present state of their Metropolis with which they may desire to become acquainted.


It is obvious that Stowe can be interesting only to the antiquary; that Maitland is at once too antiquated and prolix for general reading; and that Pennant is rather a collection of detached anecdotes of persons and places than a systematic history of London.  Each of these works have, however, their peculiar worth; but they are not adapted to the views of general readers, nor do they exhibit London as it is.


But whatever may be the merit of those authors, their works have long been out of print, and they are only to be bought occasionally at a high price.  It has, therefore, been a defect in the literature of the country, that no adequate work existed which described this great Metropolis, with the exception of the small Guide, lately published under the title of The Picture of London.


The great success and high character, both at home and abroad, of this latter work have given birth to the present.  In fact it has served as the skeleton upon which the present work has been formed.  In point of correctness and variety, it answers every purpose of a pocket companion; but, from the necessary scantiness of its details, its confined embellishments, and limited size, it is unworthy of being the only book which describes the British Metropolis.


Besides enlarging and improving all that relates to its present state, a History of London has here been prefixed, which has been compiled from the best authors and from original mss. by a distinguished antiquary.


The numerous embellishments of this work will sufficiently speak for themselves.  They are faithful portraits of the places and scenes represented, and they exhibit the very soul of the Metropolis in a way which has never before been attempted.  Most of the busy haunts of the inhabitants, whether for the gratification of ambition, avarice, or pleasure, have been exactly pourtrayed; and these views convey at once correct ideas of places which interest from their celebrity, and of scenes which characterize the manners of the people.1

In Phillips’ view, the principal previous works which had sought to depict London as a whole – John Stow’s Survey of London (first published in 1598), William Maitland’s History of London (1739) and Thomas Pennant’s Some Account of London (1790) – had painted portraits which were focused primarily on the city’s history and were generally organised in manners which were arcane or idiosyncratic rather than clear, concise and representative.  Rather than showing London as it had been or as it appeared to particular individuals to be, Phillips sought in Modern London to give a general and useful account of the city in the present day.  Modern London does not neglect the city’s past – a great deal of historical material is woven through its descriptions and, as Phillips states, it opens with an antiquarian account which takes up over a hundred pages.2  However, the bulk of the book ‘leav[es] things as they have been to a different kind of work’, seeking instead to ‘to afford accurate, ample, and pleasing information’ about the present state of the city.3

As Phillips readily admits, Modern London was founded on the text of another volume he had published, John Feltham’s hugely successful The Picture of London, first issued in 1802 subtitled ‘a correct guide to all the Curiosities, Amusements , Exhibitions, Public Establishments, and remarkable Objects, in and near London; with a collection of appropriate tables’.  The Picture went through a series of annual editions and revisions over a number of years and its formula was imitated by several of Phillips’ competitors.  Feltham’s volume described itself on the title page as being ‘for the use of strangers, foreigners, and all persons who are not intimately acquainted with the British Metropolis’, sharing with Modern London and with Rudolph Ackermann’s later Microcosm of London the aim of bringing London to life for those who were unfamiliar with its sights and rhythms, allowing them to acclimatise themselves to its particularities and thereby teaching them to act appropriately when discussing the city or when later encountering its realities.4  The ongoing success of Feltham’s five-shilling book and its successors made it clear to Phillips that there was likely to be a demand for a treatment of the same subject targeted towards the upper end of the market.

While Modern London was considerably cheaper than the lavish Microcosm, its three-guinea cost still represented a significant investment.  Feltham’s book was a close-typed duodecimo, but Modern London was a substantial quarto, with large text and wide margins.  Feltham’s book had included a small number of plates, but Modern London included two extensive series: twenty-two black-and white plates of major scenes and landmarks, mostly engraved from designs by the Welsh artist Edward Pugh, and thirty-one coloured illustrations ‘representing the itinerant traders of London in their ordinary costume’ depicted in ‘remarkable places’, engraved from designs by William Marshall Craig.  While neither of these artists were established leaders in their field, both were respectable.  Craig held several positions with connections to royalty and both artists exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibitions, occasions which Modern London describes as being ‘entitled to the first notice’ among the capital’s public art events.5  Whereas Feltham’s guide was a relatively nondescript and practical book, suitable for slipping into one’s pocket, Modern London was a book for the table or the armchair, a volume to be viewed and dwelt over rather than consulted.

