19th-century London

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This article covers the history of London in the 19th century.


Part of Charles Booth's poverty map showing the Old Nichol, a slum in the East End of London. Published 1889 in Life and Labour of the People in London. The red areas are "middle class, well-to-do", light blue areas are "poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family", dark blue areas are "very poor, casual, chronic want", and black areas are the "lowest class...occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals".

During the 19th century, London was transformed into the world's largest city and capital of the British Empire. Its population expanded from 1 million in 1800 to 6.7 million a century later (1.9% average annual growth). During this period, London became a global political, financial, and trading capital. In this position, it was largely unrivalled until the latter part of the century, when Paris and New York City began to threaten its dominance.

While the city grew wealthy as Britain's holdings expanded, 19th century London was also a city of poverty, where millions lived in overcrowded and unsanitary slums. Life for the poor was immortalized by Charles Dickens in such novels as Oliver Twist.

One of the most famous events of 19th century London was the Great Exhibition of 1851. Held at The Crystal Palace, the fair attracted visitors from across the world and displayed Britain at the height of its Imperial dominance.

As the capital of a massive empire, London became a magnet for immigrants from the colonies and poorer parts of Europe. A large Irish population settled in the city during the Victorian era, with many of the newcomers refugees from the Great Famine (1845-1849). At one point, Irish immigrants made up about 20% of London's population. London also became home to a sizable Jewish community, and small communities of Chinese and South Asians settled in the city.

Railway Map of London, 1899, from The Pocket Atlas and Guide to London

Coming of the railway[edit]

19th century London was transformed by the coming of the railways. A new network of metropolitan railways allowed the development of suburbs in other counties. London also became home to the first urban underground railway system, which laid the foundations for the modern London Underground system.


Prime minister Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police as a police force covering the entire urban area. The force gained the nicknames of "bobbies" or "peelers" named after Robert Peel.

London's urban area grew rapidly, spreading into Islington, Paddington, Belgravia, Holborn, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Southwark and Lambeth. With London's rapid growth, towards the middle of the century, an urgent need arose to reform London's system of local government.

Outside of the City of London, which resisted any attempts to expand its boundaries to encompass the wider urban area, London had a chaotic local government system consisting of ancient parishes and vestries, working alongside an array of single-purpose boards and authorities, few of which co-operated with each other. To address this problem, in 1855 the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was created to provide London with adequate infrastructure to cope with its growth. The MBW was London's first metropolitan government body.


One of its first tasks was addressing London's sanitation problems. At the time, raw sewage was pumped straight into the River Thames. This culminated in The Great Stink of 1858. The polluted drinking water (sourced from the Thames) also brought disease and epidemics to London's populace. The 1866 cholera epidemic was the fourth and the worst in the city's history, but also the last one because a modern sanitation system came into place.[1]

Parliament finally gave consent for the MBW to construct a massive system of sewers. The engineer put in charge of building the new system was Joseph Bazalgette. In one of the largest civil engineering projects of the 19th century, he oversaw construction of over 1300 miles or 2100 km of tunnels and pipes under London to take away sewage and provide clean drinking water. When the London sewerage system was completed, the death toll in London dropped dramatically, and epidemics were curtailed. Bazalgette's system is still in use today.[2]

The Metropolitan Board of Works was not a directly elected body, which made it unpopular with Londoners. In 1888 it was wound up, and replaced with the London County Council (LCC). This was the first elected London-wide administrative body. The LCC covered the same area as the MBW had done, but this area was designated as the County of London. In 1900, the county was subdivided into 28 metropolitan boroughs, which formed a more local tier of administration than the county council.

The Houses of Parliament from old Westminster Bridge in the early 1890s

Famous buildings and landmarks[edit]

Many famous buildings and landmarks of London were constructed during the 19th century including:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ William Luckin, "The final catastrophe—cholera in London, 1866." Medical history 21#1 (1977): 32-42.
  2. ^ Bill Luckin, Pollution and control: a social history of the Thames in the nineteenth century (1986).

Further reading[edit]

Published in the 1800s-1810s[edit]

Published in the 1820s-1830s[edit]

Published in the 1840s-1850s[edit]

Published in the 1860s-1870s[edit]

Published in the 1880s-1890s[edit]

Published in the 20th century[edit]

External links[edit]