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Nightwalking in London

Nocturnal wanderings inspire both the escape from and the search for the self, revealing the best and worst of humanity, and promoting creativity

‘He so missed his long night-walks,’ John Forster remarked of his friend Charles Dickens, when the novelist was in Italy in the 1840s, ‘that he seemed, as he said, dumb-founded without them.’ It was in the streets at night, especially the streets of London, that Dickens felt most himself.

He loved the glorious, mysterious, sometimes dangerous life of cities at night, which he characterised as scenes from a magic lantern; but he also felt at home among the homeless. It was their experience of the city that, because it spoke to him of some crisis both of self and society, he most wanted to voice. Restricted from roaming the roads and pavements at night, as he was in Genoa and other cities on the Continent, he sensed that he had been condemned almost to silence.  

Gettyimages 464504551

Gettyimages 464504551

Source: Museum of London / Heritage Images / Getty

Trafalgar Square by Moonlight by Henry Pether, c1865, exemplifies the Romantic portrayal of London at night

The aching solitude of the rough sleepers Dickens encountered in dirty, gaslit London, when most middle-class people were comfortably sleeping in their beds, articulated for him something like the repressed truth of life in the most populous and sophisticated metropolis on earth. Beneath the veneer of civilisation, there was a callous struggle for existence – nights that were nasty, brutish and endlessly long. But the solitude of rough sleepers, of people forced to tramp the streets after dark so as not to collapse from cold or desperation, also revealed to Dickens something fundamental about himself. His own loneliness.

He identified in the city’s homeless an atomised community of those forced by material and social circumstances, circumstances that might easily have reshaped his own life, to confront the fact that everyone is finally alone. Dickens is the patron saint of the streets at night. Certainly, at times when I’ve been in the habit of wandering through London and other cities in the dead of night, I’ve regarded him as a spiritual guide. The novelist GK Chesterton, still one of Dickens’ most penetrating readers, understood this aspect of him. ‘The street at night is a great house locked up’, he wrote.

‘But Dickens had, if ever man had, the key of the street; his stars were the lamps of the street; his hero was the man in the street.’ To crack what Chesterton called ‘the shining riddle of the street’, one must explore the metropolis at night. For in the metropolis at night, both society’s contradictions and the contradictions that render consciousness itself so contradictory – because we are creatures at once solitary and sociable – are exposed. This is one of Dickens’ most important lessons for us today, when the city’s LED streetlights almost completely erase memories of the stars. 

City street

City street

Source: Harold Burdekin

London Night, a book of photogravures by Harold Burdekin and John Morrison published in 1934, depicts the capital in inky, unsettling darkness

If Dickens is the most imaginative and perceptive nightwalker in London’s history, he was far from the first. The term ‘nightwalker’, in fact, first enters popular language in the Middle Ages, when it was used to criminalise people who were still present on the streets after curfew, which tended to be 8pm in the winter and 9pm in the summer. That is, it criminalised those who were homeless. Above all, this meant those men and women who had migrated from the countryside to the city in the hope of paid labour but found themselves unemployed. People classified not as migrants but vagrants. Some professionals, including doctors, midwives and priests, had special dispensation to use the streets at night; and so in effect did individuals rich enough to be able to afford servants who could light their path through the muddy, squalid roads. Everyone else was a threat to public order.

‘People who inhabited the streets after dark were still popularly assumed to be social outcasts of one kind or another’

‘Nyght walkeres’ were classified along with ‘other ydell and evyll disposed person[s]’, as the authorities in Leicester framed it as late as the mid-16th century. The first formal, state-sponsored expression of this attempt to demonise the poor was the so-called ‘nightwalker statute’ introduced by Edward I in 1285. This piece of legislation, which formalised the capital’s police force, stipulated that, ‘because from day to day robberies, homicides and arsons are more often committed than they used to be’, walled cities across the nation should close their gates from sunset to sunrise and operate a night-watch system to control the streets. Constables and night-watch men were expected to arrest individuals found out and about at night, who were by definition suspected of being felons, and to deliver them to the sheriff. Private citizens were also authorised to pursue, apprehend and detain those walking about after dark with no apparent purpose – ‘and for the arrest of such strangers no one shall have legal proceedings taken against him’. ‘Strangers’, here, effectively meant those who failed to carry lanterns or torches, in other words – the poor.

Trolleys in an empty car park, croydon

Trolleys in an empty car park, croydon

Source: William Eckersley

A lonely superstore landscape from William Eckersley’s Dark City series 

In England, over the course of several centuries, partly thanks to the rise of public street lighting, the curfew came to be unenforceable. It is difficult to ascertain exactly when it fell into disuse, but during the Early Modern period, thanks in part to the rise of nocturnal entertainments sponsored by monarchs such as Henry VIII, the night became increasingly sociable in London. But it nonetheless retained some of its ancient superstitious associations with evil, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c1606) reveals. And people who inhabited the streets after dark were still popularly assumed to be social outcasts of one kind or another.

