William Blake was born in Soho, 28 Broad Street, Carnaby Market. His father, James Blake, was a hosier, who made gloves. At the time, London was the biggest city in the world with a population of one million. It was the capital of the first country to experience industrialisation; people were flocking into the city from the countryside in search of work.
According to Michael Bedard (author of the excellent biography of Blake, The Gates of Paradise), there was a workhouse behind the house where Blake lived, and the young William Blake would have seen first-hand the poverty and suffering of the young children placed there; most appeared to have died before they reached adulthood. During Blake’s youth, a more enlightened governor of the workhouse would send the workhouse children with a “Nurse” — a guardian — to Wimbledon Common to play where it was cleaner and safer. However, this practice was stopped when Blake was older and the children were essentially imprisoned in the workhouse. Bedard claims that the two Nurses’ songs in the Songs of Innocence and Experience are probably about this.
While Blake’s house has been knocked down, there is a plaque marking the spot where he was born, and the block of flats there now is named after him. Apart from this, I can’t see much which signals Blake’s presence in the area, which is a shame because he lived a long time here; he spent most of his childhood here, his early married years were spent here, and he developed his innovative poetry, art and print-making techniques in the area.
We could speculate that Blake’s childhood was a happy one; it seems as though he was free to wander around London as he chose, going as far as places like Peckham Rye, where he says he saw angels in the trees. Poems like ‘Introduction’ to the Songs of Innocence, ‘The Ecchoing Green’, ‘Nurses Song’ (Innocence), ‘Blossom’, ‘Spring’, and ‘The Laughing Song’ all paint pictures of a perfect ‘pastoral’ existence, indicating that the country and the city were very close in Blake’s time. It was easy to wander into fields because they were very nearby the city. Certainly, Blake, in many ways, is a ‘pastoral’ poet; he shares with the Romantics a belief in the healing power of nature and certainly shows its virtues in the Songs of Innocence.
Peter Ackroyd, Blake’s biographer, claims that the spirits of the past are still present in places, particularly in London. I’m not sure I’m so mystical as Ackroyd, but I think knowing about Blake’s work, and the topography of his life, can really assist with understanding his thoughts and inspirations. For example, Christopher Wren’s Golden Square is just a few blocks from Blake’s birth place and still there
Is it possible that the Square, dominated by the rich, inspired Blake to think about ‘The Garden of Love’, to think about ‘charter’d’ streets (essentially privatised places in the city), where both the rich and the religious hijack and take over spaces that were once for people to play and socialise in but now are tightly regulated by the powerful?
There is still a sense of the eighteenth, early nineteenth century city that Blake used to know in the narrow streets I think:
Blake’s family were artisans; they were craftsmen who were highly educated and politically motivated. The “artisan” class were pushing for political reforms: for democracy, for better conditions for the poor, for re-distribution of wealth, for artistic freedom and freedom of speech. Much of their justification for this was from the Bible — which they interpreted in a much more radical fashion than the religious authorities of the time.
So Blake’s Soho was a place of striking contrasts; a place where the absolutely desperate lived like the workhouse children, a venue for radical thought, industry and revolutionary agitation, a place of commercial inter-change at Carnaby Market and an area where the extremely powerful would live in Golden Square.