Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 7, 2022

Little Britain, by Washington Irving

Washington Irving (Wikipedia)

With my own #6Degrees as a catalyst, I read this on a whim.  It had been lurking on my Kindle for so long that until I opened it up last weekend, I had no idea that it was only a brief travel piece, written by Washington Irving (1783-1859) during his sojourn in England in the early 19th century.

As you can see from his entry at Wikipedia, Irving led a most interesting life. Born in Manhattan in 1783, he was a short-story writer, essayist, biographer, historian, and a diplomat, serving as Secretary to the American Legation in London in 1829 and Minister to Spain in 1842.  But before that he had forged a career as a writer, and is reckoned to be the first American to earn his living by the pen.

‘Little Britain’ is a mere 26 pages long, and it takes no time at all to read.  It’s a whimsical travel piece, describing an area in London now at the southern end of the A1.  Irving called it the heart’s core of the city; the stronghold of true John Bullism.

In the centre of the great city of London lies a small neighbourhood, consisting of a cluster of narrow streets and courts, of very venerable and debilitated houses, which goes by the name of LITTLE BRITAIN. Christ Church School and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital bound it on the west; Smithfield and Long Lane on the north; Aldersgate Street, like an arm of the sea, divides it from the eastern part of the city; whilst the yawning gulf of Bull-and-Mouth Street separates it from Butcher Lane, and the regions of Newgate. Over this little territory, thus bounded and designated, the great dome of St. Paul’s, swelling above the intervening houses of Paternoster Row, Amen Corner, and Ave Maria Lane, looks down with an air of motherly protection.

Although it’s designed to amuse, ‘Little Britain’ is not just a witty piece of commentary.  Its pseudo-nostalgic tone points to a area now in transition from its old traditions.

It is a fragment of London as it was in its better days, with its antiquated folks and fashions. Here flourish in great preservation many of the holiday games and customs of yore. The inhabitants most religiously eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, hot-cross-buns on Good Friday, and roast goose at Michaelmas; they send love-letters on Valentine’s Day, burn the pope on the fifth of November, and kiss all the girls under the mistletoe at Christmas. Roast beef and plum pudding are also held in superstitious veneration, and port and sherry maintain their grounds as the only true English wines; all others being considered vile, outlandish beverages.

There are occasional factions, as with the disputed correct methods of conducting a funeral, but in general good humour reigns and Irving lodges there very happily.  But now gentrification is cleaving the community in two:

All empires, however, says some philosopher or historian, are doomed to changes and revolutions. Luxury and innovation creep in; factions arise; and families now and then spring up, whose ambition and intrigues throw the whole system into confusion. Thus in latter days has the tranquillity of Little Britain been grievously disturbed, and its golden simplicity of manners threatened with total subversion by the aspiring family of a retired butcher.

The family of the Lambs had long been among the most thriving and popular in the neighbourhood; the Miss Lambs were the belles of Little Britain, and everybody was pleased when Old Lamb had made money enough to shut up shop, and put his name on a brass plate on his door. In an evil hour, however, one of the Miss Lambs had the honour of being a lady in attendance on the Lady Mayoress, at her grand annual ball, on which occasion she wore three towering ostrich feathers on her head. The family never got over it; they were immediately smitten with a passion for high life; set up a one-horse carriage, put a bit of gold lace round the errand boy’s hat, and have been the talk and detestation of the whole neighbourhood ever since. They could no longer be induced to play at Pope-Joan or blindman’s-buff; they could endure no dances but quadrilles, which nobody had ever heard of in Little Britain; and they took to reading novels, talking bad French, and playing upon the piano. Their brother, too, who had been articled to an attorney, set up for a dandy and a critic, characters hitherto unknown in these parts; and he confounded the worthy folks exceedingly by talking about Kean, the opera, and the “Edinburgh Review.”

What was still worse, the Lambs gave a grand ball, to which they neglected to invite any of their old neighbours; but they had a great deal of genteel company from Theobald’s Road, Red-Lion Square, and other parts towards the west. There were several beaux of their brother’s acquaintance from Gray’s Inn Lane and Hatton Garden; and not less than three Aldermen’s ladies with their daughters. This was not to be forgotten or forgiven. All Little Britain was in an uproar with the smacking of whips, the lashing of miserable horses, and the rattling and the jingling of hackney coaches. The gossips of the neighbourhood might be seen popping their nightcaps out at every window, watching the crazy vehicles rumble by; and there was a knot of virulent old cronies, that kept a lookout from a house just opposite the retired butcher’s, and scanned and criticised every one that knocked at the door.

This dance was a cause of almost open war, and the whole neighbourhood declared they would have nothing more to say to the Lambs.

