The City in European History

London in the Nineteenth Century


1851:  50% of the population of England and Wales classified as urban; 1891, the per centage was 72%; 1801-1891: urban dwellers had increased from 2.3 million to 19.8 million; London's population in 1809: 1,000,000+; in 1841: 1.9 million; in 1850: 2,350,000; in 1861: 3.8 million; in 1890: 4,000,000+; in 1901: 4.14 million.  Greater London had a population of 6,000,000+ in 1900.

Surface area of the County of London = 117 square miles, including the City of London (1.05 square miles) and the City of Westminister (3.91 square miles).

During the 19th century, London became the first "world city"; 1) it had a large population distributed over a very large geographical area; this dispersion of the population to suburbs was made possible, as we shall see, by the mechanization of transportation; the railroads were built beginning in the 1830s, the Underground was begun in 1865, and there were horse-drawn trams by the 1880s; 2) the population of a world city comes from the whole world; London attracted the dispossessed and ambitious from the British Isles; it attracted the poor and the politically oppressed from southern and eastern Europe; and it lured immigrants from British possessions throughout the world, particularly India and China; 3) a world city has direct industrial and commercial ties to the entire world.  In 1880, the Port of London received 8,000,000 tons of goods (up from 800,000 in about 1800).  A contemporary guidebook advised:  "Nothing will convey to the stranger a better idea of the vast activity and stupendous wealth of London than a visit to the warehouses, filled to overflowing with interminable stores of every kind of foreign and colonial product." (Willis, World Civilizations, p. 323); 4) a world city is involved in the internal affairs of other nations.  London was the capital of Great Britain, the capital of the British Empire, and the capital of the British Commonwealth of Nations.  In addition, its naval power made England a necessary participant in world affairs.

Like other capital cities, London was a political and administrative center, and it housed thousands of civil servants who worked for expanding bureaucracies; it also attracted ambitious political figures; it was also the financial center, the hub of the rail and road system, and a large marketplace for goods and services; industry tended to be located in the suburbs; city center housed government buildings and mercantile activities; capital cities were also cultural centers: newspaper and book publishers were there, as were theaters and operas, restaurants and pleasure gardens.

Problems facing 19th century capitals like London:  many were centuries old, and their centers were clusters of old streets, churches, and palaces; social structures and traditions were ancient; in-migration had flooded the old central districts and even some suburbs; hence urban development in the 19 century consisted both of the reconstruction of the ancient centers and rapid growth on the periphery;

19th century urban dweller faced common tensions and traumas of urban living, i.e. congestion and crime; but also new problems:  long commutes or a sense of isolation and despair.

London amongst the oldest of Europe's capital cities (Rome and Paris are older); since ca. 1650, London was Europe's largest urban community and in the 19th century, London was the most populous metropolitcan center in the world; until the Industrail, London had been England's only large city; London's size and wealth had been a factor in the growth of the English economy, needing coal, food, and wood, for example; by 1700, London was Europe's and the world's greatest port and commercial center, a role London retained until the 20th century; industry less important than to Paris or Berlin; as the administrative center of a kingdom as well as the British Empire, London had a great deal of political autonomy; and London was less threatened by mass uprisings than other Europe capitals.

London's History

Roman origins in the port settlement of Londonium

Economic revival in the Middle Ages; largely the work of foreign merchants resident in London, Germans from the Hanse cities, Florentines and Lombards from the Mediterranean world

London comes of age during the 18th century, during the Georgian period; land speculators and builders shaped the physical development of the city later taken over by the Victorians; Georgian actors created a tradition of theater life; Georgian pleasure gardens and country estates influenced the creation of parks during the 19th century; the practice of club life; and the financial, insurance, and brokerage houses were mostly of Georgian origin

Four Shaping Forces on London in the 19th century:  1) Geographical or topographical: it explains physical characteristics of the city or changes that can be attributed to the environment; 2) Economic: the impact of commerce, finance, industry, and transport on the history of London; 3) Sociological: population movements, either as a whole or in classes, groups, and occupations; 4) Cultural: "It accounts for the values, beliefs, conduct, and institutions which make up and define the daily experience, give meaning to life, and pattern the activities that we find in the city." (Rothblatt, 165)

London's Geography and Topography

London a political, economic, and judicial center; these activities are reflected in the city's topography.

