When Victoria became queen in 1837, London was the capital city of the world’s richest nation, with a growing overseas empire. It was the centre of government, finance, trade and culture, as well as an important manufacturing centre which traded through its port with the rest of the world.
During the 19th century, London’s population rose from 1 million to 6.2 million, due to natural increase and immigration from other parts of Britain and abroad. London had always been attractive as the capital city, with people drawn by the belief that its streets were paved with gold. Since the Industrial Revolution it had attracted unemployed agricultural workers in great numbers because of its huge casual labour market.
To accommodate its increasing population London expanded physically until it was the largest city in the world, becoming known as the ‘Monster City’. Yet despite Britain’s wealth and industrial prowess, as displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851, its capital was in desperate need of reform and modernisation. London’s infrastructure could no longer support its population, and it needed to become fit for its role as the capital of a growing empire.
So how did London develop during this period?
There was a house building boom as London expanded. Most of these new houses were occupied by the better-off, who could afford to live in the growing suburbs and travel back into central London to work. Poorer people had to live near their places of work. Working class housing built by philanthropists only helped a few of the working poor.
The housing conditions of the poorest Londoners were made worse by the rapid population growth. Older slums were largely confined to the City itself, but soon slums appeared across the capital. Slum houses were crammed from cellar to attic as greedy landlords cashed in on the housing shortage.
As London was modernised, slums were demolished, but no alternative accommodation was provided for the displaced poor. Due to a ‘laissez-faire’ policy regarding social problems the state did little to help.
There were a huge number of homeless people on London’s streets; this was an embarrassment in the capital of the world’s richest nation.
If they were able to scrape together a little money the homeless could spend an occasional night in one of the many foul, overcrowded common lodging houses in the slum districts. They could also try to get a place in a charity-run night shelter, but these could not accommodate everyone in need. The only other place to find respite from the streets was in the grim casual wards of workhouses.
Towards the end of the Victorian era there was greater awareness of the plight of London’s homeless, and more night shelters and hostels were opened by charities and church organisations, which eased the problem.
Moving around Victorian London was difficult and not helped by population growth. Streets were narrow, severely congested, dirty and in need of repair. Traffic was uncontrolled and impeded by many obstructions, and pavements were equally crowded and filthy. The River Thames, an important part of the transport infrastructure, was also heavily congested.
Railways, which arrived in London in 1836, provided a quicker and cheaper alternative to stage-coaches. Despite this progress, railways added to street congestion because they brought more people to the capital.
The arrival of underground railways in 1863 did much to improve matters. They spread across the centre of London and out to the suburbs, becoming an important addition to the transport infrastructure.
New road and railway bridges across the Thames, the widening of roads and the construction of new ones all helped to ease congestion. Road and pavement surfaces improved when asphalt became available in the 1870s.
Congestion on the Thames was relieved when the Embankments were built, making the river narrower and faster. When Tower Bridge was opened in 1894 it enabled large ships to move further up into the Pool of London, freeing up space on the river.
These improvements relieved pressure on the transport system exacerbated by population growth.
Victorian London was a very unhealthy place. It was described in The Lancet as the ‘Doomed City’. Reform was needed in a number of areas, made urgent by the expanding population.
Disease was rife in London, mostly spread by the polluted Thames, the source of much of London’s drinking water.
A new sewage system was desperately needed. This was not built until after ‘The Great Stink’ of 1858, caused by the foul stench of the Thames combined with exceptionally hot weather. Once a safe sewage system was built and fresh drinking water became available the health of Londoners improved greatly.
Better-off Londoners paid for medical care at home but there was little provision for the poor, who included many of the new arrivals. Most were excluded from London’s voluntary hospitals, and workhouse infirmaries had a high mortality rate. This was remedied by the building of state hospitals.
Another serious health hazard was the state of London’s churchyards. They were crammed full with burials piled on top of each other, dangerously close to the surface. Even without a growing population this was no longer tenable.
The introduction of the continental practice of burying the dead in cemeteries and of cremation solved this problem.
Crime was rife in Victorian London. Much petty crime was due to unemployment as there were not enough jobs to go round and often crime was the only way for the poor to survive.
By the end of the 1880s London’s crime rate had fallen considerably due to an increasingly efficient and professional police force, as well as other factors, including the introduction of electric street lighting which reduced crime after dark.
A city transformed
By the time of Queen Victoria’s death London had been transformed. It was a safer, healthier city with an improved transport infrastructure.
There were many new, grand public buildings including the rebuilt Houses of Parliament, government offices and museums. London was better able to accommodate its enlarged population, and it was much fitter for its role as the capital of the world’s richest nation with a great empire.
After leaving university with a B.A. in English Literature and History, Helen worked for a number of years in the Court Service before becoming a full-time mother of three. Her interest in Victorian London developed from studies for her M.A. in Historical Research. She is the author of The Street Children of Dickens’ London and five books on Jane Austen and her times. All are published by Amberley Publishing. Her book, Everyday Life In Victorian London, is published on 15 January 2023.