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City limits

review - Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City By Tristram Hunt. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004. 432 pp. £25

Not so long ago it was commonly assumed that the golden age of the British city was the late 18th century, the era that produced the elegance of Bath and Edinburgh New Town.

By contrast, the Victorian city was presented as a descent into Hades, a seat of filth, disease and social conflict. It was inconceivable that lessons could be learned from the civic culture of such places.

But in the past few decades, that perspective has undergone a radical change.

Now that the worst aspects of the Victorian legacy have been cleared or transformed - often much too ruthlessly - people more readily testify to the quality of the architecture which survives. The dreaded word 'heritage', which once referred to things of real antiquity, is now used indiscriminately of any Italianate or Gothic building erected by the Victorians.

By the same token, the spirit of indigenous local pride which helped produce such monuments is remembered with sadness and envy. In many industrial cities, nothing so inspiring has happened since that time.

Tristram Hunt sets out to assess how the reputation of the Victorian city has changed, and to identify whether there is anything to be learnt from what was achieved. Can civic engagement be resuscitated, or must it always be a subject of sentimental recollection by those who admire the town halls, churches and cultural institutions which it engendered?

Hunt freely admits that uncontrolled urban growth in the early 19th century produced a catalogue of woes, agonised over in countless books, pamphlets and government reports. Despite the claims of laissez-faire and local self-determination ('far better to be dirty and free'), a system of sanitary and building control was gradually established, and the worst evils addressed.

But what is equally important, he argues, is that local industrialists and civic leaders were stung by the accusation that their cities reflected nothing but ruthless materialism. Their response was the creation of art galleries, museums and improving institutions of all kinds, plus town halls modelled on the architecture of the Italian city republics. The epitome of this tendency was the City Museum and Art Gallery in Birmingham, completed in 1885 and partly financed by the profits of the municipally run gas company which had its offices on the ground floor. 'By the Gains of Industry We Promote Art' announced the motto in the entrance hall.

The way Hunt tells this story makes clear why what happened in Birmingham and elsewhere will never be repeated. These achievements were based on local economic success and were dreamt up by industrialists, like Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham and William Rathbone in Liverpool, who provided civic leadership of an almost authoritarian kind. Theirs were genuinely indigenous developments, not transplants from London, and the apparatus of local self government allowed them to flourish.

Today, we can enjoy the legacy they have left - cities still lay their claim to fame upon it - but the local autonomy and wealth have faded, if not disappeared. The cultural institutions are now pump-primed from national funds because their regenerative effects are believed to be fundamental and long lasting.

It is more than 40 years since Asa Briggs wrote his classic, Victorian Cities (1963).

People are bound to ask whether this new work is its successor. Hunt's book is more comprehensive, taking account of all the research which has been done since the 1960s, yet its argument is along the same lines as Briggs'. It has been produced with glamorous colour pictures, and has a proper smattering of New Labour vocabulary, yet somehow lacks the energy and sense of detail of its predecessor. Typically of much recent academic history, it is dutiful and thorough, but it fails to bring the subject alive in the way that earlier generations could.

Robert Thorne is a historian with Alan Baxter & Associates

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