Roman's founded London on a site where natural land routes intersected with navigable waterways; the Thames is navigable 50 miles inland; London Basin had deep-water harbors; also land access was relatively easy through gaps in the surrounding hills;

The first nucleus of London is the City of London to the west of the docks was also founded by the Romans; it is about 1 square mile; it stretches from Aldgate in the district of Whitechapel to Temple Bar, once the arch where the severed heads of traitors were displayed; located close to the docks, the City became a financial and commercial center, the heart of the British shipping industry, the center of the world's re-export trade, the center of international insurance; and the home of the British pound; even today, the City had retained a large degree of autonomy.

Upstream about a mile is the City of Westminster, the second core of London; it became the political capital of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland; the administrative head of the British Empire in the 19th century; Westminster was the seat of the monarchy, the British Parliament, the mother of parliaments, and the bureaucracy.

Linking the City and Westminster along the Thames was a major road called the Strand and a third district, the legal district.  There was established during the late Middle Ages the Inns of Court, the law schools, and the courts themselves.  In the 19th century, New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the metropolitan police, was located near the courts.  The courts and the police have a partnership.  "Together they symbolized the orderliness that was supposed to underpin the growth of Victorian London."

Economic Structures

19th century London a dynamic city; old occupations were transformed, while new ones arose.  The number of professions increased, i.e. civil engineers, clerks and accountants, local government officials, surveyors, teachers, nurses, social workers.  This new group, ranging from the lower to the upper middle class, pushed its way between the traditional artisan and the elite world of finance; it was a large consuming group; and they gave the city much of its social and economic character.

London not an industrial center like Manchester; hence merchants not the most important political group, and they had to share prestige and authority with the royal court, Parliament, the bureaucracy, and social and political leaders.

London as a manufacturing center:  1) enormous expanse of docks and shipbuilding facilities; 2) silk manufactoring at Spitalfields; 3) Sugar refineries at Whitechapel; 4) tanneries, iron foundries, glass works, dye works, shoe and hat shops, and distilleries in the Southwark area; also on the south bank was a gas manufacturing plant, near which the first industrial union was establishe; 5) the Poplar District had chemical factories and polluted the air.  But only about 1/6 of the labor force employed in factories.

The customary manufacturing unit in London was the workshop, which employed the elite of the London worker; originally, craftsmen in these shops produced all sorts of goods, but in the first half of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution forced a shift to producing luxury and consumer goods for local markets; hnce clothing, jewelry, clocks, and stationary; also food and food processing; also the building trades flourished as London grew; the shipbuilding industry declined after the 1860s.

London workers:  1) an elite of well-paid and privileged craftemen; 2) millions of unskilled laboring poor; they worked in the docks, as builders, as scavengers, chimney sweeps, wood choppers, rag collectors, messengers, coachmen, women in the garment industry (especially after the introduction of the sewing machine.  Much of this work was seasonal, and occasional unemployment was a fact of life; hence genuine fear of the masses of the unskilled; 3) lower-middle class, or "white collar" work:  this was the fastest growing part of London's population; thousands of clerks worked in the banking, insurance, and brokerage industries, most of them men until the invention of the telephone and the typewriter; elementary school teachers needed after the creation of a state-supported primary education system in the 1870s; their status was lower than that of the "public school" teachers; 4) the "higher" or "liberal" professions of law, medicine, and the Church, and all three had London ties.  Legal education and the practice of law had its center in London.  Also in London were the main teaching hospitals, and there was a wealthy population in need of physicians.  The Church of England had a large presence in London, and all bishops and archbishops sat in the House of Lords.  Also there were opportunities for previously inferior groups like solicitors and surgeons to rise in prestige.  Also a large number of domestic servants.

London's Growth

Because of its economic and political importance London was long the largest city in Great Britain, and after 1700 it was the largest city in Europe, surpassing its rival Paris.  This growth continued throughout the 18th century.  Up to about 1780, the main source of this population growth was migration from other parts of the British Isles.  It is estimated that 1/6 of the British population visited London during the 18th century, and the most adventurous and ambitious stayed.

