By the beginning of the 19th century, London was well on the way to becoming the biggest city in the world, as well as the largest port, the capital of an empire, and a major centre of trade and finance. In this final gripping installment of the history of London, I’ll examine the Victorian city and bring the story up to the present day.
The image above is an 1806 map drawn by Edward Mogg. From it, we can see how the metropolis is expanding rapidly outwards, as it has reached Paddington, Pentonville and Islington in the north, while south of the river it is moving towards Vauxhall and Camberwell. There are also pockets of development west along the river towards Chelsea, while in the other direction the city is stretching towards East India Docks and Whitechapel. There are still fields and villages outside of the main urban sprawl, such as Hackney, Greenwich, Camden Town and Battersea. All in all, it’s an incredibly detailed piece of work, and represents a London that must have been an amazing place in which to live, a dense urban area surrounded by lush green fields, farms and open countryside which have disappeared forever in the intervening two centuries. If only I had a time machine……..
The Great Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria on 1st May 1851 in London’s Hyde Park, and was held in an enormous iron and glass conservatory that became known as the Crystal Palace. The venue housed approximately one hundred thousand exhibits, all of them highlighting the marvel of the Victorian Age. Over half of them came from Britain or parts of its vast Empire. They included printing presses, textile machines, agricultural equipment, sophisticated carriages that were forerunners of motor cars, steam engines, and numerous other items of all types. Massive crowds were able to travel to London to visit the exhibition due to the newly constructed railway lines then crisscrossing the country. The Great Exhibition ran until October 1851, and became one of the defining events of the nineteenth century. Its significance lies in the fact that it highlighted the success of the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s advanced role in the world, and cemented London’s place as capital of the greatest empire the world had ever known.
London was also a notoriously dirty city however, particularly in the latter part of the 19th century, due to the amount of horse drawn traffic, vast numbers of people, and limited sanitation facilities. Whilst there was much wealth in the city, there was a concomitant amount of poverty, especially in the overcrowded and decrepit slums of the East End. Into this hideous morass wandered the most infamous serial killer in history in late summer 1888. All five known killings (though there were almost certainly more) attributed to the ‘socially challenged’ individual known to posterity as Jack the Ripper occurred in the Whitechapel area of East London, notorious for its squalor, violence and crime, during August and September of that year. All were women and most likely prostitutes, and they were not only murdered but horrifically mutilated and had parts of their insides taken away by the killer, suggesting that old Jackie boy may have had some “issues” with the ladies…..if only Mommy had hugged him a bit more/less.
Above is a beautiful image of London’s famous Oxford Street in the final decade of the 19th century. Taken only eleven years from the end of Victoria’s reign and just over two decades before the carnage of the First World War of which Britain would be an integral part, it shows a beautiful and surprisingly ordered street scene from a long lost world. And yet again far more attractive than the modern version in my humble opinion….if only Oxford Street remained this enchanting today. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 marked the end of the Victorian Era and the beginning of the Edwardian with the ascent to the throne of Edward VII.
In this 1923 pocket size map of the great metropolis, one can see the rapid growth and development of London as most of the green areas of 19th century London have been well and truly filled in. In the first two decades of the century, new suburbs were created for the affluent middle classes. Transport improved as a consequence, with new roads being laid down, and the ongoing expansion of the famous London Underground, which had commenced running way back in 1863. Despite its growing vastness, however, London would lose its position as the largest city in the world to New York City in 1925.
As the capital of the British Empire, London was targeted by German Luftwaffe bombers during the Second World War, particularly in 1940 and 1941. Huge amounts of damage were caused, and it is believed that approximately thirty thousand people were killed. In the end it made little difference however, as the Nazis were defeated by 1945. The rebuilding of the devastated parts of the city continued for years after, and planners seized to opportunity to completely remodel certain areas. The first high rise blocks of flats appeared to replace slums and houses lost during the conflict……personally I reckon the slums could not have looked worse. The city continued its outwards expansion, and many areas that had been separate towns and villages were swallowed up.
The 1963 Greater London Act established a system of 32 boroughs (alongside the City of London Corporation). Today, the Greater London area is home to just under nine million souls from many nationalities and cultures, and extends approximately 45 miles from the city centre covering a total area of 607 square miles. Hard to believe that this great city began as a little Roman settlement along the river Thames over two millennia ago.
Next time I’m taking a break from cities and examining some of the fascinating stories of Irish people who got themselves involved in the independence struggles of South American countries……something to look forward to in 2021!!