We are living in a golden age of social history, with professional historians, novelists and amateur genealogists all eagerly excavating the past. Since the seventeenth century there have been select groups of antiquarians, but most people in all the eras before our own were genuinely too much occupied – with war and other tumults, with privation and personal hazards, with the stagnant grind of poverty or with the exhilaration of hard-won gains – to empathise much with their ancestors or to explore the buried layers of their own familiar habitats. Only now, in the period of relative peace and gluttonous prosperity that has been ours since the late 1950s, have large numbers of us tried to summon from oblivion all the neglected generations lying behind us with an almost yearning concern to know ‘How was it for you?’.
Books that have to do with London’s past have multiplied in the last two decades and standards are high, whether for fact-crammed compendiums or visionary personal evocations. To some extent Victorian London and The Thames represent these different categories, except that Liza Picard’s book, though wonderfully entertaining and on the