Population growth in the first half of the 19th century was spectacular, probably a combination of migration and a high birth rate, although scholars are unable to agree on the matter.  Between 1800 and 1810, the population rose by 23%; between 1840 and 1850, it rose by 21%; and at no time did the rate fall below 17%; in the second half of the century, growth was less dramatic, but nonetheless above the national average.  Population in 1810 was 1,000,000+; in 1851: 2,500,00; and in 1901, 4,500,000.  In short, London's population increase was "remarkable and unprecedented."  London grew faster than any other city in Europe.

Urban problems resulting from this population growth were staggering:  housing was in short supply; space became increasingly valuable; public hygiene deteriorated (low standards of personal hygiene, open-air food markets, litter in the streets, the filth from horse-drawn delivery and passenger vehicles); winds blew in dust, dirt, and soot; drinking water was polluted.  Diseases like typhoid and cholera were common.  An outbreak of  cholera in 1831 killed 5,000, while others in 1833 killed 1,500, in 1848 killed 14,000, in 1866 killed 6,000.

Death rate in 19th century London was high:  1840s: 25.2 per 1,000; 1850s: 23.6 per 1,000; 1860s: 24.3 per thousand  [According to provisional statistics in the US, the death rate was 9.8 per 1,000 population in Jan-Mar 94, 3% higher than the Jan.-March 1993 rate.  Among the deaths for the first quarter of 1994 were 8,300 deaths at ages under 1 year, yielding an infant mortality rate of 8.4 per 1,000 live births, compared with a rate of 8.6  for the first quarter of 1993. This change in infant mortality was not statistically significant.]

Behind the high mortality rates:  1) absence of an established connection between disease and contaminated water; 2) decentralized system of local administration was inadequate to control waste.  The introduction of the water closet meant that more waste was dumped into the Thames.  Within London, there were a hundred units of local government, and local people did not want to pay higher taxes.  Even Parliament was nearly paralyzed by a fight between supporters of a strong central government and those who resisted the erosion of the power of local authorities.  Not until 1900 were some of these issues resolved, and only then did the death rate start to fall.

Urban Transformations in the 1820s: John Nash and Regent Street

Nash’s Regent Street is London’s only grand boulevard.  “Intended to link two royal palaces, the existing Carlton House and a new pleasure pavilion in Regent’s Park, it combined the functions of a triumphal way with that of a street devoted to the luxury retail trade, where the elegant frivolities of shopping and promenading could take place against a background of architectural grandeur unequaled, in London at any rate, before or since.”  (Olsen, 16)

Ornamentation of buildings in stucco (a “sham” stone);

Function of Regent’s street: speculation for builders and the Crown; triumphal roadway; north-south route for ordinary traffic; place to promenade; stimulated retail trade; provided new housing and slum clearance.

Villas build in Regent’s Park, like Cumberland Terrace (Olsen, p.  20; Girouard, p.  280)

Railroads and Suburban Growth

Dramatic population growth contributed to the outward sweep of the city and it forced the city into a technical revolution incolving modes of transport.

Because of geography, london's growth was in an east-west direction along the Thames; in the 18th century, the City was densely inhabited, Westminster less so; the rest along the river was a sequence of villages like Highgate or Hampstead or Richmond.  Hence, 1800-1840: most of the inner districts of present-day London were still rural parishes.  The pattern of growth in the 19th century was called "leapfrogging;" it was not systematic, spreading in concentric circles from the center; rather a new center of settlement or a pre-exisitng one would be targeted; then it would be connected to London by a high way and the intervening space would be filled in.  The invention of the railroad and the Underground had a critical impact on this population growth.

Only in the 1870s and the 1880s did the railroad become the favored mode of transport for the commuter; prior to that, it had been the horse-drawn omnibus, which was introduced in 1829 and which moved at about 5 mph.

The introduction of the commuter train helped determine patterns of suburban development; towns grew up around the suburban stations; fit in with the British desire to live in the country; also made possible north-south development and ended the Thames' role as the determinant of the direction or urban development.