Irving’s dismay made him hope that this folly would gradually die away; that the Lambs might move out of the neighbourhood; might die, or might run away with attorneys’ apprentices; and that quiet and simplicity might be again restored to the community.

But unluckily a rival power arose. An opulent oilman died, and left a widow with a large jointure and a family of buxom daughters. The young ladies had long been repining in secret at the parsimony of a prudent father, which kept down all their elegant aspirings. Their ambition, being now no longer restrained, broke out into a blaze, and they openly took the field against the family of the butcher. It is true that the Lambs, having had the first start, had naturally an advantage of them in the fashionable career. They could speak a little bad French, play the piano, dance quadrilles, and had formed high acquaintances; but the Trotters were not to be distanced. When the Lambs appeared with two feathers in their hats, the Miss Trotters mounted four, and of twice as fine colours. If the Lambs gave a dance, the Trotters were sure not to be behindhand: and though they might not boast of as good company, yet they had double the number, and were twice as merry.

The whole community has at length divided itself into fashionable factions, under the banners of these two families. The old games of Pope-Joan and Tom-come-tickle-me are entirely discarded; there is no such thing as getting up an honest country dance; and on my attempting to kiss a young lady under the mistletoe last Christmas, I was indignantly repulsed; the Miss Lambs having pronounced it “shocking vulgar.” Bitter rivalry has also broken out as to the most fashionable part of Little Britain; the Lambs standing up for the dignity of the Cross-Keys Square, and the Trotters for the vicinity of St. Bartholomew’s.

Thus is this little territory torn by factions and internal dissensions, like the great empire who name it bears.

My grasp of the history that Irving is referring to is weak, but I think these ‘internal dissensions’ may refer to the War of 1812, when the US and its indigenous allies declared war against Great Britain and its allies in British North America. But no doubt that in an Empire the size of Britain’s, there would have been rebellions all over the place from time to time.  There was Indigenous resistance to colonial expansion here in Australia, but I don’t suppose Irving would have had a clue about that.

Image credit:

  • Washington Irving: Modern copy of daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, reverse of the original by John Plumbe. Public domain, Wikipedia


Author: Washington Irving
Title: Little Britain
Publisher: Project Gutenberg, 2009 first published 1819.


  1. This is the area I used to work in, before the pandemic moved me to WFH. I’ll probably be back there soon though, so I’ll read this and have a wander round the streets!


    • Oh please, please do!
      I wandered around the web to see what I could find of this area as it is today, but I could not get ‘the feel’ of it. It would be marvellous to ‘see’ it through the contemporary eyes.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love reading these old travel pieces. I have his Tales from the Alhambra on my Kindle, and read a bit of it while I was in Spain. I enjoyed what I read, and have always intended to read more. My Mum loved it – read it when she was a child.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m certainly going to read more:)


  3. Hi Lisa
    Another literary link… Little Britain was the site of Mr Jaggers’ dodgy law office in Great Expectations. I’m sure Dickens chose it because of its disreputable reputation.


    • Oh, so it was! I wonder if they filmed it there when they made the film? The B&W film, not the remakes.


  4. Burning popes and kissing girls: it’s short, but action packed! hehe


    • I could be wrong, but I thought that ‘burning popes’ was an American misinterpretation of Guy Fawkes Day, which commemorates the failed attempt to blow up the houses of parliament. I grew up thinking that the effigy we burned was Guy Fawkes himself (a rather grisly thing for children to be doing when looking back on it) but perhaps he also represented the Catholic Church?


  5. Interesting! This is not an author I know anything about, although funnily enough I was reading an autobiographical piece by Jack London the other day in which he talked about how he loved reading as a child and was shocked to find that nobody else had read Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra in his part of rural America. So it was good to read this post about a writer who was once a young Jack London’s measure of erudition!


    • I loved reading Jack London when I was a girl. My peripatetic parents had chosen a job offer in Australia over one from Canada and I was really rather cross with them that we had the opportunity to be close to his landscapes and hadn’t taken it up.
      I’ve been meaning to read The Iron Heel for ages…


      • Haha, Lisa, but think how cold it would have been in Canada!!


      • Haha, how unreasonable of them! Adults simply don’t understand the important reasons for choosing a job, do they?

        Oh yes, The Iron Heel – I’d love to read that! I’ve read a few of his nature novels, and the recent one I read was a set of short stories from his trip to Hawaii, but I’d like to try his political fiction.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I wonder if it’s still in print…

          Liked by 1 person

          • I downloaded an ebook version from Project Gutenberg since it’s long out of copyright: For a print edition, as far as I can see it’s second-hand copies only at this point.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I expect you’re right… but I got the impression from Goodreads that it’s available in one of many collections of his work. The hard part is finding out which one.

              Liked by 1 person

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