Since Széchenyi’s third visit in 1822, there had been a change of kings: William IV had succeeded his brother George IV in 1830. In politics, the 1832 Reform Act was passed under the premiership of Charles Grey (2nd Earl Grey), which greatly increased the electoral franchise. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 had a wide-ranging effect, as had the passing in the same year of the Factory Act to regulate the working conditions in factories. The latter act set up a professional Factory Inspectorate – all indicators of enlightened governance even in the face of vested interests. Széchenyi must have had detailed discussions about British politics as he noted meeting Charles Grey on six separate occasions during his 1834 journey; the two of them even drove together to the House of Commons on 28 February. Széchenyi noted that the Dukes of Sutherland, Bedford, Devonshire and Cleveland were in favour of reform but otherwise made no observations.
Having recovered from the sea voyage and coach ride to London, the first item for any visitor such as Széchenyi, was to buy the best available guidebook to the capital and its surrounding areas. The guidebook, The Picture of London for 1818, 18 contained information about all aspects of the capital. It was conveniently sized to fit into a large coat pocket and ran to over four hundred pages, containing 125 etchings of buildings. It had lists of palaces, institutions, theatres (nine), operas, bankers (Barclays alone had thirty-six branches), newspapers (eight morning and six evening, everyday), portrait painters, and prisons (ten). The information must have almost overwhelmed the visitor and demonstrated that here they were in the global capital. The streets bustled with hackney carriages, vendors, and any number of horse-drawn coaches and carts moving in energetic disorder. Széchenyi could check in the Guidebook that his fare to the Drury Lane Theatre was 1s 1d (SzD 9th Oct. 1832). He could also find that watermen’s fares were charged by the number of oars.
A book was listed in Széchenyi’s English library with the title London and its Environs, 1820. It was probably a later edition of The Ambulator: or pocket companion in a tour round London within a circuit of twenty-five miles. 19 This guide had already reached its 11th edition by 1811. The villages and small towns would not have changed a great deal between his 1822 and 1832 visits, but by then some had been engulfed in London’s relentless expansion. The first page boasted ‘Grandeur, Elegance, Taste, Local Beauty and Antiquity’. The size virtually matched that of The Picture of London for 1818. These two guidebooks were all Széchenyi needed for his London journeys. For his travels away from London, his library (see Catalogue, ref. 1019) lists a New Map of England and Wales by C. Smith, published in 1821, which he would have used for plotting his journeys.
London’s West End had changed substantially since Széchenyi’s last visit in 1822. The Regent’s Carlton House had been demolished in 1825 and in its place grand private gentlemen’s clubs had been built. The first, the Athenaeum, completed by 1830, was adorned by a gold leaf-coated Pallas Athena that would gleam through even the soot-laden air of London. Next door, in Pall Mall, the building of the Travellers’ was finished in the summer of 1832, conveniently in time for Széchenyi to start his regular visits there. The Travellers’ was founded by Lord Castlereagh with the express purpose of providing a convenient base for distinguished visitors to London. The Dining Room, where Széchenyi met important contacts, was on the ground floor overlooking the gardens; the view from the window has hardly changed since. Beyond Carlton Garden Terrace lay St James’s Park, rebuilt to the designs of John Nash by 1828 to provide elegant avenues for strolling around the lake and guiding the vista to the King’s Buckingham Palace.
The park still retained its pastoral air, with sheep and cows grazing among the trees. Nash also laid out Regent Street, where Széchenyi dined in the Verrey Restaurant. 20 All over London, Georgian developers were putting up terrace houses by the hundreds. The Times, on his first day 21 at the Mivart Hotel in Brook Street, carried a plethora of information that reinforced the image of London connected to the world: sailings to Bombay, Sidney, Hobart and Madeira were advertised. Lord Holland’s entire house and park was available to be rented. The Thames Tunnel entrances 22 could be viewed on Sundays for a small charge. The Mechanics Magazine carried a report on the Manchester-Liverpool Railway, which cost 1s. The attempted assassination of the King of Hungary in Belgium was noted. There were eight bankruptcies. Dinners were given in towns to celebrate the passing of the Reform Act. It was much to take in for the average visitor, even confusing, but Széchenyi, judging by his diary, relished what was on offer.
Britain was at her peak. What mattered was not the profligacy of the Regency, but the Empire and the Industrial Revolution driving the country to ever greater wealth – far outstripping any nation in Europe or even the fast-developing United States. In his seminal work on the era, Eric Hobsbawm wrote: ‘An entire world economy was thus built on, or rather around, Britain, and this country therefore temporarily rose to a global influence and power unparalleled by any state of its size before or since, and unlikely to be paralleled by any state in the foreseeable future.’
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