Development of the rail road within London was different from the suburbs; land was more difficult and expensive to come by; but by the midst of the 19th century, 10% of the valuable land in central London was in the hands of the railroad companies; but they never were able to build in the actual center, and the rail lines do not connect; stations dotted the periphery of central London; hence a traveller must often change stations to continue a journey (same is true in Paris and Moscow); hence the need for a means of rapid transit.  The London Underground was born in the early 1860s, with the opening of the Baker Street Station of the Metropolitan Railway, connecting the mainline station of Paddington to Farringdon Street and then to Moorgate.  The opeing was preceded by a decade of political and financial discussion.  Plans had to go through Parliament.  Plus there were the technical problems of actually constructing the Underground.  In 1862, the Lond Times complained "of dark, noisome tunnels, buried many fathoms deep beyond the reach of light or life; passages inhabited by rats, soaked with sewer drippings, and poisoned by the escape of gas mains."

But by the end of the 19th century, the Underground was complete; the result was the linking of the railway termini in the city center and an acceleration of settlement on the city's periphery, away from the Center.

The direct and indirect impact of the railroads on the economy of London is difficult to underestimate.  In 1861, 23,000 people were directly employed by the railways; by 1891, the figure was almost 70,000.  In addition, 48,000 people were employed in ancillary transport industries.  The add families and dependents.  Result is the conclusion that 250,000 people depended on the rail industry for their livelihood.  Other industries grew up near the rail lines; also service industries like hotels, restaurants, refreshment stands, etc.

Aesthetic and social costs were high.  Architecture of railroad stations was imposing; King's Cross was neo-classical; St. Pancras was Ruskinesque Gothic; Victoria Station had airy girder vaulting.  Also built were a number of grand railway hotels.  But they soon became black and sooty because of the smoke from the steam engines.  Housing near the rail lines was also blackened.  They were also noisy.

Railroads needed vast amounts of space; land was needed for stations and track, for shunting yards and siding, for storage facilities and platforms; also land was used by nearby businessmen; the rail lines cut up existing neighborhoods, blocked foot and wheeled traffic and produced great congestion around the stations.  As a result, owners of housing near rail lines let it become rundown, and great railroad slums grew up inhabited by the casual laboring poor of London.

By the end of the 19th century, Londoners had a array of transportation options:  mainline trains ran to the new suburbs; the Underground filled in the gaps in the city center; there were also horse-drawn busses and, after, the 1870s, horse-drawn trams.  The economy ultimately became dependent upon the railroad.  "Once population expansion and the railroads united, the Georgian city yielded to the Victorian city, the cream-colored stucco of the last years of aristocratic London was replaced by the blackened bricks of the industrial age; and, finally, leisured urbanity was supplanted by the modern culture of timetables." (Rothblatt, 186)

London Suburbs

Because of population pressure and the absence of inexpensive housing in the city center, the population of London had to move outwards, creating a new relationship between the center and the periphery.  For a long time, the affluent had had houses or cottages in the country to which they could retreat on weekends or holidays or for retirement.  In the nineteenth-century, transportation made it possible to live in the suburb and work in the city.  (See Girouard, p. 284; painting of Sydenham, South London, by Camille Pisarro).  This relationship reveals much about the "urban mentality," the preferences and values of the Victorian builders, householders, and planners.

Victorian developers created suburbs could choose between two design possibilities:  1) the traditional Europe or 'spider' plan or village idea of curving stressts, back alleys, half-hidden lanes, unpredictable roads.  Such a plan favored the local pedestrian, who learned to negotiate the bewildering street plan; 2) the neo-classical idea of planning based on boulevards and direct roads; in other words, the rectilinear grid; it is impersonal; traffic moves quickly; lingering is discouraged; and broad views could extend one's view or his imagination.

Victorian builders used both types of street plans in the remaking of London.  Arterial roads like Oxford Street or Marleborne Road were cut to parallel the Thames; radial roads were also built from the center out, not unlike the railroads.

But once a throughfare connected the center and the periphery, the spider plan took over.  They recalled the much loved English countryside.  Hence the idea of the "village in the city" or the "garden suburb."  One influential practitioner was Nash, who used a curvilinear street plan for Park Village East and Park Village West on the Camden Town edge of Regent's Park.

