About the PASSAGE project

Isn’t it really quite extraordinary to see that since the time when man began walking, that no one has wondered why man walks, how he walks, if he can walk better, what he does while walking, if there would not be a way to impose, to change, to analyse his walk: all questions that are related to philosophical, psychological, and political systems, which occupy the world?

Honoré de Balzac, Théorie de la Démarche (Paris, 1853), p. 7

Walking in London has allowed Londoners and visitors in all periods to move through the metropolis for a variety of purposes, defining and re-defining perceptions of place in the city. The questions asked by Balzac on the act of walking can provide modern researchers with a framework with which to examine manuscript and print records of historical walking in London. Walking literature provides a view into topographical, ideological and cultural changes over time, from text to text, edition to edition and year to year, in a unique and vivid form. The organisation of space within the city, and of the society occupying it, is revealed in the routes taken by the walkers in these texts, and what they (or the narrator) choose to reflect upon as they go. The topics covered in these writings reveal a broad landscape of issues exercising contemporaries, ranging from the history of the city, the social mores of its inhabitants, the pressing cultural, political or economic concerns of Londoners, the intersection of Londoners and visitors to the City, the decline of moral virtues and the rise of fads and fashions. The descriptions of places within London, and  – crucially – the activities undertaken in them are the focus of this body of writing, even where there is a broader polemical agenda. These cannot be found in comparable detail in other sources from the period, and provide vital information to the historian of the metropolis.

Writing about walking around London can be found in a number of guises in every period. 16th century vestry records describe annual perambulations around the parish boundary, where the route – a literal delineation of authority and power held – is described by local landmarks both civically significant and humble in nature. Changes in topography, in property occupancy or land use come as incidental markers as the churchwardens and parish clerk make their rounds, year by year. Print materials aimed at wider audiences and with different, commercial concerns, include John Stow’s 1598 A Survay of London and John Strype’s 18th century updates. Interspersed throughout the early modern period other texts emerge which describe the process of walking around London, such as the accounts of Nehemiah Wallington, which provide a more personal (and probably a more ideological) set of perspectives on the city and its spaces.

The work of Stow and Strype influenced the development of the genre, Michael Harris wrote that Stow’s Survey was the ‘prototype guidebook’.[i]  A later book, A Sunday ramble: or, modern sabbath-day journey, first printed in 1770 and re-printed at least eight times in the next three decades (and the subject of Episode 1), provides a popular portrayal answering Balzac’s questions above: why and how one walked and what one does while walking in London. The literature of walking started its rise in popularity at the end of the 17th century, with the number of publications growing throughout the eighteenth century, in part due to the increase in print culture that continued from the 17th century and in part with the view of walking as ‘urban entertainment’.[ii] Tucked between the genres of travel writing and fiction, the literature of walking provides the reader with a view of city life through the eyes of a narrator that can either teach the reader or confirm the reader’s already-established beliefs.

The literature of walking started its rise in popularity at the end of the seventeenth century, with the number of publications growing throughout the eighteenth century, in part due to the increase in print culture that continued from the seventeenth century and in part with the view of walking as ‘urban entertainment’.[iii] Through their representations of London, authors and artists were able to respond to the swiftly growing metropolis, raising issues relating to morality, luxury, class, politeness, gender, social mobility, and personal safety. Representations of London over the course of the century described a London that was interesting, spectacular, dangerous, and exciting — a city which needed to be presented, revealed, discussed, explained, and questioned.[iv]

PASSAGE proposes to examine contemporary perceptions of place in London through manuscript and printed resources from the late 16th century to the early 20th century. Our research questions include:

  • How significant was the London Walks genre in the period?
  • Who were the producers and consumers of this material?
  • What were the objectives of the authors of London Walks?
  • How ‘realistic’ are the depictions of place and behaviour?
  • Were certain areas of London associated with certain types of behaviour?
  • Is it possible to reconstruct the Walks?
  • How did all of this change across the period?

The PASSAGE project is a collaboration of historians, librarians and digital humanities specialists based at the University of London.

Dr Jordan Landes, Senate House Library
Dr Mark Merry, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research
Dr Matt Phillpott, School of Advanced Study


[i] Michael Harris, ‘London Guidebooks before 1800’, from Maps and Prints: Aspects of the English Booktrade, ed. Robin Myers and Michael Harris (Oxford, 1984) (31-66), p. 34.
[ii] Penelope J. Corfield, ‘Walking the City Streets: The Urban Odyssey in Eighteenth-Century England’, Journal of Urban History, 16:2 (1990), (132-174), p. 136.
[iii] Penelope J. Corfield, ‘Walking the City…’, p. 136.
[iv] Alison F. O’Byrne, Walking, Rambling, and Promenading in Eighteen-Century London: a Literary and Cultural History [Unpublished thesis, University of York, 2003], p. 3.