While pottering around in a newspaper archive, we chanced across a remarkable article from the turn of the 20th century (subscription needed). A journalist called Joseph Darby, writing in the 17 February 1900 edition of the Bristol Mercury, put forth his visions for London in the year 2000. Let's take a look.
After a typical wodge of Victorian preamble, a mysterious guiding spirit shows the author a vision of London at the end of the 20th century, from some distant vantage:
The magnitude of the great Metropolis was the first thing to strike my observation being apparently 10 times the magnitude I had understood it to be when in the flesh.
This is an astute prediction. Although the populations of London in 1900 and 2000 were fairly similar (six-seven million), the huge suburban sprawl prompted by the growth of the tube networks after 1900 would indeed have made our city appear many times larger than Darby's. That said, Darby was living in a time when the railways had already joined up many of London's inner villages, so it would have been natural for him to suspect the process would continue.
But London had not only spread itself out in every direction, but developed into great beauty. Instead of streets with buildings all alike, there were vast structures of great architectural beauty into which associated families were domiciled and they were termed associated homes. This consolidation of population gave abundant space between for gardens and pleasure grounds, causing London's suburbs to be more pleasant than country villages.
Here, Darby offers a compelling description of the best social housing projects, with large green spaces between immense housing blocks. He might have spied from above the estates of Roehampton, for example. Aside from the idea of associated families, it might also be an accurate sketch of the Barbican complex — although it's not everyone's idea of 'beautiful' — or perhaps more recent schemes like the emerging East Village (former Athletes Village) or the Battersea Power Station development.
So much for the city's architecture, but what of London's social progress? Our narrator next talks to a group of ladies who, much like the good Victorians of his own time, are engaged in needlework in a withdrawing room (as an eyebrow-raiser for his audience, some men are also in their company):
So far as I could learn, these ladies regarded the mistress and servant connection pretty much the same as we at the close of the nineteenth century do slave-owning. "Only think," one of them said, "an elderly woman I knew in my childhood used to declare it to be sinful to raise the working class above their station, by means of education".
Darby looks to a more egalitarian time, characterised by upward mobility and full enfranchisement. Elsewhere, he relates how human life has been prolonged by 20 years, thanks to advances in medicine. We now know that the improvement, if we're talking life expectancy at birth, is more like 35 years. But this is heavily skewed by the high childhood mortality of 1900. If we instead consider life expectancy of those who've already survived childhood, then Darby's guess is close.
Our futurologist then visits a lecture on the "Inventions and Triumphs of the Arts and Sciences". He is mesmerised by the transport networks:
...Vast number of aerial cars overhead, most of them hinged together in lengthy trains and drawn swiftly in their sailings by small electric engines. All alike were sustained in the air by balloons of moderate size.
Well, London does get the odd Goodyear blimp.
Labour-saving technology, it transpires, has all but eliminated the need for servants. Indeed, even waiters are a thing of the past:
At the banquet halls of…restaurants the buffet receiving the foods and viands by a lift was at one end, the tables leading all down the room therefrom, each of which had an endless band to carry the plates with the foods within easy reach of those seated at the tables.
Basically, he’s just wandered into a branch of Yo Sushi! (This prediction some 58 years before the popularisation of this technology.)
But the author did not get everything right. Much of the article talks about an harmonious society, where higher standards of living have all but eliminated crime (and therefore police), and where vagrants are all but unknown. Anyone caught gambling is banished from London, and drunks are treated as diseased. All manufacturing and production is controlled by the State, with workers sharing profits along some socialist-Marxist lines.
Thunderstorms and fogs are a rarity, thanks to huge guns that fire into the atmosphere whenever such things are sighted. Indeed, these guns are now the only application for gunpowder as "the nations have long-since, by common agreement resolved to disband their standing armies, settle all their disputes by arbitration, and live in perfect peace and concord as the Almighty Father always intended themtoo." It’s like the placid Earth of Star Trek, but with a Victorian dose of Christianity.
One final prediction, though it hasn’t yet come to pass, is more in keeping with the popular sentiments of our own time than those of 1900. "What used to be termed 'sports' by firing at birds and wild animals have long since been deemed revolting barbarities."
The writing is clunky. The framing device that allows him to see the future involves an overly familiar Scrooge/ghost conceit. The revelations are followed by an excruciating "it was all a dream" conclusion. Yet Darby's predictions, seemingly forgotten for the past 113 years, are often prescient, and offer a fascinating insight into the concerns of his day