To complete the village theme in suburban planning, two types of traditional dwellings were brought from the countryside: the terrace or row house and the single-dwelling or the villa house; they could be sited on curving streets, creating a charming effect.  The most popular type of suburban house was the Victorian semi-detached house (what we call a duplex).  Villas (= a small to medium-sized gentleman's house in a rural setting, including a park or an estate) were built in all sorts of styles (Gothic, palladian, Italianate, or chateau; a favorite was the English country cottage).  By the 1790s, there were architectural pattern-books of designs for cottages and villas, including Richard Elsam's Essay on Rural Architecture (1803) [see Girouard, p. 275 for a quote on the virtues of a rural retreat].  Also built were speculative ventures like St. John's Wood, "the first full-blown suburban neighborhood in England." (Girouard, 277)  Regent's Park was a more elegant suburb which combined city and park.  The park was all-important.  Many Victorian suburbs were pleasant neighborhoods of houses surrounded by shops and services, and all the facilities needed by a town dweller.  But note Hippolyte Taine:  "The townsman does everything in his power to cease being a townsman, and tries to fit a country-house and a bit of country into a cornor of the town." (Girouard, 282)

The growth of the suburb, some historians claim, reversed the traditional relationship between the city center and the periphery.  In the Middle Ages, for example, the suburb was outside the city walls, and it was a place were waste was thrown and undesirables congregated.  At night, the city gates were closed, and these areas sealed off.  In the 19th century, the areas outside the city center became fertile.  The center was inhabited by the poor and the wretched and the streets were filthy.  Invisible but real barriers prevented the poor from moving out.  In addition, the suburbs draw off investment capital from the center.  The practice of commuting separates work from the family, producing tensions between the two.  The suburb also creates geographical barriers between the working class and the middle classes.  And, suburban life, it is charged is "banal and monotonous."

The Inner City

Number of trends evident:  1) Loss of social heterogeneity of many London districts; 2) depopulation of the City; 3) an alteration in the relationship between employers and employees, and 4) the growth of vast slums like the East End.

1)  Loss of social heterogeneity of many London districts:  Take Westminster, Mayfair, or Pimlico.  There Georgian and Regency terraces, with courts behind them for a service population, and a nework of mews or alleys for the storage of carriages and the stabling of horses.  But by the 1870s, the mews and courts were demolished, largely because public transportation and cabs rendered obsolete the carriages and horses, together with the grooms and coachmen.  Also workers did not move to the suburbs until the cost of the railroads and the Underground dropped considerably.  And, when workers moved outwards, fashionable people moved even further out.

2)  The depopulation of the City, traditionally home to small masters, merchants, stockbrokers and financiers, insurance underwriters, and ship owners.  Beginning in the 1860s, they all moved outwards.  In 1851, the population of the City was 127,000; by 1861, it was 112,000, and by 1900, it was 31,000.  The City became a business center, busy during the day and deserted at night.  Its architecture changed, great office blocks were raised, often in the grand styles borrowed from previous eras like the Gothic, the Jacobean, and the Italian that the Victorians favored
3)  Suburban exodus altered relationship between employer and employee; before the Victorian era, prosperous merchants and craftsmen operated their businesses from their homes.  Employers, clerks, journeymen, and apprentices lived near each other, often in the same building.  Even if there was not much contact, there was proximity.  After 1860, skilled workers began abandoning the city for the suburb; then home and family became more important than work; the working day was also shortened and income rose.

4)  The growth of vast slums like the East End.  Dramatic growth in the first half of the 19th century.  People who worked in the docks and industries like foodstuffs, beverages, building materials and soap lived in the boroughs of Whitechapel, Stepney, Poplar, Bethnal Green, Bermondsey, and Southwark.  Descriptions of living conditions are found in Edwin Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes (1842), Henry Mayhew's London Labour and Lond Poor (1861), Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London (17 vols.; 1886-1903), and the accounts of contemporary observers.  The novelist Charles Kingsley wrote in 1849:  "And, oh God!  what I saw!  People having no water to drink—hundreds of them—but the water of the common sewer which stagnates full of . . . dead fish, cats and dogs, under their window."

Charles Dickens, from Bleak House (18  ):  "Jo lives—that is to say, Jo has not yet died—in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone's.  It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing possession, took to letting them out in lodgings.  Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery.  As on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot number, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlement in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years—though born expressly to do it."


The first step in remedying many of London's problems was the compilation of reports like Edwin Chadwick's or Henry Mayhew's or Charles Booth's; the second step was the creation of a metropolitan government to deal in a unified and systematic way with all of London's problems.

