London — Evolution of the modern city

18th-century London

By 1820, when George IV succeeded to the throne, many of the villages and hamlets that in the 17th and 18th centuries had been the destination of summer outings from the heart of the city had been covered by a tide of bricks and mortar. Some of the building was the well-planned work of great landowners; some, however, was the sorry work of the small or greedy. The Bedford, Portman, and Grosvenor estates, laid out on land that had passed from the monasteries into the hands of noble families, produced streets and squares that embellished the western part of town. On the other hand, to the east, parts of Stepney and Bethnal Green were constructed with ill-built cottage terraces. Agar Town and Somers Town, which lay near the modern King’s Cross and St. Pancras railway stations, were very poorly built.

The changes brought during the years 1689–1820 followed no conscious plan. The government of the City was in full control and reasonably active within its jurisdiction. Beyond its boundaries, unchanged since the Middle Ages, government services and communications for the new areas came piecemeal. Important developers obtained local acts of Parliament enabling them to levy rates out of which to finance paving, lighting, cleansing, and the watch (a group of persons charged with protecting life and property). Because the popularity of the developers’ streets depended in part on such services, they were usually adequately administered. Lesser developers left a legacy of slums and neglect for later generations to clear and repair.

Socially, commercially, and financially, London was the hub of the kingdom. It was also the centre of the world economy from the late 18th century to 1914, having taken over that role from Amsterdam. As a corollary to its great wealth, fed by the profits of the trade with the East and West Indies and with the Americas—indeed with most of the world—it reigned supreme in matters of the theatre, literature, and the arts. Eighteenth-century London was the city of David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, and Sir Joshua Reynolds; of great furniture makers and silversmiths; and of renowned foreign musicians, including George Frideric Handel, Joseph Haydn, and Mozart. (For a contemporary description of the metropolis from the third edition [1788–97] of Encyclopædia Britannica, see London in the 18th century.)

London experienced important growth throughout the 19th century, with its total population exceeding 2,685,000 in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition staged in the Crystal Palace to celebrate the commercial might of Britain and its empire. Fifty years later London’s population reached 6,586,000, and the metropolis housed one-fifth of the population of England and Wales.

18th-century London

Organization, innovation, and reform

The city’s massive size brought increasing problems. Although new dispensaries and new or enlarged hospitals were reducing mortality, the former riverside town required new forms of government, communication, and sanitation if it was to continue to grow. These were slowly and painfully introduced between 1820 and 1914, and the innovations came in bits and pieces. In 1829 a centralized Metropolitan Police force was provided, under the ultimate control of the home secretary, in place of the uncoordinated watchmen and parish constables. The lighting of streets by feeble oil lamps was revolutionized by the introduction of gas, and soon the Gas-Light and Coke Company (1812) was followed by similar companies scattered throughout London. Omnibuses (1829) began a revolution in passenger transport, and carriage by rail came less than 10 years later.

In 1842 an inquiry into public health exposed London’s many deficiencies. Cholera in 1831–32 had caused the deaths of about 6,000 Londoners, and there were further outbreaks in 1848–49, 1854, and 1866. Legislation was passed in 1852 to assist provision of pure water. In 1854 the physician John Snow demonstrated the water transmission of cholera by analyzing water delivered by various private pumps in the Soho neighbourhood to a public pump well known as the Broad Street Pump in Golden Square. He arrested the further spread of the disease in London by removing the handle of the polluted pump. A statute of 1855 (the Metropolis Management Act) combined a number of smaller units of local government and replaced the medley of franchises with a straightforward system of votes by all ratepayers. Major works, such as main drainage and slum clearance, were put in the hands of the Metropolitan Board of Works.

The momentum of these changes, created by such reformers as Bishop C.J. Blomfield, Sir Robert Peel, Edwin (later Sir Edwin) Chadwick, and the earl of Shaftesbury, continued throughout the century. New churches, new schools, better law and order, main drainage, pedestrian tunnels under the Thames, and care for social outcasts were some of the reformers’ legacy. Their most visible bequests were Trafalgar Square, the Embankment, and roads, such as Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, driven through the worst of the slums. On another level, the School Board for London, established under the Education Act of 1870, set about the task of providing elementary education for all. Changes in local government continued, if not so drastically. The London County Council superseded the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1889, areas supervised by the vestries were reorganized into metropolitan boroughs by the London Government Act (1899), and various water companies were combined in 1902 into a publicly owned Metropolitan Water Board.

Public and private works continued to transform the appearance of London. The opening of the Metropolitan Line, a steam railway, in 1863 and the construction of Holborn Viaduct in 1869 were accompanied by the building of new Thames bridges and the rebuilding of Battersea, Westminster, and Blackfriars bridges. After years of discussion and agitation, the road bridges outside the City passed into public ownership, and the tollgates were removed. Main line railway termini were built on the edge of the built-up area (Paddington, Euston, St. Pancras, King’s Cross), but eventually most of the railways from the south carried their lines across the Thames to the central business district on the north bank, with termini at Victoria, Charing Cross, Blackfriars, and Cannon Street. It was an era in which an abundance of initiative and capital was joined to abundant labour to make the widest use of new skills, cheap transport, and copious raw materials.

