Destroying London

The Invasion of 1910

I recently had the somewhat guilty pleasure of watching Flood, a film (from a novel) about the sudden devastation of London by a massive storm surge -- predicted by a scientist who had long been dismissed as a crank -- which swamps the Thames Barrier, submerges most of the city's landmarks, kills a couple of hundred thousand people and forces most of the rest to evacuate. An even bigger disaster is averted (just in the nick of time, as it happens) and Londoners are left to clean up the mess. All very timely, given the unusually high proportion of England which was under water earlier this year.

Disaster movies are a pretty venerable genre by now (there were at least three films about the Titanic made in the year after it sank). The subset which deals with destruction on the scale of a big city (or larger) -- as opposed to aeroplanes or skyscrapers -- is relatively small, and that concerned, like Flood, with the fate of London specifically is quite small indeed.1 No doubt this is because disaster movies are generally loaded with special effects and therefore are expensive, and as the US market for film is so huge, it makes more financial sense to destroy some American city rather than a British one. So there aren't all that many cinematic depictions of the end of London. But books are much cheaper to make, and in those London has been destroyed many times over.

I've been trying to think of the first time this happened. It's easy enough to find early references to the eventual ruin of London, such as H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), Richard Jefferies' After London (1885) (in which a neo-medieval adventurer seeks his fortunes amid the city's swampy remains), or Macaulay's New Zealander (1840).2 But those only show London long after its fall, and so, properly speaking, are post-apocalyptic. The actual destruction happens off stage; it is inevitable, something to accept rather than prevent. Other candidates might include science fiction stories like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt (1913), wherein the Earth passes through a region of toxic ether, and Professor Challenger and companions take an eerie trip through dead London afterwards.3 Or H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), with its Martian tripods laying waste to the metropolis with their heat rays. Where else might we look?

Well, obviously, novels about aerial warfare regularly predicted the death of London, or at least its inhabitants. In fact, probably in no other genre was London blown up so regularly than it was in the knock-out blow literature, since this event was pretty much a genre convention and often the climax of the story. Thus, the city is totally depopulated by a Russo-German gas attack in the Earl of Halsbury's 1944 (1926), and a goodly proportion of it is blown up by a terrorist aërostat in Hartmann the Anarchist (1893) by E. Douglas Fawcett. The onslaught on the city by aerial Russian hordes in Martin Hussingtree's Konyetz (1924) heralds Judgement Day (with trumpets sounding and all); while in Shaw Desmond's Chaos (1938), German biological and chemical attacks finally force mass evacuations from London after seven years of resistance, ending in the complete breakdown in law and order.

Most of those books are relatively late, though. The invasion genre, which preceded and overlapped with the air scare stuff, also often portrayed London under attack. Some even involved battles being fought in London itself, which surely would count as a disaster. The best-selling example of the invasion novels, William le Queux's The Invasion of 1910 (1906), featured an intense artillery bombardment of the city north of the Thames, to break its resistance before the German regulars moved in to occupy it. Le Queux gleefully describes the damage done to major landmarks and helpfully even provides maps of Westminster and the City, showing which buildings were damaged (one is shown at the head of this post). He is perhaps less thorough in documenting the human cost but does make it clear that such a battle would kill thousands of innocent people. But here, as in most invasion novels, the goal of the enemy was to capture London, not to destroy it. Any damage to it was generally incidental and not intentional. (The model here was the siege of Paris in 1870-1, which was not exactly a fun time, but it bounced back soon enough.)

So none of this is really getting me closer to answering my question of when was London first destroyed. My trouble is that I'm much less familiar with Victorian literature of this type than that from the early 20th century, so I turned to my trusty Bleiler, an annotated bibliography of science fiction published before 1930.4 It's not complete and naturally has a bias against the more mundane forms of disasters, but at least I now have a candidate: William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City, Being the Narrative of a Survivor, Written A.D. 1942, which was published in 1880. Hay seems to have been a British mycologist who lived in New Zealand at some point, who also authored a future history entitled Three Hundred Years Hence (1881). Here's Bleiler's summary of The Doom of the Great City:

A short recriminatory narrative, looking back from New Zealand in 1942, a la Macaulay, to the events of 1882 or so. * The narrator, who is eighty-four years old, tells of the horrible death of London, when divine retribution overtook its wickedness. Fogs had become worse and worse, what with increased industrialization, until one day about half the population of London suffocated from fumes. There was a hysterical mass exodus, which the narrator witnessed, and later a search through the dead area, seeking remains. * A rather interesting piece of fantastic reportage, if one can overlook the unpleasant religious and moral aspects. How God and the industrialization share responsibility for the deaths is not clear.5

It does sound very interesting, an anticipation of the killer fog of December 1952 which killed around 4000 people (though to hazard a guess, probably inspired by the killer fog of January 1880 -- see here, the paragraph after the graph). And killing off half the population is certainly a disaster. But 1880 is fairly late. Did nobody think it would be interesting to write about the fall of London before then? This would seem surprising, since a genuine (albeit historical) disaster novel like Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) was hugely successful in its day, well before 1880; and since London had been through disasters before, it shouldn't have been too hard to imagine that it might have to do so again.6 But maybe the date of Hay's book is significant, at the height of Empire but with other powers beginning to rise in the world. This was also (roughly speaking) the period in which invasion literature began to flourish. Perhaps imperial hubris was a prerequisite for the emergence of disaster novels as a genre, just as it was for the invasion genre. Pride going before a fall does provide a satisfying narrative arc, after all.

Image source: William le Queux, The Invasion of 1910 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1906), 384.

  1. The Day the Earth Caught Fire springs to mind (rather oddly, since I haven't seen it); Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later too. There must be others though. 

  2. Not actually a novel, a story, a paragraph or even a sentence: merely a few clauses in a book review, referring to some future time 'when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.' But the image caught the imagination of many who read and spread it, to the point where it practically became a cliché. See David Skilton, "Tourists at the ruins of London: the metropolis and the struggle for empire", Cercles 17, 93-119. 

  3. Even if the ending is a huge cop-out. 

  4. Everett F. Bleiler, Science-fiction: The Early Years (Kent and London: Kent State University Press, 1990). How many different kinds of awesome is a book which has entries like the following in the index?

    Human types, exotic. See Albinism, Amoeboid people, Balloon people, Blue-skinned people, Congenitally mute people, Dwarves, Four-armed men, Furred people, Giants, Horned people, Human heads that live independently of bodies, Human physical specialization for occupation, Humans with mixed skin colors, Humans with organic radios, Leonine people, Long-necked people, Oviparous people, Pygmies, Radiant-faced people, Sea and water people, Spherical people, Squareheaded people, Tailed people, Tiny people, Tusked people.

    My estimate is approximately 13 to 14 kinds. 

  5. Ibid, 355. 

  6. A very early near miss might be Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, a fictionalised account of 1665 which was published in 1722. It's a near miss because after all, London survived that year (and the one after it) ... 

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