The former riverside town required new forms of government, of communications, and of sanitation if it was to continue to grow.  These were slowly and painfully evolved in the London of 1820-1914.  Against a background of statistics that showed the population of the built-up area rising from 1,225,694 (1821) to 6,586,269 (1901), the innovations came piecemeal.  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 road transport, and carriage by rail came less than 10 years later. In 1845 an inquiry into public health was made, with the exposure of London's worst deficiencies, followed by legislation in 1852 ensuring a purer water supply.  A statute in 1855 (the Metropolis Management Act) combined a number of the 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, were put in the hands of a Metropolitan Board of Works.  [Source:  EB]

The momentum of these changes, established by such diverse 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, and care for the outcasts were some of the reformers' legacy; Trafalgar Square, the Embankment, and roads, such as Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, driven through the worst of the slums are their most obvious monuments.  The changes in government continued, if not so drastically.  The London County Council superseded the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1889, the vestries were transformed into metropolitan boroughs by the London Government Act (1899), and the various water companies combined in 1902 into a publicly owned Metropolitan Water Board.  [Source: EB]

Public and private works continued to transform the face of London.  The opening of the Metropolitan, a steam railway, in 1863 and the making of Holborn Viaduct in 1869 were accompanied by the building of new Thames bridges and the rebuilding of Battersea, Westminster, Blackfriars, and London bridges.  After years of discussion and agitation, the road bridges outside the City passed into public ownership, and the tollgates disappeared. Most of the main southern railways carried their lines northward across the Thames into London, to Victoria, Charing Cross, Blackfriars, and Cannon Street stations.  It was an era in which an abundance of initiative and of capital was joined to abundant labour to make the widest use of new skills, cheap transport, and copious raw materials. [Source: EB]

Technical progress continued gradually to alter the lives of Londoners and the face of the town.  Cheap suburban trains enabled the artisan or clerk to live farther and farther from his work.  The London School Board, established under the Education Act of 1870, set about the task of providing elementary education for all.  Trains or streetcars (horse-drawn), after an unsuccessful beginning in 1861, became important in the 1870s and a major factor in metropolitan transport as their electrification developed in the first years of the 20th century. By then electricity was being used as the motive power for traffic below ground, the Prince of Wales opening the world's first electric underground railway, from King William Street to Stockwell, on November 4, 1890.  With the arrival, before 1914, of the gasoline-driven omnibus, the outline of transport in modern London was complete and the way opened for still faster development of suburbia. [Source: EB]

The first effort was the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works (1850s), which udertaking a building program, made sanitary improvements, and purchased parks.  Then came Burial boards, an asylum board, and a school board.  Finally, in 1888, a London County Council was created.

The Great Exhibition of 1851

The idea was Prince Albert's in 1849; its purpose was "to give us a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task of applied science and a new starting point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions." (Willis, 342); financing was supplied by private industry and a public subscription of £200,000.  A public competition was held for the design of the exhibition building.  The winner was Joseph Paxton, who suggested a massive greenhouse for the Hyde Park site.  It was 1,848 feet long, 408 feet wide, and 66 feet tall (tall enough to cover trees).  Made of cast-iron struts and glass (1,000,000 sq feet), it was erected in 17 weeks; after the exhibition closed, it was taken down and reerected in South London, where it was used until destroyed by a fire in 1936.  Exhibits were in four categories:  raw materials, machinery, manufactures, and fine arts.

London's Cultural Life

The British historian Frederic Maitland once wrote:  "Mere numbers are important. . . .  There are some thoughts which will not come to men who are not tightly packed."  ". . . the culture of the city is unique.  It shapes the attitudes of its inhabitants and requires of them special exertions or adjustments.  Victorian London . . . forced Londoners into adopting a range of values that comprise an urban mentality.  City life had a special meaning, if not always a very precise one, and in the search for that meaning city-dwellers defined their relationship to a challenging if impermanent environment." [Rothblatt, 199]

Best place to search for the evidence of the meaning of a city is in the painting and writings of intellectuals, for artists create images (in words and pictures) of the world around them.  "The intellectuals of Berlin and Paris, the feuilltonists of Vienna and journalists of New York have each helped in creating an urban self-consciousness." [Rothblatt, 199]

London, like most great cities, is a restless place; it accordingly challenges the imagination of its citizens.  18th century intellectuals were largely enthusiastic about London.  They came from Scotland, Ireland, and the English provinces because London was the center of social, intellectual, and political life.  It offered them opportunities, work, an income, and circles of friends.  They observed city life, spread its news, and mapped out novel dimensions of the urban experience.

