I am nearing the end of the fifth and final volume of Thomas Macaulay's work, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second. It is an exhaustive work, taking 2500 pages to cover the short span from 1685 to 1700. And as I have been reading Macaulay's history, I have been listening to chamber music of the same era (Biber, Schmelzer, Buxtehude, Purcell, Corelli, etc.). With all the current anxiety of the early twenty-first century, it has been refreshing to find sanctuary in the late seventeenth century.
As I was reading this past week, I was struck by the virtuosity of the passages below, wherein Macaulay describes two wretched districts of urban decay in London. Perhaps you can guess how the government responded to the situation. (Hint: no social workers were involved.)
The larger and more infamous district was called Alsatia.
Bounded on the west by the great school of English jurisprudence, and on the east by the great mart of English trade, stood this labyrinth of squalid, tottering houses, close packed, every one, from cellar to cockloft, with outcasts whose life was one long war with society. The most respectable part of the population consisted of debtors who were in fear of bailiffs. The rest were attorneys struck off the roll, witnesses who carried straw in their shoes as a sign to inform the public where a false oath might be procured for half a crown, sharpers, receivers of stolen goods, clippers of coin, forgers of bank-notes, and tawdry women, blooming with paint and brandy, who, in their anger, made free use of their nails and their scissors, yet whose anger was less to be dreaded than their kindness.
The other district was called The Savoy.
The Savoy was another place of the same kind, smaller, indeed, and less renowned, but inhabited by a not less lawless population. An unfortunate tailor who ventured to go thither for the purpose of demanding payment of a debt, was set upon by the whole mob of cheats, ruffians, and courtesans. He offered to give a full discharge to the debtor and a treat to the rabble, but in vain. He had violated their franchises; and this crime was not to be pardoned. He was knocked down, stripped, tarred, and feathered. A rope was tied round his waist. He was dragged naked up and down the streets amidst yells of "A bailiff! A bailiff!" Finally he was compelled to kneel down and curse his father and mother. Having performed this ceremony, he was permitted - and the permission was blamed by many of the Savoyards - to limp home without a rag upon him.
At last the scandal of Alsatia and The Savoy had to be addressed by the government.
At length, in 1697, a bill for abolishing the franchises of these places passed both Houses, and received the royal assent. The Alsatians and Savoyards were furious. Anonymous letters, containing menaces of assassination, were received by members of Parliament who had made themselves conspicuous by the zeal with which they had supported the bill: but such threats only strengthened the general conviction that it was high time to destroy these nests of knaves and ruffians. A fortnight's grace was allowed; and it was made known that, when that time had expired, the vermin who had been the curse of London would be unearthed and hunted without mercy. There was a tumultuous flight to Ireland, to France, to the Colonies, to vaults and garrets in less notorious parts of the capital; and when, on the prescribed day, the Sheriff's officers ventured to cross the boundary, they found those streets where, a few weeks before, the cry of "A writ!" would have drawn together a thousand raging bullies and vixens, as quiet as the cloister of a cathedral.