The chapter listing for Modern London is in some ways reminiscent of more recent tourist guides, but also features a number of more novel inclusions and omissions which speak to the different ways in which early nineteenth-century readers engaged with the city:

CHAP. I. HISTORY of London

CHAP. II. General Description of London

CHAP. III. Present Manners and Police of the Metropolis

CHAP. IV. Hospitals and other Public Charities

CHAP. V. Juridical and Legal Tribunals and Establishments

CHAP. VI. Royal Palaces, Parks, and other Appurtenances of State and Government

CHAP. VII. Commerce and Trade of London, Public Offices, and Public Commercial Buildings

CHAP. VIII. Prisons

CHAP. IX. Architecture, Public and Private Buildings, Squares, and Statues

CHAP. X. Learned Societies, Literature, and Literary Journals

CHAP. XI. Public Amusements, Theatres, Musical and Theatrical Performances

CHAP. XII. State of the Fine Arts, and their Influence on and Relation to Manners: Public and Private Collections, and Public Exhibitions6

The book opens, as many modern city guides do, with a history and a general description, which includes information on distances, population, climate and consumption.  The third chapter, on manners, also has a lot in common with modern tourist guides, seeking to explain customs and to give an abstract of the city’s particular character.  However, differences become apparent in the chapters which follow.  In Modern London, there is a notable focus on charitable institutions, the component parts of the legal system and on the major centres of commerce and trade.  Some of these institutions contained the sorts of sights which modern tourists might travel to see – the Foundling Hospital displayed a number of original works by William Hogarth and the Painted Hall at what was then Greenwich Hospital is still open to visitors today.  However, their inclusion also reflects the interest which Modern London takes in the civic makeup of the city.  Its primary focus is more on how the city functions than on what a visitor can do in it.  A quick and dirty word frequency analysis using Voyant reveals an interest in the types of buildings whose names double as markers of families or institutions (‘office’, ‘court’, ‘house’, ‘hospital’), a concern with the relations which bind together the city’s inhabitants (‘public’, ‘society’, ‘general’, ‘persons’) and a preoccupation with London’s status as the enduring focal point for British social hierarchies (‘lord’, ‘royal’, ‘king’).  The word ‘great’ is also used a great deal, probably in part due to its prominence in street names, but also to make claims about London’s scale and preeminence.

The most notable absences from Modern London are extensive details of the means of shelter and sustenance on which the modern tourist would rely: for example, information about hotels, restaurants, bars and shops.  The lack of detail about accommodation reminds us that visits to London were generally more prolonged during the early nineteenth century due to the cost and speed of travel – many visitors would take lodgings or would stay with friends, acquaintances or connections for a number of weeks, as the heroes and heroines of many novels do when they are drawn in by the irresistible gravity of the city.  The relative lack of detail about dining and shopping (with the exception of the plates depicting itinerant trades) seems something of an oversight, but reflects Modern London’s focus on larger patterns rather than pragmatic and swiftly-changing necessities.  Feltham’s Picture features an extensive ‘List of the Principal Hotels, Coffee Houses, Taverns, Inns &c.’, but this was one of the cuts made to pitch Modern London as a volume deserving of the kind of ongoing currency which the volumes by Stow, Maitland and Pennant enjoyed.7

