Essential Architecture-  London

Nineteenth Century London

"The Flying Scotsman", platform 10, King's Cross Station
Oxford Street
Regent Street
In the nineteenth century the air around London was heavily polluted by industrial smoke and factory pollution. The smog made the city a very dark and unhealthy place to live.

By 1800 London had already become the largest single city in the world, but by mid-century it had doubled again to reach 2,362,000 souls. And the souls it did contain were from an increasingly wide world. Lascar and Chinese communities sprang up among the docks, while the Irish population grew to number hundreds of thousands. In 1841 less than two thirds of the capital's inhabitants had been born there. Jews, Blacks, Chinese, Indians, Poles, Frenchmen and Italians were common figures on the streets of London. Some national groups monopolised aspects of the capital's life, like Italian organ grinders and Jewish used clothes merchants.

The Built Environment
During the first half of the nineteenth century the attenuated fingers of urban sprawl that had grown during the eighteenth century first swelled into fat rivers of development, and then solid acres of suburban building. Although many small areas of market gardening and pasturage for cows continued interspersed amidst London's dark brick form, these relics of the past were under constant pressure. The new suburbs and shopping centres were also more fully differentiated than ever before. To the East, St Katherine's Dock, the East and West India Docks, the New Docks at Wapping and the Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe, these factories of international commerce, carved out and disciplined the land adjacent to the Thames. They created, in the process, a series of new communities to house the tens of thousands of people, both dockers and sailors, needed to make them work.

South of the river, new bridges brought whole new populations to the open fields of Surrey; while in the north, the once green pastures between the City and Islington were turned into new built homes for the growing middle classes. In the West End Regent's Park and Trafalgar Square were carved out of two of the few open spaces to remain, while John Nash's cold imagination created ever-lengthening façades of arrogant stucco. In between these developments, next to the Docks, between the Old City and its newly populous suburbs, south of the River in damp corners ignored by aspirational developers, London also created some of the worst slums ever known. In St Giles and Seven Dials, on Jacobs Island and in the Rookeries, vast numbers of the poor were left to live and die.

In the mean time the infrastructure of this uncontrolled behemoth creaked under the strain. Even as street lighting and macadam reached in to many of the less pleasant corners of the city, arrangements for the disposal of the detritus of urban life became more difficult. The air became ever more polluted with the smuts and dank stinks of a coal fired world. London's famous fogs are mentioned in the Proceedings twice as often in the 34 years after 1800 as they are in the preceding 126 years. Other types of pollution became equally overwhelming. The sewers and nightsoil men grew increasingly inadequate to the task of removing the tons of human faeces produced each day. Even the bodies of the dead became a constant problem for Londoners. Their churchyards filled to overflowing, beyond the point where liberal doses of quicklime could speed the process of decay.

Social and Occupational Structure
If the eighteenth century had started the process of creating ever more solid social and geographical boundaries between classes, the early nineteenth century completed the job. In the eyes of the rich, the poor became an entirely different race, linked by a few miles or even a few yards of river front, but separated by a cultural chasm as deep as Hell. When Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, when in the 1820s the West End thrilled to the adventures of Tom and Jerry at "All-Max", the world exposed in literature was unknown to most upper class Londoners. Similarly, the gradations between the rich and poor became ever more subtle, with an ever growing band of respectable poor, of labour aristocrats, and complacent middle classes to claim each rung on this slippery ladder. Looking back over a long life from the vantage point of the 1830s, Francis Place was amazed by the transformation of manners among London's working population. The middling sort and artisanal classes had redefined themselves, while the very poor had been carefully squirreled out of sight.

As the world's greatest manufacturing centre, as its greatest port and financial centre, London was at the pinnacle of its importance in the decades of the first half of the nineteenth century. What drew immigrants to London was the possibility of employment, and what they found was a world of work more specialised and diverse than anywhere else in the world. In 1841 there were 168,701 domestic servants and 13,103 private messengers and errand boys. There were furniture makers and manufacturers, food processors and traders. In the West End, luxury trades and the wealthy predominated, while in the East, the manufacturers and warehousemen set up shop. In between, in the City within the walls trading and warehousing was gradually paralleled by more and more financial services. And while the population of the City remained stagnant, its function as a clearinghouse of capitalism grew ever more prominent.

Culture and Politics
Early nineteenth-century London was as much a city of science and art, theatre and literature as it was a commercial and manufacturing centre. It was of course, Dickens's city, but it also found spaces for the theatrical science of Michael Faraday and the performances of Edmund Kean. If Turner is remembered for his saccharine rural scenes, his training was in London, and some of his most powerful images took the city as its subject. The decorative arts, in furniture and china, embroidery and fashion also reached a high point in Regency London.

But, if people flocked to its shores, if art and trade, money and merchandise flowed in ever-greater quantities through this urban phenomenon, the politics of the city remained squalid and absurd. The Old City had turned its back on the teeming masses outside its walls, and left the political ordering of these millions of souls to a patchwork of parishes and county boards. The confusion and contradictions in London politics continued throughout the first half of the century. It was only with the crisis caused by cholera and death, by the overcrowding London churchyards, and the failure of infrastructure towards the middle of the century, that steps were taken to create some kind of order out of this chaos.

At the same time, the political demands of London's working people became ever clearer. During the 1790s a powerful political infrastructure had been created in debating and corresponding societies. This laid the foundations for later radicalism. By the 1820s, after the popular upheaval associated with the Queen Caroline Affair, and driven by economic dislocation, working and middle class Londoners became increasingly politicised. In agitation for parliamentary reform, and pre-eminently in Chartism, Londoners sought change, and achieved some of it.