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Contemplating the Ruins of London: Macaulay’s New Zealander and Others

David Skilton

On the 7 January 1865 Mr Punch issued a Proclamation banning the use of ‘certain persons, objects, and things, part of the stock-in-trade of sundry literary chapmen’, as ‘used up, exhausted, threadbare, stale and hackneyed’. Henceforth ‘it shall not be lawful for any journalist, essayist, magazine-writer, penny-a-liner, poetaster, criticaster, public speaker, lecturer, Lord Rector, Member of Parliament, novelist, or dramatist’ to use any of the list, which includes ‘The Bull that is always being taken by the horns . . . The British Lion . . . the Black Sheep . . . The Dodo . . . the Thin End of the Wedge’, and many others. Top of the list comes ‘Macaulay’s New Zealander’, and Mr Punch remarks

The retirement of this veteran is indispensable. He can no longer be suffered to impede the traffic over London Bridge. Much wanted at the present time in his own country. May return when London is in ruins.[1]

Who was this New Zealander, what was he doing there, and why was he so obtrusive? The question is easily answered in part. He would one day, Macaulay predicted, visit the future ruins of London, and take his seat on the remains of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s. Macaulay put him on London Bridge in 1840, as a sonorous conclusion to his notice in the Edinburgh Review of von Ranke’s History of the Popes, in an inadequate English translation by Mrs S. Austin. Having run through a quick summary of the Whig view of the history of the English Reformation, Civil War and Glorious and Bloodless Revolution, he warns the reader not to be complacent about the apparent triumph of the English Protestant settlement, on the grounds that the Church of Rome has endured for ages, and will endure for ages more. Adam Smith may have predicted the collapse of Roman Catholicism in The Wealth of Nations, under the weight of its own contradictions, and Madame de Staël may have made Corinne imagine the future ruin of St Peter’s, while Carlyle was in the habit of referring to the Roman Catholic Church as a galvanised corpse;–but Macaulay concluded his review with a salutary reminder of its strength and antiquity, and the prediction that it ‘may still exist in undiminished vigour 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’.[2]

The probable origin of the idea was pointed out in a letter to The Times as long ago as 1860, when a note of weariness can already be detected in the correspondent’s voice at the frequent repetition of what had by now become a cliché.[3] The prediction of the future ruin of London was anticipated by Walpole¸ Goldsmith, Barbauld, Shelley and others, while the New Zealander himself ultimately derived from a comment in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall on the Picts who were reported once to have roamed Strathclyde:

If, in the neighbourhood of the commercial and literary town of Glasgow, a race of cannibals has really existed, we may contemplate, in the period of Scottish history, the opposite extremes of savage and civilised life. Such reflections tend to enlarge the circle of our ideas; and to encourage the pleasing hope, that New Zealand may produce, in some future age, the Hume of the Southern Hemisphere.[4]

Macaulay himself had used the image of London in ruins on two occasions in the 1820s, and it may be that he was prompted to revisit this future archaeological site by the posthumous publication in the previous year of Shelley’s Peter Bell III. In his ironic dedication to Tom Moore, in the guise of his satirical alter ego, Tom Brown, Shelley’s mouthpiece, Miching Mallecho, adapting the imagery of the Old Testament prophets, foresees a time

when London shall be an habitation of bitterns; when St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh; when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers, and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream …[5]

It had always been known that great cities were all doomed to fall. Old Testament prophets relished the prospective destruction of their enemies, Ezekiel, for example, predicting that Tyre would be ‘like the top of a rock: thou shalt be a place to spread nets upon; thou shalt be built no more’ (26:14). When Hector is arming for battle in Book 6 of The Iliad he tells Andromache that ‘the day shall come when sacred Ilios shall be laid low’.[6] His words are appropriated for use by future generations and future civilisations, and Gibbon reports of Scipio Africanus the Younger, who famously wrought on the city of Carthage the most utter destruction ever witnessed before the invention of high explosives, that

[w]hile Carthage was in flames, Scipio repeated two lines of the Iliad, which express the destruction of Troy, acknowledging to Polybius, his friend and preceptor . . . that while he recollected the vicissitudes of human affairs, he inwardly applied them to the future calamities of Rome . . .[7]

