The London Spy appeared at the cusp of the eighteenth century and dealt with the shadower underside of London life.
It was written by Ned Ward, who had already begun something of a writing career, with hudibrastic verses about his disappointing search for an inheritance and a description of his trip to Jamaica - fair to say, he didn’t like the place. After a similarly scathing description of New England (which he might not have been to), he decided to apply his style closer to home.
In The London Spy, Ned is represented as an innocent from the country who is led around its precincts and environs by a more streetwise friend, sampling the best of London culture, meeting various colourful locals and enjoying the unique skill of London Language. The two men hang around Billingsgate with the fishwives, spend time with cardsharps and wits, poke their heads into Newgate and Bridewell, and visit Bartholomew Fair.
What Ned Ward does best is to listen to people. He clearly has a joy in the way people speak, especially their saltier phrases. We learn of the river-custom where those rowing across the Thames shout insults and throw turds (or ‘sir-reverence’ as it is referred) at each other. We learn of old soldiers with legs ‘too thin to fit a stocks around’ with ‘turd-coloured’ moustaches where they sniff cheap snuff. In Bedlam there is a man who only spoke ‘in praise of bread and cheese. Bread was good with cheese and cheese was good with bread, and bread and cheese was good together.’ We meet a man in a pub with a nose, ‘as long as a rolling pin, and I am sure as big at the end as a football, beset with carbuncles and rubies’.
At his best, Ned Ward is rude, filthy and full of life, as this bravura piece of Thames river banter attests;
‘You couple of Treacherous Sons of Bridewell Bitches, who are Pimps to your own Mothers, Stallions to your Sisters, and Cock-Bawds to the rest of your Relations; Who were begot by Huffling, Spew’d up, and not Born; and Christen’d out of a Chamber-Pot; How dare you show your Ugly Faces upon the River of Thames, and Fright the Kings Swans from holding their heads above Water?” I hope I may talk as unpleasantly when the need arises.
Readers of eighteenth century history may often find little bits of Ned Ward popping up in textbooks and other works, often supplying a little bit of local colour but beware - he is writing to entertain. He may spy on the dark and dingy by-ways of London but to take what he says completely straight may be foolish. Things aren’t in The London Spy because they are true, but because they amuse Ned Ward.
Particularly amusing to him is anything to do with poo and bottoms. Much excrement is thrown during the course of the work (he gets five pages in Norman Inkpen’s Shit Jokes - a study of scatological Humour). There is also a sequence in The London Spy which things go up bottoms. I shall not play the censor but only say that those who want to find it can go look for it themselves.
Such energy doesn’t last forever though. The London Spy lasted eighteen editions at one a month and had really dropped in popularity in the last few months. It’s not hard to see why; the sharp and precise portraits of different people and parts of the city become a more general description of ‘a stockjobber’, ‘a beau’, often followed by a weak poem on the subject. It had become formulaic to the writer and dwindles away.
That didn’t stop it being a huge success, nor to be extremely influential including blatant copies (I have a ebook of The York Spy), finesses of his idea (from Tom Brown to possibly even The Spectator) and a 1966 reworking (The New London Spy).
Personally, I prefer Tom Brown’s take on the idea a little later in his Amusements Serious and Comical, calculated for the Meridian of London, Brown is a less energetic writer and his character sketches don’t feel as real but he has a greater skill with the pen to make it a more even work. That being said, this is a book that will amuse, shock and entertain for many of its pages and I recommend trying it out.