Technical progress continued gradually to alter the lives of Londoners and the appearance of the town. Cheap suburban train services enabled artisans or clerks to live farther and farther from their workplaces. Trams or streetcars (horse-drawn), after an unsuccessful beginning in 1861, became important in the 1870s and were a major factor in metropolitan transport as their electrification developed in the early years of the 20th century. By then electricity was being used as the motive power for traffic below ground; the prince of Wales (later Edward VII) opened the world’s first electric underground railway, from King William Street in the City to Stockwell in the south, on November 4, 1890. With the arrival in 1897 of the gasoline-driven omnibus, transport in modern London was enhanced and the way opened for still faster development of suburbia. This was to be associated with the construction of additional underground railway lines (especially north of the Thames) and the electrification of surface railway lines serving south London. The most celebrated suburban development involved what was to be known after 1915 as “Metroland” along the Metropolitan railway to the northwest of the capital.

Such changes were accompanied by rising land values in the central zone, by the construction of ever-larger offices, factories, and warehouses in place of small houses, and by a continuous outlay of public and private funds on better housing and street improvements. World War I, in which air raids inflicted some 2,300 casualties on London, brought only a temporary pause, and development resumed on a mounting scale after the war. The First British Empire Exhibition, held at Wembley in 1924–25, proclaimed the recovery of the nation and its colonies after the Great War. As a national and in some respects a world capital, London required institutions capable of meeting its needs. An era of amalgamation and expansion ensued, affecting almost all institutions. The docks continued to be enlarged, with London’s last great enclosed dock (the King George V Dock) being opened in 1921. Street congestion increased, despite the rationalization of traffic authorities. By 1939 the population of the Greater London conurbation had risen to 8.6 million.

Reconstruction after World War II

London suffered widespread damage during World War II as a result of aerial bombardment, which devastated the docks and many industrial, residential, and commercial districts, including the historic heart of the City. About 30,000 Londoners died because of enemy action in the skies above the capital, and a further 50,000 were injured. (See BTW: London Classics: London in World War II.) The end of hostilities brought a return of evacuees, and reconstruction of the city began at once, even though building materials were in desperately short supply. During the war the Greater London Plan (1944) had been prepared as a blueprint for reconstruction and also for relocating some Londoners and their jobs in new towns around the capital and in “assisted areas” in parts of the English provinces. Construction of new housing was discouraged and tightly controlled in a Green Belt around London, and the subsequent dispersed growth of the metropolis occurred in more distant sections of southeastern England. The New Towns Act (1946) gave rise to eight new settlements outside the metropolis. Passage of town and country planning acts, notably in 1947 and 1968, gave municipal authorities unprecedented powers of land purchase and control over development in London. The Festival of Britain (1951) proclaimed national recovery and produced the Royal Festival Hall on the south bank of the Thames, as well as the Lansbury Estate (a redevelopment area in Poplar). However, severe air pollution from coal-burning domestic hearths and industrial chimneys contributed to the Great Smog of 1952, which played a part in the death of 4,000 Londoners.

During the subsequent quarter century there was vast investment in slum clearance, construction of new houses and apartments, and improvement of services. Urban planning was more widely accepted, together with a broad policy to divert a share of employment and housing to localities beyond London’s continuously built-up area. As a result, the number of residents in Greater London contracted from about 8,193,000 in 1951 to about 6,600,000 in 1991; however, growth continued in other parts of the southeast.

The port of London, which had been devastated during World War II, was restored in the 1950s. However, between 1968 and 1981 the city’s docks were closed to traffic because of their small size, difficult labour relations, poor management, and powerful competition from major ports in continental Europe, especially Europoort in Rotterdam, Netherlands. During the 1980s the London Docklands Development Corporation encouraged major changes in Docklands, including the construction of new housing and a large number of new offices (notably at Canary Wharf). London had experienced substantial deindustrialization by this time, with old industries that had been installed in Victorian times collapsing and many newer industries, dating from the interwar years and located along radiating main roads laid out in those decades, sharing the same fate. London’s economy had become increasingly geared to financial transactions and many other kinds of service activity. These sectors of the economy were strengthened by legislative changes in the mid-1980s affecting financial dealings. In consequence, the townscape of many parts of the City and the West End was transformed as vast new office complexes were constructed. Notable examples are Broadgate, on the site of the former Broad Street station; London Bridge City, alongside the Thames; and the Lloyd’s building. In addition, London’s airports at Heathrow and Gatwick were expanded, a major new airport opened at Stansted (30 miles [50 km] north of the City), and a small airport for flights to western Europe began operating in Docklands. Completion of the M25 orbital motorway enabled vehicles to pass around the capital rather than move through it. However, road congestion remained a major problem, with even the M25 seriously overloaded with traffic.

Notable construction projects at the turn of the 21st century included the new British Library, the expansion of Underground lines through Docklands, and the innovative Millennium Bridge, designed for pedestrian traffic. Spanning the Thames to connect Tate Modern with the City at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the bridge opened briefly in 2000 but was closed when it swayed unexpectedly, prompting a series of engineering studies. It reopened in 2002 after modifications to stabilize it. Downriver at Greenwich the Millennium Dome, a controversial project along the Thames in the East End, offered a variety of exhibitions during 2000.

On July 6, 2005, London was selected as host of the 2012 Olympic Games. The following day the city suffered a series of coordinated terrorist attacks: three bombs went off on Underground trains, and another destroyed a double-decker bus. The attacks, which killed 52 people and injured some 700 others, were carried out by four young men characterized as “ordinary British citizens” in a subsequent investigation.

In August 2011 a wave of riots swept the city after police shot and killed a 29-year-old man who was suspected of involvement with gun-related crimes. What began as a peaceful gathering at the police station in the Tottenham neighbourhood soon spiraled into violence. Over the following days, dozens of fires were set across London, and stores were vandalized and looted. Although hundreds of rioters were arrested, police were unable to contain the violence, which soon spread to cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool. Prime Minister David Cameron called Parliament into an emergency session and ordered thousands of additional police officers into the streets.