The Growth of London

Before 1600 London was just one of a group of similar sized cities in Europe, all of similar importance. London's population growth  in the 17th and 18th century outstripped all the others, most of the growth being in the parishes outside the city walls. Many buildings and alleys spread over a wide area of former fields to the East to the city, fanning out from ribbon developments which already flanked the approach roads into London. Much of this building took place in previously rural hamlets, especially Ratcliffe, Limehouse, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and around St Katherine's Hospital.

Open space to the north and west to the city was still being used for grazing and cultivation, but these activities were being gradually forced out to Islington and surrounding villages as development began to fill in the fields and open spaces outside the city walls by the end of the 16th century in the wake of dissolution of the monasteries, their lands were being made available for development.

By the 1630's, the Crown had abandoned its attempts to prevent London's expansion to the West (towards its Westminster Place) and now sought to limit growth by allowing only prestigious developments. In this way areas such as Covent Garden and Lincolns Inn - spacious squares lined by elegant houses for gentlemen and aristocrats- came to be built.

To the East of London was developing a mixture of houses and  small industrial concerns: bell founding, glass-making, ivory and horn working and, later, silk weaving and paper-making. These industries flourished outside the city walls because of several factors: low-cost rents; the exclusion of certain trades from practising within the walls; the failure of city authorities control industry springing up in these areas.

Within the city itself, traditional small-scale industries and manufacturing continued to thrive: Carpenters, Cobblers, Tailors and Printers was still all based within the walls. So by the end of the 17th century division between East and West was emerging which was to shape the long-term geography of London.

In the West government and service industries were based, financial services in the City itself  and to the East manufacturing flourished.

The 17th century city came through the civil war in the 1640's and the Great plague of 1665, the Great fire of 1666, and subsequent great rebuilding: as a consequence, London 1700 little resemblance to the town in 1600.

When the century began, London was crowded within its medieval walls with open fields to the North and East and a rich suburb expanding Westwards towards Westminster. Within the city, it its streets, it lanes alleys were clutter with timber-frame buildings where rich and poor lived side by side although wealthy inhabitants often occupied secluded and more spacious sites sat back from street frontages. Houses of artisans and shopkeepers open directly onto the road with little space for a yard  behind. The poorest inhabitants usually lived in single rooms in an upper storeys.

Commercial life was in the hands of some 100 companies whose halls were a feature of the City. These include companies such as Mercer's, Grocers, Drapers, Goldsmith's, Skinner's, Vintners and Mason's. These Guilds and Livery companies exercised control over all aspects of training and manufacture through such measures as insistence upon a seven-year apprenticeship before granting of freedom to ply a particular trade in London. As a result of these restrictions, new businesses formed by immigrants were forced to set up outside the city walls where the Guilds had no control.

During the century several merchant companies were also founded to widen London's International trade. One of the most prominent was the East India company founded in 1600. The Royal Exchange opened in 1571 also help to stimulate international trade.

London was rich and powerful but it was also noted for its dirt, overcrowding and squalor. Plague, the most unwelcome of all imports, thrived in such conditions, killing over 25,000 Londoners in both 1603 and 1625 and a further 10,000 in 1636. But the worst and the last outbreak was in 1665, when over 70,000 Londoners died. Large communal graves were dug outside the city, for the churchyards were all full.

In December 1641, following the ousting of the pro royalist regime at the election to the Commons Council, London became the capital and chief port for the parliamentarians against the King. The royalist army was repulsed at Turnham Green in November 1642 after which work began on a massive project to defend the city and its new suburbs. The 11 mile long defence was a costly project and involved all sections of the London population including the puritans who countenance Sunday working to get the job done. At the end of the war London was on the winning side which did not endear the city to the later Stuart kings.