Almost immediately after Macaulay summoned him into existence, the New Zealander seems to have lost his religious significance, and to have become a purely rhetorical device for drawing attention to the future consequences of any proposed course of action — a perhaps solitary exception being the use made of him by the English monsignor in Rome in 1840, who was heard by Frances Trollope delivering a sermon on the subject on the feast of St Thomas à Beckett, and provoking, not outrage at papal aggression, but a statement to the effect that though

[t]here were many distinguished English Protestants present . . . there was nothing in the discourse that could reasonably shock or offend any of them . . . for assuredly there is nothing offensive in the assertion of a bishop of one persuasion that his faith is likely to endure longer than the faith of any other.[8]

— an example of tolerance which only the daughter of an old-fashioned Church of England clergyman could command, who was secure enough to report in polite but unawed terms on the social awkwardness of an audience with the Pope.

When fifteen years later, her son, Anthony, attempted to publish a work of Carlylean social criticism with Longman — unsuccessfully as it turned out — he called it ‘The New Zealander’. By 1860 we learn that ‘the New Zealander . . . at one time was the subject of allusion, two or three times a week, in speeches and leading articles’.[9] Despite Mr Punch’s efforts the New Zealander was still sitting there when Gustav Doré published his engravings of the city in London: a Pilgrimage in 1872. And he remained in situ until the end of the century, with sightings in the journal the Builder and in the speeches of Joseph Chamberlain, among others, and a significant secondary literature to accompany them.[10]

A striking feature of most of the occurrences I have seen is that there is little sense of an immediate threat that London would fall, and empire of the world be transferred to another power. For example, in 1859 George Sala uses the figure simply to mean ‘the future’, when reminding us how well-known Covent Garden is: ‘Lord Macaulay’s New Zealander will come to meditate among the mossgrown arcades, when he makes that celebrated sketching excursion we have so long been promised.'[11] Then again, a dozen years later, Blanchard Jerrold describes the moment when he and Gustav Doré first thought of the project which was to become London: A Pilgrimage, as ‘in the happier days of France, when war seemed nearly as far off from Paris as the New-Zealander appears to be still from the ruins of London Bridge’. This remark is double-edged, of course, but Jerrold’s letter-press is not noted for its subtlety, making the power of Doré’s images all the more impressive in contrast. Later Jerrold refers simply to ‘watching the great city, upon the ruins of which Lord Macaulay’s New Zealander is to gaze’.[12] No immediate alarm in these examples, then.

But it had not always been so. Earlier predictions of a future visitor to the ruins of London, whether tourist, historian, archaeologist or antiquarian, are more often than not associated with the loss of the American colonies, or gloomy prospects of the darkest days of the Napoleonic Wars, around 1811. I survey a number of examples of these occurrences in a forthcoming paper in the e-journal, Cercles, and shall only refer briefly to one or two here.[13]

In 1771, Horace Walpole predicted that there would ‘be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and in time a Virgil at Mexico, and a Newton at Peru. At last some curious traveller from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul’s, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra . . .’; then again in 1775, he proposes that an ‘American’ from the banks of the Oronooko will revive knowledge of the English language and English gardening; and in 1776 that New York or Philadelphia will be giving laws to Europe.[14] In the late 1770s Thomas Lyttelton, also known as ‘the wicked Lord Lyttelton’, composed ‘a Letter from an American Traveller, Dated from the Ruinous Portico of St. Paul’s, in the Year 2199, to a friend settled in Boston, the Metropolis of the Western Empire’, in which the ruin of London is attributed to the destruction of British liberty and the failure of public credit. This poem was not a very accomplished work, and published posthumously in 1780, in the same year as there appeared an anonymous work of even less poetic distinction entitled The Deserted City.[15] In this, too, a visitor asks how London fell into ruin, and the answer is similar. Both these poems are in effect responses to a poem, Regatta, addressed to Lyttelton in 1775 at the beginning of the American war, wishing that Britain may not fall like Rome before her, through loss of native virtue.[16]

During the Napoleonic War, in the dark days of 1810-1812, Thomas Love Peacock (like the writer of The Deserted City, 1780) foresaw the time when the Thames would be silted up and filled with sedge, and is followed in this by Anna Barbauld in her Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, in which she predicts that the ‘ingenuous youth’ of Ontario and beyond the Blue Mountains would visit London

