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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

Londonist's Amazing Victorian Heritage Revealed

I feel sure that most modern Londoners would associate the word Londonist with the all-encompassing London website Londonist.

The one that keeps us all up to date on news and events, restaurants and bars and all the "happenings and goings-on" in town. You know the one, it's the site with a good eye for an interesting London map or photo, an interest in the arty and quirky side of city life and the site which never seems to sleep.

But how many Londoners would realise that this Londonist, a product of the internet age, could actually trace its name and ethos back to Victorian times?

Idly flicking through a 19th Century celebration of the city the anachronistic word Londonist leapt out at me. Here in a copy of London Town by Marcus Fall, published in 1860, I was surprised to find an entire chapter entitled "The Londonist".

As I read this short piece it seemed as if the Victorian Mr Fall had presciently summed up the essence and spirit of the 21st Century website.

Here is the whole, short, chapter complete with an original illustration.

The Londonist
The Londoner is an average human whose fate it is to be born and to live in London. He or she is no specialist as regards the metropolis itself. The Londoner, pure and simple, is no more a Londonist than a person born on shipboard is a sailor. The Londonist first sees light in the country, not in a very Iarge town like Manchester or Birmingham or Liverpool, but either in some quiet sleepy place we read of in the Wars of the Roses, or some town of later growth, still short of three hundred thousand inhabitants. Between great midland and northern towns and London exists a sense of rivalry never completely extinguished in the breast of any native of the former. But your Londonist pure and simple can hear of no competitor. This vast confluence of streets, and lanes, and squares, and parks, and institutions, and nationalities, and telegraph wires, and interests, and commerce, and ambitions called London is to him the most amazing and glorious spectacle ever presented to the human eye, the most enthralling theme ever given to the human tongue.

The Londonist - illustration
The Londonist - illustration

The Londonist is usually rotund and well- favoured, plausible in speech and manner, as becomes the citizen of the queen paramount of cities. Nothing in London can disturb or annoy him. You complain of the noise. Yes, he says, noise is inseparable from the prodigious traffic of the Great City; but where will you find a deeper quiet than in the Temple Gardens? You cry out against the bad water. No doubt some of the water is not good, he will admit; but think of supplying four millions of people!
Then he bursts away in eloquent praises, and gives you no chance of getting a word, he holds that the longer one lives in London the more one’s mind is filled with wonder at its immense variety and inexhaustible resources. It is the best paved, the best watered, the best watched, the most heathful city in the world. If you ask him how he explains the fearful crimes that daily occur and are daily covered up in oblivion, he meets you by asking how you can judge London in such matters, since we have no trustworthy accounts of any other city of such dimensions. Thus he has you at a disadvantage; for while he bids you withhold censure for the doleful fruits of dense population, he claims all the shining results of that population as elements deserving profound admiration and awe.
The Londonist holds it better to live in London on bread and water than in a palace on the Lake of Como. You can buy in it a pennyworth of anything, from water-cresses to treason. You can look at people of all nations here, and shipping from all seas. You can find society according to your means and rank and desires, either with dukes West, with thieves East, or with sparrows on the secret house-tops. You can drown your cares in any form of religion, in any department of vice. You can make yourself visible to more men and women in one day than would people half-a-dozen cities, or you can immerse yourself in a solitude as profound as the cave of Staffa when the tide is full.
For the Londonist there is no place in all the world like the region of his worship. You may seek to argue with him. You may tell him Calcutta is hotter ; Quito is higher ; Paris is less muddy ; Rio Janeiro is better situated ; Rome is crowned with the laurels of successive histories ; — all to no purpose. So far as he is concerned, he thinks it better to be buried in London than live and reign anywhere else on earth.

Text from Marcus Fall’s London Town: Sketches of London Life and Character (1860) Tinsley Brothers, London

On reading this again, I wonder if Mr Fall merely predicted the spirit of the 21st Century website or whether he was involved in laying its foundations and there is a direct lineage to be traced?

Anyway, although I am a fan and regular user of the website Londonist I had never thought of describing a person as a Londonist before. I struggle sometimes to describe myself, am I a London-nerd, a London-geek, a London-freak or a mere London enthusiast? After reading Mr Fall I will now proudly describe myself as A Londonist!

I think Mr Fall's modern day descendants at Londonist should consider issuing badges bearing the phrase "I Am A Londonist". Such badges would make it easier for like-minded folk to identify each other and would also enable us to show our collective solidarity, in a Spartacusy fashion.


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