Free cookie consent management tool by TermsFeed Jump directly to main content

The Crack Magazine


Nocturnal Meanderings Through The City

With the cost of a night out at an all-time high, Dr Bethany Usher suggests the resurgence of a historic British popular past time – walking the city at night.

It is a warm midsummer evening and we have an unexpected offer to babysit. A year ago, we may have hit a beer garden or enjoyed a late supper in a favourite restaurant. But as we look to ways to cut costs, I suggest something different - we walk the city at night.

Nightwalking was a popular pastime and part of popular culture in Europe from the early modern period. From the first print pamphlets, which described vagrants, sinful women and “beastly begotten” homeless children in the 16th century, to true crime documentaries and podcasts popular today, the sounds and sights of the nocturnal city have fascinated journalists, authors and artists. One of the earliest examples of the genre, a late 17th century periodically published pamphlet written by moralist John Dunton, launched within a year of London’s first streetlamps. The flickering flames cast new shadows on the capital and helped reveal what lurked in its darkest corners. In The Night-Walker: or Evening Rambles in Search of Lewd Women, Dunton exposed the “sinfulness” of sex workers and called for a range of punishments. But he was beset by accusations that it provided a guide for sex tourists to fulfil their depraved desires and in response, despite large sales, he ceased publication.

Similar “moral maps of the metropolis” made their way into 19th century penny dreadfuls, as well as Newgate novels such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and the works of modern crime journalists. Across all, there were themes and visual spectacles, some of which are still familiar today.

Nightwalkers tend to be male, solitary, restless and voyeuristic. He has a freedom to roam that women do not. Only indecent “lorettes” or “street-walkers” as they were often referred to in 19th century crime pamphlets, would be out alone after dusk. Even today, female victims of assault can still face misogynistic criticism from pockets of the media and the public who question why any decent woman would be out alone long after dark.

Many pamphlets and periodicals included detailed observations of drunken pastimes of the working class, often portrayed as potential criminals or a violent mob. They retold passing conversations with law enforcement officials - first watchmen, then constables and later police officers - about current risks and memorable incidents. Sometimes the writer might converse with a fellow “gentlemen” who was down on his luck from gambling, alcohol or both. In a feature describing his passion for “Night-Walks” for the magazine All Year Round in 1860, Dickens declared that it “was always the case” that the city-at-night was “in imitation of individual citizens belonging to it”, with its “expiring fits and starts of restlessness”. His work was indicative of the form. The city was ever changing with the time of day, but paradoxically the night was eternal. There was temporal slippage with the past and a sense of continuity with hundreds of other curious souls who had walked the same streets in their own lifetimes.

Sometimes journalists turned these familiar narratives towards social and political activism. In 1827, English emigrant William Heighton launched the radical Philadelphia based Mechanics Free Press where an anonymously written column by the “Night Hawk” uncovered the “misdemeanours done under cover of the night” to the poorest, and the depravity of the city’s supposedly respectable propertied class.

Sixty or so years later in 1885, former editor of the Northern Echo W.T. Stead published the Maiden Tribute of Babylon in the Pall Mall Gazette. It opened with his observations of night-time London. Repulsed by the widespread practice of rich men paying to rape the children of the poor, he conjured images of gluttony, lechery and depravity. His work was an overnight sensation, despite condemnation from pockets of Westminster and the Prince of Wales. Stead was jailed for buying a child without the permission of her father in order to illustrate the shameful truth. But he considered it a small price to pay for a successful campaign that led directly to the introduction of the first legal age of consent. More recently, there have emerged feminine versions of the tradition. Laura Elkin’s Flaneuse – from the French term Flaneur or to walk aimlessly – draws directly from Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting from 1930. Both are part memoir, part travel guide and part literary and social criticism. The female nightwalker, as a modern creature of the 20th century, represents greater female independence. Woolf described how “we walk, or I do, to pay attention, to see the streets, the buildings that surround us, to immerse ourselves in a world that might otherwise slip by”.

But sadly, despite such greater freedom to roam, women’s safety remains a concern. There are numerous news reports of attacks and murders at night each month. Despite the desire to roam and the right to do so, we weigh up risks that may not cross the minds of most men. My husband and I discuss this as we meander the banks of the River Wear on our unexpected date. I tell him of times I felt unsafe, and he tells me he always crosses the road to the other side when walking behind a woman, so she does feel safe.

It is shared experience, not solitude, which makes our nightwalk. As we cross at Elvet Bridge, we twist through crowds of revellers wandering between pubs, families enjoying the late sun, and teenagers listening to music sitting on steps. A hen party tries to save a phallic shaped balloon floating away and some tourists laugh at it all. We climb the hill up to Durham Cathedral and share drinks from a supermarket as the bells chime 10pm. We are suddenly alone and instead of walking on, we stand still.

Dr Bethany Usher is Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University and is author the book Journalism and Celebrity. Her forthcoming Journalism and Crime includes discussions of nightwalking as news culture and is published in 2023. It was inspired by Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont.