In the 1880s and 1890s there was quite a bit of questionable building going on, sometimes called Jerry-building by contemporaries. Enabled by a mix of new building technologies and materials, buildings were going up at a rapid pace by unskilled hands. Complaints about “jerry-building” sometimes rang with hints of nativisim; the unskilled hands were often portrayed as immigrant workers. The complaints also reflected the class conflict that peppered the building industry at this time; according to some, the sloppy work was the result of poorly trained and unorganized laborers, who worked cheaply for greedy capitalists. These tensions applied to new construction and alterations.
In London, facing some rapid development, somebody took a more poetically-inspired approach to their complaints in the October 1892 issue of Punch. The author’s concern about building up the previously green parts of town with a focus on profits, not on pubic interest, alludes to the underlying class criticism evoked by the Jerry-building phrase. And of course, the Jabberwock is in reference to the same-named character in “Jabberwocky,” a poem from Carroll’s 1872, Through the Looking Glass. Borrowing heavily from the original piece, it uses the same iambic tetrameter style and four-line stanza format. But, for complaining about problems with city planning, even Jane Jacobs had nothing on this! Below, the full poem, titled “The Jerry-Building Jabberwock.”
Maybe this is a sign for a spin-off blog on architecture and literature…
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”—
Ah, Carroll! it is not in fun
Your song’s light lilt we snatch.
Our Jabberwock’s a real brute,
With mighty maw, and ruthless hand,
Who ravage makes beyond compute
In Civic Blunderland.
Look at the ogre’s hideous mouth!
His tiger-teeth, his dragon-tail!
O’er Town, East, West, and North and South,
He leaves his slimy trail.
And where he comes all Beauty dies,
And where he halts all Greenery fades.
Pleasantness flies where’er he plies
His gruesomest of trades.
He blights the field, he blasts the wood,
With breath as fierce as prairie flame;
And where sweet works of Nature stood,
He leaves us—alums of shame.
The locust and the canker-worm
Are not more ruinous than he.
“I’ll take this Eden—for a term!”
He cries, and howls with glee.
“Beauty? Mere bosh! Charm? Utter rot!
What boots your ‘Earthly Paradise,’
Until ‘tis made ‘A Building Plot’?
Then it indeed looks nice!
“O Jerry Street! O Jerry Park!
O Jerry Gardens, Jerry Square!—
You won’t discover—what a lark!—
One ‘touch of Nature’ there!
“This handsome Villa Residence’ [walks:
Means mud-built walls and clay-clogged
And drains offensive to the sense,
And swamps whence fever stalks.