The very deformities of London, which give distaste to others, from habit do not displease me. The endless succession of shops where Fancy mis-called Folly is supplied with perpetual gauds and toys, excite in me no puritanical aversion ... I love the smoke of London, because it has been the medium most familiar to my vision. I see grand principles of honour at work in the dirty ring which encompasses two combatants with fists, and principles of no less eternal justice in the detection of a pick-pocket...Where has spleen her food but in London? Humour, Interest, Curiosity, suck at her measureless breasts without the possibility of being satiated.
- Charles Lamb, a letter to The Reflector, 1810 (9)
With a population so vast and varied, so hungry for diversion, it is no wonder that London offered every conceivable entertainment to the paying customer. Freaks and curiosities of every kind were on commercial display, from hermaphrodites and dwarfs to operatic cats and acrobatic monkeys. Hand-to-hand combat, puppet shows, conjurers, strange inventions, quack doctors and cock fighting were all popular amusements. There was even a vogue for "learned" animals - pigs, mostly - who purportedly could perform arithmetic, play cards and tell fortunes.
When the real thing was not available, waxworks would do almost as well. Mrs. Salmon's Fleet Street exhibition of historical tableaux and horrific scenes in wax opened in 1711 and prospered for more than a century, until it was outdone by Madame Tussaud's new display in Baker Street.
Sex tourists interested in visiting one of London's brothels could even buy a guide book, Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies (1773) to help them find a prostitute that would suit their taste and income.
Bethlehem Royal Hospital (Bedlam), a palatial asylum for lunatics in Finsbury Square, was open to the public until 1770 as a sort of human zoo. Visitors could pay a few pence to enter and gawk at the inmates for as long as they liked. Thousands of sightseers came each year, wandering through the wards and brutally teasing the patients in order to heighten the fun. At one point, Bedlam's governors felt that the sightseers were behaving so badly, they decreed "the doors be locked on public holidays against all visitors."
But it was the spectacle surrounding the punishment of criminals that was perhaps the most anticipated and popular form of mass entertainment. Whippings, floggings, being paraded through the streets in chains and enduring the "pillory" - an open forum for mockery and verbal abuse - were common punishments for petty crimes. Executions were an even more elaborate affair and quite often were set aside as public holidays. Occasionally, engraved invitations would be sent out. On average, around 35 criminals were hanged each year at the infamous Tyburn Tree, and later at Newgate Prison. Monday was the standard execution day so chaplains could spend Sunday evening preparing the condemned. Large crowds of rowdy, jeering onlookers - sometimes in numbers of 30,000 or more (80,000 was the record) - would arrive in the morning to follow the prisoner to the hanging platform. Men, women, children, gentry and paupers alike, all attended these executions in the hopes of witnessing a particularly dramatic declaration, a last-minute reprieve or a courageous, applause-worthy farewell from the doomed "malefactor."
Read a 1751 journal entry from an attendee at a public execution.