Author : G. B. Barron

Title : The Constitutional Characterisitics of Dwellers in Large Towns as Relating to Degeneracy (1888)

Keywords: Boer War, cities, towns, degeneration, Jack the Ripper, military training, physical deterioration, urban degeneration.

Pages : Introduction | page 1


G. B. BARRON’s ‘The Constitutional Characteristics of Dwellers in Large Towns as Relating to Degeneracy,’ was originally published in the Lancet (20 October 1888). It appeared in the medical journal in between the fourth and fifth of ‘Jack the Ripper’s’ murders in the largest city in the world, London. It is a classic example of the flood of literature which saw degeneracy not in art (as Max Nordau did) but rather as a result of living in large cities. Modernist writers would later champion the city and its ‘pressures, the novelties, the debates, the leisure, the money, the rapid change of personnel, the influx of visitors, the noise of many languages, [and] the vivid trade in ideas and styles’ (Malcolm Bradbury, ‘The Cities of Modernism,’ in Bradbury and James McFarland [eds.], Modernism [London: Penguin, 1991]: pp. 96-104: p. 97) as all that was best for and most stimulating to the human mind. However, the late-nineteenth century vision of the city was one of disease and decay.

As early as 1866, John Edward Morgan was making plain ‘The Danger of the Deterioration of Race from the Too Rapid Increase of Great Cities,’ to use the title of his volume, which imagined the average town dweller a pathetic example of manliness with a ‘singular want of stamina,’ ‘blanched lips,’ ‘colourless cheeks,’ ‘attacks of neuralgia,’ ‘a quiveringly protruded tongue,’ ‘dry and parched’ skin, and ‘scanty and withered’ hair (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., pp. 5, 6). James Cantlie’s Degeneration amongst Londoners (1885) and J. Milner Fothergill’s 1889 work The Town Dweller, which foresaw a future in which cities were full of ‘tiny ugly little objects - manikins merely, a race of dwarfs indeed’ (London: H. K. Lewis, p. 107), were two more texts which offered similarly disturbing views of city life. However, these texts can only form models of urban degeneration which are filtered through the giant distorting prism of empire. Individual organisms were swamped in the concern for the grand social organism which was the British Empire. The failures of the Boer War were blamed on poor national fitness, and - still worse - it was clear that Britain’s increasing industrialisation meant that those ruddy-faced and muscular countrymen who had traditionally constituted the best fighting body were now being sucked into the whirlpool of the foul-smelling cities to become - and sire - physically impotent wretches. As the articles by Richard Solway and George Shee show (see Reading List), the first ten years of the twentieth century witnessed an obsession with so-called ‘physical deterioration’ and its implications for the imperial race. For Shee to claim compulsory military training as the cure for ‘physical deterioration,’ and not, say, economic reform or urban renewal projects, indicates overwhelmingly that perceived degeneracy in the cities and towns was inextricably connected to the needs and wants of empire.

Back to Degeneration Documents | Introduction | page 1