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Definition from the Era

(The information in this section is from the 1771 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Please do not make edits to this section. Content is presented in its original form as to spelling and grammar use. This is what an educated person of Aubrey and Maturin's time would have known)

The metropolis of Great Britain where the meridian is fixed on British maps, lies on 51° 32' N lat on the river Thames, and the greatest part of the north side of that river. The form of London including Westminster and Southwark, comes pretty near to an oblong square, five miles in length, if measured in a direct line from Hyde-Park to the end of Limehouse, and six miles if we follow the winding of the streets; the greatest breadth is two miles and a half, and the circumference of the whole sixteen of seventeen miles, but it is not easy to measure it exactly on account of its irregular form. The principal streets are generally level, exceedingly well built, and extended to a very great length,; these are inhabited by tradesmen, whose houses and shops make a much better figure than those of any tradesmen in Europe. People of distinction usually reside in elegant squares, of which there are great numbers at the west end of the town near the court. What mostly contributes to the riches and glory of this city, is the port, whither several thousand ships of burden annually resort from all countries, and where the greatest fleets never fail to meet with wealthy merchants ready to take off the richest cargoes. The number of persons in the whole place are computed to be about eight hundred thousand. (C-L pg 1004)

Additional information

In Britain's first national census, taken in the same year (1801) when Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin first met, the population of London was given as just under 959,000; it was to pass a million within the next ten years. The overall dimensions given above are still valid in this period, but much open ground had lately been built over; thus St. George's Fields, south of the river, had been a vast open space when Jack was a boy - in 1780 tens of thousands of people had gathered there to begin the anti-Catholic 'Gordon Riots' - but by 1812 they had become a warren of mean streets where Stephen became hopelessly lost on his way to visit Jack in the Marshalsea Prison (see The Reverse of the Medal).

The river Thames, flowing from west to east, forms a series of bends roughly in the shape of a broad and shallow capital M. The original Roman settlement lay on the western half of the M; its ancient walls, fragments of which are still visible, defined the commercial district known as the City - not then an arid conglomeration of financial institutions but a thriving centre for merchants and craftsmen of all kinds. The Tower of London, home of the Royal Ordnance Board for centuries, marks the eastern end of the City; press-gangs working on the Thames and in the streets of the capital would use Tower Green, on the western side of the Tower, as a rallying-point.

Westminster, the home of Parliament, lies on the left-hand upright of the M. (The old Houses of Parliament, where Jack followed his father in haranguing the Government and embarrassing his powerful friends, were burned down in 1834.) A little to the north was the Admiralty, with its back to the river and its front looking across Whitehall (a fine street named after the banqueting-hall built for King Charles I) towards St. James's Park. Black's Club (O'Brian's name for the historical 'White's') also overlooked the Park, which, together with the smaller Green Park to the north-west and the much larger Hyde Park northward again, provided a much-needed open space at the fashionable west end.

At the eastern end, the right-hand upright of the M is formed by one side of the peninsula known as the Isle of Dogs, where major new commercial shipyards were in construction from 1800 onwards; the river flows round this in a U-bend. Deptford, the oldest of the royal dockyards, was at the base of the U on the southern bank, and just eastward of it was Greenwich, where King Charles II had founded an observatory and a hospital for aged seamen in the 1660s.

To be continued

In the Canon

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