In John Fletcher’s play The Night-Walker (c1611), for example, the hell-raiser Jack Wildbrain is disinherited for his sins and ends up homeless. Stalking the night-time streets with nothing to do, since even the tavern doors are barricaded against him, he compares himself both to ‘Guido Vaux’, the religious and political terrorist, and to supernatural spirits such as ‘William o’ the Wispe’. So, if in a practical sense the curfew became less and less relevant to the everyday life of London, the fall of night continued to exercise a certain symbolic potency. A sort of moral curfew persisted. Especially in the ‘dead night’, the hours between roughly 12am and 4am, people on the streets were still mistrusted.

‘Many other writers have seen the city at night, whether lit by oil, gas or electricity, as a site of exploration and experimentation’

Women were often presumed to be prostitutes, and the phrase ‘nightwalker’ came more and more to serve as a synonym for ‘streetwalker’. Itinerant men, for their part, were ostracised for their ‘idleness’. Idleness, and the kinds of lackadaisical motion associated with it, including sauntering and strolling, was incompatible with the rise of capitalism, a social formation that prioritised industriousness. People who walked about at night but had no respectable or visible means of employment were unacceptable remnants of the past.

It was in the 18th century, when ‘nightlife’ as we know it today was first invented in cities like London and Paris, that poets and other under-employed professional writers took to the streets after dark in order, partly from material necessity, to refuse the economic and moral regime of industriousness. These early bohemians, identifying with the poor alongside whom they lived in the slummier parts of the city, actively cultivated a sense of themselves as ‘other’. Oliver Goldsmith, for example, who seems to have been virtually homeless when he first arrived in London in the 1750s, wrote ‘A City Night-Piece’ (1759) in which he powerfully evoked the city’s intolerable social contradictions, as incarnated in its rough sleepers. ‘But who are those who make the streets their couch,’ he asked, ‘and find a short repose from wretchedness at the doors of the opulent?’  

09 07 001 2

09 07 001 2

Source: Philipp Ebeling

An outdoor cinema projection in Wood Street, Waltham Forest, brings people together in Philipp Ebeling’s image 

Dickens was a direct descendant of Goldsmith and his contemporaries, who included the young, penurious Samuel Johnson. Like these Grub Street poets, and the Romantic opiate-addict Thomas De Quincey too, he walked at night in order to reconnoitre the hidden recesses both of the city and his self. Since the mid-19th century, many other writers have seen the city at night, whether lit by oil, gas or electricity, as a site of exploration and experimentation. As a laboratory in which identities that are socially unacceptable in the day can be half-secretly tested. 

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Henry Jekyll, to give a classic example, disappeared into the city’s shadows, in the shape of his nocturnal underside Mr Edward Hyde, in 1886, some eight years after London streets were first lit by electric arc lamps. In the early 20th century, exploiting women’s limited opportunities for social liberation, Virginia Woolf celebrated her walks after dark in terms of ‘street haunting’. She praised ‘the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow’.

‘Instead of a night-time economy, we urgently need a night-time politics for the 21st century’

This ‘irresponsibility’ becomes something more sinister in Stevie Smith’s poem Suburb (1937). ‘How nice it is to slink the streets at night’, it begins, innocently enough. The reader assumes that this female poet, who lived in leafy Palmers Green almost all her life, is merely celebrating the comforting familiarity of the London suburbs, even at night. But that verb ‘slink’ is a little unsettling; as is the speaker’s confession that he or she likes to taste the ‘flavour of acrity that comes / From pavements throwing off the dross / Of human tread’. It transpires, in fact, that this speaker is someone stalking the streets with rapacious, if not murderous intentions. The poem brilliantly reproduces a sense, then, of people’s vulnerability, and especially women’s vulnerability, in the streets at night. The excitement of nightwalking, even under electric and LED light, is always troubled by a fear of nocturnal malefactors that is so ancient as to seem primal. 

In an increasingly illuminated, if not light-polluted world, at a time when the 24-hour economy is relentlessly promoted by commercial interests, the city at night still offers opportunities for more or less secretive reinvention. Instead of a night-time economy, we urgently need a night-time politics for the 21st century. One that, rather than promoting the city at night as a site of rampant production and consumption all but identical to the city in the day, offers to protect the nocturnal streets as places where, whoever we are, we can safely exercise the freedom to be whoever we want to be.

This piece is featured in the AR April 2020 issue on Darkness – click here to buy your copy today