Modern London is deeply concerned with probity.  Within its pages, London is explored in part as an object lesson.  ‘Every man,’ the text contends at one point, ‘whether softened by humanity, or hardened by vice, may find a suitable subject for meditation in a prison: with the good, such a spectacle may act as a spur to benevolence; with the wicked, as a curb to malignity.’8  The book includes a number of interesting specifics, but its main preoccupation is with establishing London as a regulated system, ordered by the twin forces of commerce and morality.  Modern London is concerned with the ways in which the city fits together, eschewing ‘minutiae and innumerable circumstances’ in favour of ‘accurate, ample and pleasing information’ to allow its readers to form a coherent picture of the city’s functioning.9

Romantic London does not at present feature the full text of Modern London (although those interested can download scans of the whole book for free from the British Library website).  Instead, it focuses on the two series of plates which the book contains and the pages of descriptive texts which it provides to contextualise these.  The plates can be seen mapped together onto the same map, on separate maps (landmarks/trades) or in galleries (landmarks/trades).  The three maps include the full descriptions from Modern London as popups on individual markers and as sequences below the control boxes.

There are twenty-two plates of scenes and landmarks interspersed through the main text of Modern London.  Twenty of these are taken from designs by Edward Pugh, while the remaining two – exterior views of St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey – were drawn by Samuel Rawle, who went on to become a noted topographical illustrator.10  These black-and-white images cluster around particular points – Greenwich, Westminster, the centre of the City of London – and depict both major vistas and particular human occasions.  In a article on the representation of leisure and of ‘untroubled social mixing’ in Pugh’s contributions, John Barrell contends that he ‘offers us a different and much more benign take on modernity than does the text of Modern London‘.11  Pugh’s plates present the people of London interacting and relaxing in ways which contrast with the relative starchiness of the main text, which focuses principally on the contents and functions of the buildings it describes rather than on the many lives which pass through them.  Pugh’s figures are by no means as wild and sharp as Rowlandson’s equivalents in the Microcosm, but they succeed in peopling London in ways which the chapters of the book, concerned as they are with order and commerce, often fail fully to achieve.  While the text reaches for general truths, the images, by their nature, must specify.

The thirty-one plates of itinerant traders by William Marshall Craig strike some telling contrasts, placing some of London’s least wealthy salespersons in some of its most exclusive squares.  While not as accomplished as Pugh’s plates, these coloured images of particular tradespeople reveal a great deal about how the city functioned in the days before supermarkets and department stores, memorialising the specific human labourers who formed indispensable and colourful parts of its ecosystem.  The texts celebrate the ways in which London’s traders supported its sights and institutions, but also encode anxieties about the fairness and equability of these arrangements.  While the Foundling Hospital is unreservedly commended, the details given of the poor chimney sweep in front of it make it clear that charitable systems can by no means be entirely effective in alleviating the struggles of London’s poor.  Modern London presents a largely positive image of the metropolis, but is honest enough to reveal some of its tensions.



  1. [Richard Phillips], Modern London; being the History and Present State of the British Metropolis (London: Richard Phillips, 1804), pp. iii-vi.
  2. The identity of the ‘distinguished antiquary’ who wrote this account has not definitively been ascertained; John Barrell advances an argument for the Welsh antiquarian David Hughson in ‘Edward Pugh in Modern London’, The London Journal, 37.3 (November 2012), 174-95 (p. 175).
  3. Modern London, p. 474.
  4. [John Feltham], The Picture of London for 1802 (London: Richard Phillips, 1802).  A copy of this volume can be seen on Google Books.
  5. See Austin Dobson, ‘Craig, William Marshall (d. 1827)’, rev. Annette Peach, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), <> and Peter Lord, ‘Pugh, Edward (bap. 1763, d. 1813)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, <>; Modern London, p. 468.
  6. Modern London, pp. vii-viii.
  7. Picture of London for 1802, p. 349.
  8. Modern London, pp. 327-8.
  9. Modern London, pp. 473, 474.
  10. B. Hunnisett, ‘Rawle, Samuel (1775/6–1860)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), <>.
  11. Barrell, pp. 193, 194.