Victorian Studies Annual Lecture 2012: Prof. Peter Mandler – ‘The Creative Destruction of the Victorian City’

Last week the Centre hosted its Annual Victorian Studies Lecture, and this year we were treated to a wonderfully engaging talk by the new President of the Royal Historical Society, Professor Peter Mandler (Professor of Modern Cultural History, Cambridge). His paper, ‘Faust Comes to Town: The “Creative Destruction” of the Victorian City’, challenged the idea (represented by figures such as Pugin, Ruskin, and Morris, and institutions such as The National Trust) of the Victorians as preservers of the past. Mandler instead highlighted the wave of ‘creative destruction’ (known as ‘improvement’ by its supporters) which preceded the movement for preservation, and on which indeed, according to Mandler, this movement depended.

Gustav Doré, ‘The Devil’s Acre’, 1872.

In particular, the paper pointed to the creation of central business districts and the advent of the railways as the vehicles of ‘improvement’, which very often entailed the destruction of older ‘mixed-use centres’ and their historic buildings. Railway expansion also frequently involved the clearing of slums, a fact paid much attention to by historians in emphasising the social aspect of improvement (Prof Mandler quoted the example of the ‘notorious’ Devil’s Acre slum being deliberately driven through in the development of Victoria Station). However, a wide ‘convergence of interests’ lay behind the ideology of improvement, one that according to Mandler was characterised as being just as much economic and commercial as social and aesthetic.

One of the most interesting aspects of the paper was Mandler’s consideration of how this process of ‘improvement’ was understood by Victorians themselves, and the cultural metaphors which attached themselves to it. Mandler quoted Marshall Berman’s employment of the Faust story as an allegory for the force of modernity during the industrial revolution, Faust as ‘Developer’: ‘The distinctive environment that formed the stage for Faust’s last act – the immense construction site, stretching out boundlessly in every direction, constantly changing and forcing the characters in the foreground themselves to change – has become the stage for world history in our time’ (All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, 1982).

A more ‘resonant’ metaphor for the Victorians themselves however was the idea of Christian ‘stewardship’. While the language of stewardship also became used by Ruskin in order to argue for conservation, Mandler showed how the same idea had been understood much earlier as entailing a ‘duty to develop’, an ethos expressed by the Nonconformist Eclectic Review: ‘Man and Nature have been, since they first met, in perpetual conflict. Man is higher and stronger than nature.  Grafting a higher upon a lower nature, to improve and elevate the power, has ever been the mission of man, and it is the method of God’ (‘Man and Nature’, Eclectic Review, 7 (1967), 263).

‘Down with Poultry!’ Tomahawk, Nov 1869.

The religious language of stewardship was also used in the Tory-radical paper Tomahawk in its November 1869 article ‘Down with Poultry!’, which criticised the delay in reconstructing this street during a period of improvement around Mansion House. The cartoon from this edition shows the paper’s icon Tomahawk remonstrating with Industria, ‘the Spirit of Improvement’, in the language of the parable of the fig tree: ‘You have conjured up a beautiful city; but look at that ugly impeding Poultry; why cumbereth it the ground?’ Prof Mandler drew attention to how, by the cartoon omitting the allowance of an extra year for the unproductive tree to bear fruit in its retelling of the parable, the comment ‘why cumbereth it the ground?’ was ‘de-ironized’.

In Mandler’s analysis then, the ‘ideologies of improvement’ in the mid-nineteenth century proved much stronger than those of preservation. Although Victorians had an appreciation of historical and age value, these were not seen to outweigh the values of modern utility and growth. The valuation of the tradition of the Church of England, according to Mandler, was the one way in which tradition significantly stood in the way of improvement. Here again Berman’s interpretation of the Faust story was quoted, in which it is the destruction by Mephisto of Philemon and Baucis’ cottage and chapel, the last remaining obstacles to Faust’s project, that causes Faust to hesitate, causing ‘the reader’s sympathy to shift from improvement to preservation.’

The Hardy Tree, growing between moved gravestones in St Pancras Old Churchyard.

The destruction of churches and graveyards in the development of the railways similarly caused misgivings for Victorians. A fascinating example of this, provided by Mandler, was the Midland Railway’s clearance of part of Old St Pancras churchyard in 1867 and the scandal which ensued from reports of navvies ‘hacking the coffins to pieces and throwing the bones about’. This incident provided the material for the young Thomas Hardy, then an apprentice architect overseeing the disinterment, for his later poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ (1882): ‘O passenger, pray list and catch / Our sighs and piteous groans, / Half stifled in this jumbled patch / Of wrenched memorial stones!’ These misgivings however did not lead to hesitation, and the 8,000 bodies exhumed from St. Pancras were buried elsewhere. Mandler noted how proud Victorian engineers were of their ability to move rather than destroy objects that got in their way, and in this sense commented on how presentation could be seen as a ‘by-product’ of improvement rather than its antithesis, a ‘compatible’ rather than ‘antagonistic’ process.

From Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Doré’s ‘London: A Pilgrimage’ (1872).

Mandler’s paper showed then how ruthless Victorians could be in obliterating historical structures, and, furthermore, that this was seen by some Victorian thinkers as part of a broader process of ‘creative destruction’ which would eventually obliterate them. Mandler quoted Macaulay’s prediction that one day ‘some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s’ (‘A History of the Popes’, 1840), later the subject of an engraving by Doré. These representations drew on Gibbons’s idea of the decline and fall in the life-cycle of empires. This was a model of empire which, according to Duncan Bell however, Victorians were moving away from towards one which endorsed the idea of ‘creative destruction’ in order to extend the life of an empire. True preservation, according to Mandler then, ‘lay in neverending destruction.’


2 thoughts on “Victorian Studies Annual Lecture 2012: Prof. Peter Mandler – ‘The Creative Destruction of the Victorian City’

  1. Fascinating. So, Victorians recognised a drive for change and instigated a ‘creative destruction’ which prompted an annihilation? How this brings a certain poet to mind, who probably thought of and composed ‘The Garden’ in the midst of a gruelling Parliamentary career.

    Could we say, then, that some of the most fascinating literature is driven by observations of the march of progress?

    I’ve BlogRolled you at Writing Privacy, my fine Scot. Thumbs up and warm support from your humble early-modern mumbler. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the support! Much appreciated.

    I’m afraid this is a very inadequate summary of what was a really excellent paper. But I have selected some of the aspects that interested me most. The main point that I took from the paper was learning that, despite recent publications lamenting the destruction in the 20th century of many Victorian architectural masterpieces, the Victorians themselves were in the habit of doing precisely the same thing with even older buildings. But it was the ideology, or combination of ideologies, which drove this ‘creative destruction’ that was really fascinating. It could be justified, by turns, as due to economic, moral, social, commercial, and aesthetic reasons.

    What my mind kept returning to was the human experience of the ceaseless change wrought by progress/improvement/’creative destruction’. I think it is best summed up by some wonderful lines from Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Scholar Gypsy’:

    For what wears out the life of mortal men?
    ‘Tis that from change to change their being rolls;
    ‘Tis that repeated shocks, again, again,
    Exhaust the energy of strongest souls
    And numb the elastic powers.
    Till having used our nerves with bliss and teen,
    And tired upon a thousand schemes our wit,
    To the just-pausing Genius we remit
    Our worn-out life, and are – what we have been.

    Endless change, but somehow eternal reiteration of the same. Progress, then, still had its critics, and some significant ones at that. But all the same, Mandler’s talk provided a welcome sense of balance to this progressivist/preservationist debate.

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