Visit Homepage
Skip to content

Apocalyptic London: the Construction and Destruction of the Heart of the Empire

Johan Höglund


During the nineteenth century, the city of London had to contend with a number of disparate images. London was at times portrayed as a cradle of modernity, the richest city in existence and at other as a cesspool of vice and corruption, a virtual modern Babylon. As the century drew to a close, it was perceived as the centre of a rapidly growing empire on which the sun was never supposed to set.

As imperialism became both fashionable and self-conscious towards the end of the nineteenth century, the relationship of London to the empire became of great interest to a number of writers. As London administered the colonies, and reaped so much of their benefit — becoming in the process “the largest and richest city in existence” (Moncrieff 1) — it was a constant source of fascination for anyone concerned with late-Victorian imperialism. For writers of imperial fiction, the city and its symbolic qualities were a potential gold mine.

To a number of authors, London was primarily interesting as the site of an imperial Armageddon. For reasons that can only be termed intensely political, these writers portrayed an immediate transformation of London from imperial vortex to the ruined remains of a past civilisation. These novels, commonly referred to as invasion novels, were remarkably successful during the turn of the century but are largely forgotten today. However, to anyone interested in the literary representation of the metropolis, they are important reading and this paper will discuss their contribution to the image of London during the late Age of Empire.

Although mostly ignored by contemporary criticism, the invasion genre has received some attention over the years, notably by F. C. Clarke and C. D. Eby. Between 1871 and 1914, when the war changed the conditions for the genre, the invasion novels often generated massive sales. These narratives were of course deeply informed by the usual suspects when dealing with texts predicting the downfall of the Empire: imperialist ideology and Darwinian theory. Consequently, when the genre is studied today, it is because of its contribution to the scare mongering preceding the First World War and because of its socio-Darwinian elements. In this paper, however, I will focus primarily on representations of London in the invasion genre and argue that the city is given two different yet complementary shapes in these narratives: One is that of an imperial city being shelled to pieces by the military technology of a foreign power, leaving a city in ruins. The other is that of an estranged capital, infested with foreign labour, hostile spies and even monsters from the colonies.

Imperial contenders

Although the most famous invasion narrative by far is H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the typical invasion novel features, most commonly, a German invasion attempt of Britain. As a budding empire with the expressed intention to challenge British sea supremacy, they signified the most likely threat to Britain’s imperial ambitions. The focus of the invasion attempt is most often London and the intention is to cripple Britain by destroying the capital of the Empire.

As an introduction to invasion writing, the most prolific invasion writer and scaremonger of them all, William Le Queux, serves well. In 1906 he published the unabashedly jingoistic and militarist The Invasion of 1910, which was translated into 27 languages, including Chinese and Urdu, and sold an estimated 1 million copies (Eby 33). Le Queux’s version of an invasion of London is extremely graphic as he describes how the Germans shell London from the north until Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, most of Bloomsbury and a few other important landmarks of the British capital have been ground to dust:

Shots were now falling everywhere, and Londoners were staggered. In dense, excited crowds they were flying southward towards the Thames. Some were caught in the streets in their flights, and were flung down, maimed and dying. The most awful sights were to be witnessed in the open streets: men and women blown out of recognition, with their clothes singed and torn to shreds, and helpless, innocent children lying white and dead, their limbs torn away and missing … the streets were running with blood, for hundreds, both Germans and British, lay dead and dying. Every Londoner struggled valiantly until shot down; yet the enemy, already reinforced, pressed forward (Le Queux 342-359).

Like so many of his colleagues, Le Queux seems to take an almost perverse pleasure in depicting the destruction of London and its citizens. H G Wells comments on his own desire for destruction in a letter: “I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine, in which I completely wreck and destroy Woking — killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways, then proceed … to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity” (Wells in appendix G, Broadview 221).

Of course, Le Queux and Wells are capitalising on a new type of sensationalist fiction in submitting London and its citizens to peculiar atrocity, but they are also making a political statement as they sack the capital. To begin with, they both chose London as the site of destruction for a good reason. London is not simply the capital of Britain; it is also the centre of a global empire. In Walter Wood’s The Enemy in our Midst (1906) this is eminently clear as a German officer engaged in attacking London claims that “we are striking not merely at the heart of London, the heart of the British Empire, but at the heart of the world” (68). With London being considered as the heart of the empire, it is not strange that military efforts against the empire should be aimed at it.

From the perspective of imperialism, then, the narratives portraying the invasion and destruction of London tell the story of inverted or reverse colonisation. In the invasion novel, the coloniser is not Britain anymore, but Germany, France, Russia, Egypt or even Mars while Britain is cast as the colonised. On occasion, the reverse colonisation is described in an attempt to make the reader stop and think about imperialism. This is certainly the case with The War of the Worlds where Wells states very clearly that his intention is to depict a counter invasion and to describe to the colonising British what imperialism constitutes to the colonized: “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” (Wells 5).