Up until the first half of the 19th century, they successfully conceived of the city within a late-18th century aesthetic vocabulary based on classical thought.  They called London "sublime," which meant that a city should be grand and a little disturbing, but not terrifying.  "A city had to charge up the emotions, put the senses on the alert, stretch mind and body to their full capacity.  A city had to provide opportunities for the display of energy and for the exercise of individual initiative." [Rothblatt, 200]  Hence London's buildings, including Parliament, St Paul's, Westminster Abbey, etc.  The aesthetic of the sublime permitted appreciation of the city's special qualities: stimulation, awe, perplexity, novelty, surprise, and its discomforts could be tolerated.

Second half of the 19th century the notion of the sublime ceased to control the disquieting aspects of urban life.  The new terms for the city were Pandemonium, the city built by devils in Milton's Paradise Lost, or Babylon, the symbol of Biblical evilness.  London is dirty and unhealthy, full of smoke and soot; it had a migrant dockside population and cheap lodgings for pimps, prostitutes, and urban riff-raff; the traditional moral restraint of religion seemed to fail; hence an emphasis on punishment and incarceration.  Building were perceived as large, ugly, and no longer in human proportion.  The pace of urban life became too quick.  And people became anonymous.

Loss of grip on the city and loss of a sense of place evident in paintings of 18-19th century London.  18th century views show the river and a skyline of church spires; urban landscape is viewed from a gentleman's terrace; sometimes a vernal stretch of water or an Italian cappriccio.  19th century views are genre paintings, scenes of riverside frolics, activity in the ports, and Whistler's nocturnes.  Then came the French impressionists, and the cityscape disappears into a swirl of colored fog; the Fauvists paint the city with "unnatural" colors contained in strict outlines (an effort to gain control over a vanishing environment?); then modern painting, where the city is reduced to an abstraction.  "London is too big, too elusive for painters to capture in a single, striking conception."

Photographs of London tell a similar story.  They recorded the city's reality, and at first they photographed everything.  Overtime, they become more selective, and they focus on the impermanent aspects of the city.

By the end of the 19th century, the response of artists and intellectuals to the city had changed.  No longer the delightful Georgian mix of country and town, no easy communication with the countryside; it no longer stimulated creative responses; it had become an enemy, full of slums, poverty, chaos, etc.  In contrast, the suburb stood for what the city had lost:  the stability and virtues of a village and family life; the suburbs were safe and charming.

The Victorian middle class preferred the suburb with its privacy; the affluent still favored the city for its diversities, novelties, and range of pleasures; department stores like Harrod's; music halls, theatres, restaurants, concerts, Gilbert and Sullivan; museums; great newspapers; and the tourist and post card industries.  Pleasures for the working classes:  sports, especially soccer; free museums, public lectures, open-air concerts.  All such were lacking in the suburb.

Above all, city dwellers had to adjust to a rapid pace of change and uncertaint; hence to survive, one had to be flexibile and independent; hence London often attracted the rural young and women, who had the opportunity to earn wages as clerks, shop assistants, and factory girls; many also found emploment in the suburbs as domestics or gardeners.


Fulford, Roger. "Jubilee London: 19th-20th Century,"

Entries on London, Britanica CD 2.0. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1995

Martin, G. H. and Francis, David, "The Camera's Eye,"in The Victorian City: Images and Realities. ed. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London and Boston, 1973, I:

Olsen, Donald J. The Growth of Victorian London. London, 1976.

 Olsen, Donald J. The City as a Work of Art. London, Paris, Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

Sheppard, Francis. London, 1808-1870: The Infernal Wen. London, 1971.

 Taylor, Nicholas. "The Awful Sublimity of the Victorian City," in The Victorian City: Images and Realities. ed. H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. London and Boston, 1973, II:

 Rothblatt, Shelton. "Nineteenth-Century London," People and Communities in the Western World. ed. Gene Bruckner. 2 vols. Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press, 1979, II: 159-209.

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