With fond adoring steps to press the sod
By statesmen, sages, poets, heroes trod . . .(131-2)[17]

In her answering poem, Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen, Ann McVicars Grant felt able to assert in that more hopeful year that defeat was no longer to be thought of, and that, in any case, if anywhere was to be celebrated in decay, Glasgow would make as good a ruin as London.[18] Mrs Grant, who had been in the North American colonies as a young child, longed for the reunification of the empire, and might have imagined Britain retaining the upper hand, but it is usually American tourists who will contemplate London’s remains, although some authors, such as the Scottish writer of Britain Preserved of 1800, see a place for a prosperous Britain in an American empire based on the British ideals of Free Trade and individual liberty, and on the universal use of the English (or as he put it) the British language. Empire will have crossed the Atlantic westwards, fulfilling Berkeley’s famous prediction, and in a futuristic story of 1853, H. C. Andersen envisages groups of American tourists flying the Atlantic in the other direction in steam ships of the air in order to see the sights of Europe in a week: ‘”There’s a lot to see in Europe!” says the young American; “and we have seen it in a week, and that can be done, as the great traveller” — a name is named which belongs to their age — “has shown in his famous work: Seeing Europe in a Week.”‘[19]

Most of these examples remind us that London’s greatness was based on commerce, and that the empire, in Horace Walpole’s words, was supposed to work by the co-operation not the coercion of its white, British citizens:

perhaps it is no paradox to say, that the reason why Taste in Gardening was never discovered before the beginning of the present Century, is, that It was the result of all the happy combinations of an Empire of Freemen, an Empire formed by Trade, not by a military & conquering Spirit, maintained by the valour of independent Property, enjoying long tranquillity after virtuous struggles, & employing its opulence & good Sense on the refinements of rational Pleasure.[20]

To evoke the image of world trade, a poet only needs to mention the river with its bridges — ‘the river of the ten thousand masts’ — and the Thames continues to be used in the 1820s as a metonym for the city in accounts of anticipated ruins, such as Shelley’s Dedication of Peter Bell the Third, , and Macaulay’s reviews of Mitford’s Greece and James Mill’s Essays on Government, not to mention Joseph Bounden’s The Deserted City of 1824.[21] We find, too, that the bridges are made to carry a great burden of futurity, in seeming the only structures apart from St Paul’s likely to impress the coming tourist. Lady Holland records in her journal for 1800 that ‘[t]he bridges alone would strike the eye as fine remains; they are magnificent’, while in his History, Macaulay contrasts them with old London Bridge as it was in the seventeenth century, celebrating them as ‘several bridges, not inferior in magnificence and solidity to the noblest works of the Caesars’.[22]

The extraordinary currency of the New Zealander for many years, and the self-conscious discussion of him, suggest that the future ruin of the metropolis was quite generally accepted, as it is, for example, in 1849 or fifty, in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem, ‘The Burden of Nineveh’, which envisages future travellers from Australia digging up the massive Assyrian bull-god sculpture from the British Museum and assuming it to be an object of worship by native Britons. More subtly, an aura of decline and future ruin may also be evoked by use of imagery of the city and the river which is associated with references to Macaulay’s prediction. I have in mind Lavengro’s repeated view of the city from the centre of old London Bridge (denuded of its houses); or, at the end of the century, Victor Radnor’s anti-semitic vision of the city of the future dominated by Jewish financiers in Chapter One of Meredith’s One of Our Conquerors (1891).[23] More interesting still is a picture which Henry James evokes of the Thames in 1877, which generates far richer (and more disturbing) meanings when read in the context of the prior history of its imagery. It is one of his magazine articles which were collected as English Hours, where this most sensitive of New World tourists uses this imagery as introduction to a speculation about the decline of British influence in the world, not naming the symptoms — the rise of Prussian power, and the unwillingness or inability of Britain (without a large standing army) to intervene in Continental affairs, such as the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein and the Franco-Prussian War. Of the view of the Thames, he says,

though it is ugly it is anything but trivial. Like so many of the aspects of English civilisation that are untouched by elegance or grace, it has the merit of expressing something very serious. Viewed in this intellectual light the polluted river, the sprawling barges, the dead-faced warehouses, the frowsy people, the atmospheric impurities become richly suggestive . . . . I don’t exactly understand the association, but I know that when I look off to the left at the East India Docks, or pass under the dark hugely piled bridges, where the railway trains and the human processions are for ever moving, I feel a kind of imaginative thrill. The tremendous piers of the bridges, in especial, seem the very pillars of the Empire aforesaid.[24]

This evocative passage, being juxtaposed with speculation about Britain’s declining power, prompts us to recognise ambivalence in the image of the River, and, potentially, in any other description of the River, including, of course, the opening of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.