Wells, briefly a member of the Fabian society, wanted his novel to inspire debate about the nature of imperialism. However, most novels depicting a military invasion of London were hardly designed to function as food for critical thought. Rather, they set out to depict the terrible consequences of not protecting the Empire in general, and London in particular, from the imperialist schemes of other nations. The Germans invade Britain sometimes as an attempt at colonising the colonisers, and sometimes as an effort to destroy the heart of the Empire in order to be able to wrest the colonies from Britain. In Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910, the German intention is not to actually seize London and turn it into a German dominion, but to cripple Britain so that the nation will be unable to defend the imperial colonies. The Germans succeed in this plan despite the fact that they are eventually beaten down by a sort of citizen army.

Furthermore, many invasion novels also thrive on descriptions of London as a city already infested by the seeds of its own destruction. In a number of texts, the violent, military attack on London and Britain is preceded, or even replaced, by a secret invasion. This secret invasion is depicted as having the power to transform London from a great and civilized imperial centre, to a dangerous, almost colonial or continental landscape where true Englishmen cannot feel safe. Some writers address the change of London in very direct terms, such as Walter Wood in The Enemy in Our Midst:

London was transformed. From a noble and orderly abode of more than five millions of people, it had become a very hell of conflicting hordes. The vast, overgrown, unwieldy city was like a stricken monster, which had been secretly attacked by overwhelming enemies, and, for the moment, overcome and stunned (Wood 137, my emphasis).

Certainly, London has been portrayed as vast, overgrown and unwieldy long before the publication of these invasion novels. From Dickens to Doyle, the Victorian novel is full of descriptions of London as a dark and treacherous place, inhabited by dangerous people who have other things in mind than the welfare of the nation and the city, and if the British people needed a reminder of this they got one in 1888 when Jack the Ripper went on his rampage. While thus aligning themselves with a preconceived representation of London, the invasion writers reinterpret this depiction. To return to The Enemy in Our Midst, Wood does not mince his words when he explains precisely what he means by a “hell of conflicting hordes”:

The very honour of the nation is lost for the present … And why? Because we have been mad enough to do what no other country in the world has done or is doing – to admit to England, without let or hindrance of any sort, foreigners of every breed and every type – the very refuse and scum of the earth, and rejected of every nation. And we have allowed them to come here because of a monstrous theory of giving right of asylum to the world’s outcasts (Wood 191).

In the quotation above, Wood, like many invasion novelists, expresses a commonplace xenophobia and links it with a military project as the “scum of the earth” above prove to be more than just “refuse” imported from other countries. The reader soon learns that they constitute an underground army of a hundred thousand men who eventually spring to arms to slaughter the innocent and begin the invasion. In fact, a number of invasion writers, with Le Queux in the forefront, claimed that their stories of Germans infiltrating London in preparation for a large-scale invasion were perfectly true, creating what has been called a spy scare that helped inspire the formation of the home branch of the Secret Service Bureau, today known as the MI5 (see Morris 30; Trotter 169; Panayi 37).

When dealing with infiltration of London by foreign spies, the Gothic invasion stories such as Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) should also be mentioned as they present a similar scenario. While most people are familiar with Dracula, The Beetle needs a brief introduction. This novel opens up with the protagonist walking a London landscape not entirely different from that found in Wood’s The Enemy in our Midst. London is represented as a hostile and dangerous city, but rather than coming across German spies, the main character stumbles on an Egyptian warlock who is not only androgynous, but who can also transform himself into a beetle. The warlock is, like Dracula, out to prey on British women, but it also becomes clear that he has come to London to revenge the havoc brought on his own Isis cult in Egypt.

Thus, the Beetle’s, as well as Dracula’s, presence in London is certainly a form of reverse colonisation. Dracula’s own description of the city is ominous: “I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is” (Stoker 20). That Dracula actually intends to, in a sense, colonize London is eventually understood by poor Jonathan Harker, who laments that “[t]his was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps for centuries to come, he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood, and create a new and ever widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless” (Stoker 51).

In short, the London that the reader encounters in these invasion narratives, a London infested by foreign labour and by spies, and counter colonised by various monsters, evokes an image very far from that of a city in splendid isolation. In these narratives London is not described as the centre of a worldwide empire, or if it is, it is the centre of a sprawling, infected, morally deprived, Babylonian empire, awaiting, perhaps, the wrath of God in the shape of a continental invasion force. The image of London as a deprived and degenerated location also highlights the impact of socio-Darwinian theory on imperialism and on the popular literature that accompanied it, and the application of social Darwinism can only strengthen the notion that London is heading for a fall.