The Great fire and a great rebuilding

London, like any ancient town or city, had suffered from many, Conflagrations. What made the disaster of 1666 different from the rest was it share scale. It began in a bakery on Pudding Lane early on Sunday morning 2nd September 1666 and rage for five days and nights. The fire was aided by strong East winds which allowed it to jump what fire breaks that had been created. Only when the winds dropped on Wednesday did the fire fighters gained the upper hand, and the fire was extinguished on Friday.

The Parish constable and Watchman had called upon the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, on the first night of the fire. Annoyed at be awoken he dismissed the fire as unimportant and and grumpily observed 'Pish! A woman might piss it out!'

The Great fire and destroyed over 13,000 houses, 87 Churches, 52 Company Halls and much more beside, the total damage was estimated at  over 10 million.

There were many who saw London as inelegant and in-sanitary city; the aftermath of the fire presented an opportunity to create a radically new city. Despite grandiose plans to impose a new layouts to the city, the rebuilding had to at reconcile general improvements with the rights of individual property owners.

The Six Commissioners appointed to redesigned the city, set out the most comprehensive town planning legislation ever seen in England. Over 100 streets and lanes were widen, gradients diminished and two new streets, King Street and Queen Street were laid out. Timber buildings were banned and the majority of the new buildings were to be in a uniform red brick design.

The speed of recovery was remarkable, by 1671, 9,000 houses and several major public buildings were a complete. Work had begun on the 50 new churches and designed by Christopher Wren and construction on St Paul's began in 1675.  In 1676 a great fire broke out South of the river destroying at least 624 house. The destruction of old London town was complete.

By now London was a cleaner, safer city with well ordered streets lined with  red brick and white stone buildings. All this was achieved in spite of wars against the Dutch, which had seen an enemy fleet in the Thames estuary in 1667, the Monmouth rebellion in 1685 and the glorious Revolution in 1688 as well as some of the hardest winters on record.

Most Georgian urban growth was outside London in the rising industrial centres of the Midlands and of the North, by 1801 Manchester and Liverpool had displaced Norwich and Bristol as the second and third largest cities in Britain, with Birmingham not far behind. Although London was still by far the largest urban centre (in 1831 over eight times as big as a Liverpool), its uniqueness within it the national economy was no longer absolute.

London's growth was only maintained through out the 18th century by continuous large-scale migration of individual people and families. The death rate in London at this time was a round 40 per thousand, far higher at that the national average. During the first half of the century the number of burials in the metropolitan area greatly exceeded that of baptisms with the death rate peaking at 45 to 50 per thousand. On a national scale London's share of burials amounted to 20 percent whilst its share of baptisms was around 12 percent. It is estimated that between 1700 and 1750 the total number of migrants entering London amounted to over 500,000. After 1750 the long slow fall in London's death rate began and  by 1841 it stood at only 23 per thousand hardly different from the national figure.

Worldwide only two nations, Britain and Japan, were able to sustain, for any length of time, Cities with large populations. Historically, once a city reached a certain size, the death rate from infectious diseases caused by poor sanitation and lack of good drinking water caused a decline in population. Even in cities with high sanitation standards there were still epidemics which led to their decline of population. However in Britain and Japan the national obsession with drinking tea, involving boiling water and its natural antiseptic properties, allowed high density populations to develop without the high death rates found in other countries.

Although the majority of the migrants coming to London came from the Home Counties many came from distant parts of England, or from Scotland, Ireland or from abroad, London was becoming a cosmopolitan city. Most migrants readily and assimilated into the metropolis, there being no immigrant ghettos (despite some heavy concentrations of French and Irish) unlike in other European cities.

The Huguenots (French Protestants) who fled France after the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes (ending religious tolerance) settled in Spitalfields and Soho (which for a while became known as Little France). In the 1840s the Irish Potato famine combined with harsh 'Land Reforms' led to a flood of Irish Immigration to London. By 1851 over 100,000 Irish were living in the capital.

 In 1881, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II led to anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and Poland. Vast numbers of Jews fled westward many heading for America, but ended up settling in various European cities. These refugees did concentrate in the east end, but began to more prosperous areas.


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