There is not now space to speculate about the various and shifting cultural significances of New Zealanders and Americans (North or South), or the argument by which in the eighteenth century the stadial view of history privileges the Peruvian above others as representing the future possibilities of civilisation. (Briefly, Turgot says, it is because the llama, unlike the bison, can be domesticated.)[25] The death-knell of the New Zealander as a portent of doom was probably sounded by Darwin, and the replacement of a cyclical view of the phases of civilisation with continuing linear evolution. The evolution and extinction of civilisations would continue to fascinate, but the potency of traditional images of Egypt, Nineveh, Troy and Rome, with their rich web of literary and historical allusions, would be reduced. The survivor of an urban catastrophe in a scientific age breaks with historical continuity rather than confirming it, as the image of the Statue of Liberty at the conclusion of the first film, The Planet of the Apes shows.

Be that as it may, if we take a parting look at Doré’s image of the New Zealander, we register the French artist’s understanding of the foundations of the greatness of the metropolis, and the ambivalence of Napoleon’s sneer at the ‘nation of shop-keepers’. The only inscribed letters visible on the ruins of the new Rome are on the right of the picture, and in the centre of the New Zealander’s gaze, and spell out the basis of its empire: ‘Commercial Wharf’.

London Bridge continued to fall, of course, even when the New Zealander was not there to seat himself upon its remains. In his Autobiography, Bertrand Russell reports on his state of mind after the outbreak of the First World War, when visions of ruin contributed to a modernist vision of the unreality of the world:

After seeing troop trains departing from Waterloo, I used to have strange visions of London as a place of unreality. I used in imagination to see the bridges collapse and sink, and the whole great city vanish like a morning mist. Its inhabitants began to seem like hallucinations, and I would wonder whether the world in which I thought I had lived was a mere product of my own febrile nightmares.

Russell adds a footnote: ‘I spoke of this to T.S.Eliot, who put it into The Waste Land.'[26]


[1] ‘A Proclamation’, Punch 48, 7 January 1865, p. 9. I am grateful to the generosity of the following in contributing information and advice on the topic of this paper: Jackie Belanger, Karen O’Brien, Claire Connolly, Tom Dawkes, James Evans, Malcolm Kelsall, Anthony Mandal, Jane Moore, Hugh Osborne, and Christopher Woodward.

[2] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner and W. B. Todd (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 3rd ed.1976) 802-3; Anne Louise Germaine de Staël, Corinne ou l’Italie 3 vols (London: M. Peltier, 1807), vol 3, pp. 41-2. ‘En approchant de Saint-Pierre, sa première pensée fut de se représenter cet édifice comme il serait quand à son tour il deviendrait une ruine, objet de l’admiration des siècles à venir. Elle s’imagina ces colonnes à présent debout, à demi couchées sur la terre, ce portique brisé, cette voûte découverte . . .’; T. B. Macaulay, review of Leopold von Ranke’s The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries [Die römische Papste] trans. S. Austin (London, 1840); Edinburgh Review 72, October 1840, 227-58.

[3] W. Bolton, letter to The Times, 13 September 1860, p. 11(e).

[4] Edward Gibbon, Chapter 25, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. David Womersley, 3 vols (London: Allen Lane, 1994) vol 1, p. 1001.

[5] Thomas Babington Macaulay, review of William Mitford, The History of Greece, Knight’s Quarterly Magazine, (1824), ‘Mill on Government’, review of James Mill’s Essays on Government, Edinburgh Review (1829), in The Miscellaneous Writings of Lord Macaulay, 3 vols (London, 1860) I, 179-80 and 314; John Strachan (editor), Parodies of the Romantic Age (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999) II, 199-200. [^]

[6] Iliad 6.447-9, translated A. T. Murray, Loeb Classics (London: William Heineman Ltd, 1930).