Babylonian London

This transformation of London in the invasion novel is never clearer than when the city has been finally invaded and destroyed and Londoners come out to observe the shattered city. In the War of the Worlds, the male protagonist walks through a ruined and deserted London littered with debris and dead bodies. Appalled by the devastation, he asks himself: “Why was I wandering alone in this city of the dead? Why was I alone when all London was lying in state, and in its black shroud?” (Wells 150). London is now a city of the dead and no more the centre of a glorious empire on which the sun never sets. It has joined the ranks of other capitals of past civilisations. It is now another desolate, post-imperial Rome, Constantinople, Athens or Babylon.

It should be added that not all invasion novels picture London as finally destroyed. In some of the stories of foreign aggression against the city, Londoners organize themselves into citizen armies that prove capable of beating the invading enemies and rebuilding the city into its former splendour. In these cases, the invasion is the unfortunate yet necessary incentive that the British need to prepare for the imperial challenges of the twentieth century. In many cases, though, London remains essentially a ruined city, at least in terms of empire.

Thus, the transformation of London in the invasion novel — from the heart of the empire to the crumbled testimony of a once glorious but now extinct civilisation that did not stand the text of time — emblematises Britain’s worst fears at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Darwinian rhetoric that imperialism was steeped in could alone create doubt about the future of any nation. The development on the continent, where a number of nations, and Germany in particular, seemed to be successfully competing with Britain’s industrial and nautical might, was even more alarming for anyone contemplating Britain’s imperial future.

The scene was thus set for the invasion novel and its iconography of an infested, bombarded, burning London, its citizens running for non-existing cover in the parks. Like so many empires before, Britain has grown too vast, and the apostasy of the British people, their failure to live up to the imperial and evolutionary ideal demanded by their role as subjects of a worldwide empire, triggers the apocalypse. It may or may not be the hand of God that smites London in the shape of German gunners or Martians wielding heat rays, but for Londoners that may not be so important. Unless they gird up their loins, the apocalypse will inevitably fall on the great city, leaving a city of the dead in its wake.

The invasion novels thus effectively reconstitute the conventional representation of London as imperial metropolis. They are not alone in doing this — many other texts also map the Babylonian qualities of the capital — but they do it in a uniquely radical way. They not only suggest that London might be heading for a fall, they graphically describe the apocalypse that might shatter the empire and turn the city into a testament to yet another lost civilisation, with ruins on display for the tourists.

To the young men thinking of voluntary service when Armageddon really did come in the shape of the First World War in 1914, these narratives may have been of some importance. It is also interesting to note the invasion genre is in many ways still alive, especially in the popular culture of the United States. There, a number of classic invasion stories have been turned into blockbuster films. For example, a faithful remake of The War of the Worlds, directed by Stephen Spielberg, was released in 2005. In Britain, meanwhile, London has again been destroyed, this time by a disease turning people into zombies, in the popular film 28 Days Later.

It is hardly a coincidence that these narratives accompany a phase of Western, especially American, foreign policy that may perhaps be termed imperialist. In fact, even some of the most verbal supporters of this policy do not refrain from calling America an “empire” these days (Boot 5). From this perspective, deeds of empire seem indeed to generate its own peculiar dreams and nightmares. At any rate, it is not strange that the subjects of global empires tend to speculate on the nature and the cause of their own future apocalypse.

Works Cited

Boot, Max. “Paper for Army War College XIV Strategy Conference,” April 9. 2003 Army War College XIV Strategy Conference. 12 July. 2003 .

Clarke, I. F. Voices Prophesying War 1763–1984. London: Oxford UP, 1966.

Eby, Cecil Degrotte. The Road to Armageddon: The Martial Spirit in English Popular Literature, 1870–1914. Durham: Duke UP, 1987.

Le Queux, William. The Invasion of 1910. With a Full Account of the Siege of London. London: Eveleigh Nash, 1906.

MacKenzie, John. Imperialism and Popular Culture. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1986.

Marsh, Richard. The Beetle: A Mystery. London: Skeffington & Son, 1897.

Moncrieff, A. R. Hope. London. London: A. & C. Black, 1910.

Morris, A. J. Anthony. The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament 1816–1914. London: Routledge, 1984.

Panayi, Panikos. The Enemy in Our Midst: Germans in Britain During the First World War. New York: Berg Publishers, 1991.

Stoker, Bram, Dracula, 1897. Ed. Maud Ellmann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Trotter, David. The English Novel in History. London: Routledge, 1993.

Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. 1898. New York: Bantam, 1988.Appendix G of The War of the Worlds Ed. Martin A. Danahay. Broadview Literary Texts. Peterborough: Broadview, 2003.

Wood, Walter. The Enemy in Our Midst: The Story of a Raid on England. London: John Long, 1906

To Cite This Article:

Johan Höglund, ‘Apocalyptic London: the Construction and Destruction of the Heart of the Empire’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access].