[7] ‘General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West’, Decline and Fall, vol 2, p. 509 n4.

[8] Frances Trollope, A Visit to Italy 2 vols (London, 1842) vol 2, 299-301.

[9] Macaulay, Miscellaneous Writings, vol 1, pp. viii-ix.

[10] For examples of use and analysis of the image, see Michael Bright, ‘Macaulay’s New Zealander’, The Arnoldian: a Review of Mid-Victorian Culture 10 (Winter 1982): 8-27; and Robert Dingley, ‘The Ruins of the Future: Macaulay’s New Zealander and the Spirit of the Age.’ Histories of the Future. Studies in Fact, Fantasy and Science fiction, Ed. Alan Sandison and Robert Dingley. London: Palgrave, 2000. 15-33.

[11] George Augustus Sala, ‘Six O’clock a.m.–Covent Garden Market’, Twice Round the Clock, or The Hours of the Day and Night in London, (London: Houlston and Wright, 1859), p. 37.

[12] Blanchard Jerrold and Gustav Doré, London: A Pilgrimage (London: Grant, 1872), pp. i and 102.

[13] Cercles, Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone, 9 (Autumn 2003)

[14] Horace Walpole to Horace Mann, 24 November 1774; to Rev William Mason, 27 November 1775, and to Sir Horace Mann, 17th July 1776, The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence ed. W. S. Lewis et al. 48 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1937-83) vol 24 (1967) 62, vol 28 (1955) 234, and vol 24 (1967) 228-9.

[15] The Deserted City (London: printed for the author, 1780); Thomas Lyttelton, Poems, by a Young Nobleman, of Distinguished Abilities, lately deceased, London: G. Kearsly, 1780.

[16] Regatta; A Poem. Dedicated to the Right Honourable Thomas Lord Lyttelton (London: George Kearsly, 1775), pp. 13-14.

[17] Anna Lætitia Barbauld, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, London, 1812, quoted from The Poems of Anna Letitia Barbauld, ed. by William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft (Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 1994), pp. 152-61.

[18] Anne Grant, Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen (Edinburgh, 1814).

[19] George Berkeley, ‘America or the Muse’s Refuge. A Prophecy’ (1726), The Works of George Berkeley Bishop of Cloyne edited A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop 9 vols (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1948-57) vol 7, pp.369-70; ‘”I Europa er meget at see!” siger den unge Amerikaner; “og vi have seet det i otte Dage, og det lader sig gjøre, som den store Reisende”–et Navn nævnes, der hører til deres Samtid-“har viist i sit berømte Værk: Europa seet i otte Dage”; H. C. Andersen, ‘Om Aartusinder’, (‘In a Thousand Years’) (1853) Samlede eventyr, MS text, Dansk Nationallitterært Arkiv, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, [accessed 6 February 2003]

[20] Walpole’s manuscript notes to Mason’s Heroic Epistle, in William Mason, Satirical Poems/ Published anonymously by William Mason with Notes by Horace Walpole now first printed from his Manuscript, ed. Paget Toynbee (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), pp. 43-4. I am grateful to Dr Stephen Bending for supplying this reference.

[21] Joseph Bounden, The Deserted City (London: Longman,1824). See also notes 5 and 6 above.

[22] Elizabeth Vassall, Baroness Holland, The Journal of Elizabeth Lady Holland, ed. G. S. H. F. Strangways, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908) vol 2, 54; T. B. Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, ed. C. F. Firth, 6 vols (London: Macmillan, 1913), vol 1, pp. 338-9.

[23] Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Burden of Nineveh’, Poems (London: Ellis and White, 1881), pp. 170-79; George Borrow, Lavengro, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1851); George Meredith, One of Our Conquerors (Surrey Edition, London: The Times Book Club, 1912 ) pp. 6-8.

[24] Henry James, ‘London at Midsummer’, Lippincott’s Magazine (November 1877), quoted from English Hours, 2nd ed., ed. Alma Louise Lowe (London: Heinemann, 1960), p. 103.

[25] See Ronald L. Meek, Turgot on Progress, Sociology and Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 66.

[26] The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell 3 vols (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1967-9) vol 2, p. 18.

To Cite This Article:

David Skilton, ‘Contemplating the Ruins of London: Macaulay’s New Zealander and Others’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access].