London, 1780-1900

[Anonymous], English School, 19th century Snow Hill, Holborn (1848). From Wikimedia Commons.

In 1780, London held some 750,000 men, women and children in a compass of just a few square miles. By 1900 it was home to more than 5 million people – 9 million if you include the greater metropolitan area - and had extended its reach to almost 200 square miles. This page gives a brief introduction to London in this period of dramatic change.


In 1780 London was in crisis. Rocked by the Gordon Riots in June, its system of prisons and lock-ups full beyond capacity following the end of criminal transportation to America, London felt on the edge of chaos. And yet, in the 120 years that followed London grew into the greatest urban centre the world had ever seen – a metropole for a global empire where all the peoples of the world mixed. A city certainly marked by extreme poverty, but also a city of remarkable wealth and grandeur.

Between these dates London both consumed generation after generation of migrants and was substantially rebuilt from the ground up. In response to cholera and the growth of the slums, new sewers and water works powered by steam helped to make London a healthier place to live. Even the dead were removed from their medieval churchyards to make-way for healthier urban sprawls. Candles gave way to gas lighting, before electric lights replaced gas. Railways were driven into the heart of the city allowing for a rapid urban sprawl; and London was knitted together by an ever-growing system of underground and overground transportation.

Servicing two great masters – trade and governance – the city also witnessed the creation of a new infrastructure. Whitehall was increasingly dedicated to housing an ever-growing civil service capable of administering an ever-growing Empire. And to the east, new docks and warehousing sprang up, turning the River Thames into a deep canyon walled by brick. In the old City, clustered around the Bank of England and Lloyd's insurance market, finance evolved to service the demand for cash, credit and security. And amidst it all, millions more served the same masters at a distance, as servants and manufacturers, as hoteliers, cooks and publicans.

The story of the evolution of criminal justice - of crime, trial and punishment - must be read against the backdrop of a city changing with dizzying speed, and facing a series of unprecedented challenges.


George Scharf, Men and Boys with Advertising Boards (c. 1825). British Museum Prints and Drawings, number 1862,0614.1187. © Trustees of the British Museum.

From just over three-quarters of a million souls in 1780, Greater London grew decade by decade to reach 1.4 million individuals by 1815. It grew to well over three million by 1860, and six and a half million by 1900. In part, this was down to improved mortality rates. Because of improvements in sanitation, building standards and food supplies, London ceased to be a sink of mortality for rural immigrants. Death rates fell continuously over the course of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the main driver of urban growth remained migration.

At mid-century, almost forty percent of Londoners were migrants from elsewhere – from provincial Britain and Ireland, Europe and increasingly from the wider world. This ensured that London’s population was remarkably young and single – influenced by the large number of people drawn to the capital seeking employment. Most came step-wise, from provincial Britain. In 1881, the census found that 1,173,000, or 25 per cent of all Londoners had been born in non-metropolitan Britain; and most of these in the South East, south Midlands and East Anglia. Many came in search of employment as domestic servants, which in turn resulted in London being distinctly female. Throughout the century women significantly outnumbered men in the population as whole, and among some groups of migrants women positively dominated. In 1801, 54 per cent of Londoners were female, and this figure remained significantly higher than fifty per cent through the rest of the nineteenth century.

The next largest group of migrants were the Irish. In 1841, when the first census to record the birthplace of Londoners was taken, 4 per cent of the population were from Ireland - 73,000 individuals. This rose to 109,000 in 1851 in the wake of the Great Famine (1846-1849), before gradually declining in the second half of the century. The 1841 census also recorded a further 13,000 Londoners from elsewhere in Europe and the rest of the world (rising to 26,000 in 1851). French, Italian, German and Spanish refugees (both economic and political) all formed substantial communities - many forced to flee following the political and economic disorder associated with the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. In 1901 there were 27,400 Germans, 11,300 Frenchmen and women, and 11,000 Italians. There was a thriving Jewish community which had been established for over a century by 1800. The 1901 census recorded approximately 140,000 Jews living in London.

There were also smaller, though still substantial, groups of Chinese, Indian and African sailors – primarily living along the river. Chinese and Indian immigrants arrived as a result of the ever-deepening trade network of Empire, establishing substantial communities along the way; while the African and Black Caribbean community that had been established in the wake of the Seven Years’ War and American Revolution continued to prosper. The 1901 census recorded 33,000 Londoners as having been born in British colonies or dependencies.

The Built Environment

By 1780 the character of London's growth was set, with aristocratic squares in the West End and poorer port-side communities in the East End. But, through the nineteenth century this east-west division was overlain by substantive growth to the north and south. Facilitated first by half a dozen new bridges and then by the railways, London grew substantially into the open fields of rural Middlesex to the north and Surrey to the south. Ribbon development along the main roads gradually swelled to become substantial suburbs with a population of daily commuters. By the 1830s comfortable suburban villas began to spring up in areas like St John’s Wood and Blackheath; while by the 1870s speculative builders began filling in the open spaces that remained with housing for the respectable working class. Street lighting, paving and water supply evolved in dialogue, with the wealthy areas of the West End benefiting from remarkable facilities while the servicing of the East End lagged substantially behind. Numbered houses, served by fresh running water, framing beautifully-paved roads, could be found in many areas, while until mid-century at least, the slums continued to rely on public wells as their only source of water. At the turn of the nineteenth century the building of enclosed docks such as St Katherine’s Dock, east of the Tower, only served as contrast to the squalor of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

The East End became the home of manufacturing, brewing and distilling, sugar processing and textiles; while the old City itself served up the financial services of insurance and merchant banking along with warehousing and trading.

The economic divisions that marked London’s cityscape were mirrored in social divisions. By the 1860s St John’s Wood and Highgate had already developed a reputation as a centre for authors, journalists and publishers; while Bayswater, Clapham and Haverstock Hill attracted stockbrokers and merchants. Their clerks could be found in in Brixton, Dalston, New Cross, Tottenham and Walthamstow. And the East End was home to dockers, chandlers and sailors – and was the first port of call for each new wave of migrants.

London Underground Map (1908). From Wikimedia Commons.

This pattern of differentiated neighbourhoods was exacerbated with the coming of the railways in the 1830s. A host of poorer communities that had been interspersed among their wealthier neighbours were built over by the new termini at Euston, Paddington, Kings Cross and Waterloo. And soon after – particularly following the Workman’s Fares Act of 1864 - even working people began to "commute" to work, from isolated communities ever further from the town’s rattle and stench. The London Underground, trolleys and trams, and the overground rail network created a dense pattern of connected communities, built as low-rise brick terraces huddling around a station. London’s modern reputation as a collection of "villages" resulted from this distinct pattern of growth. This geographical segregation led in turn to ever-finer social gradations. Class divisions increasingly marked the limits of social interaction, re-enforcing both class identity and class conflict.

The urge to escape to the suburbs was understandable. For the first half of the nineteenth century arrangements for the disposal of the detritus of urban life remained rudimentary. Nightsoilmen continued to ply their noisome trade; while the air was increasingly polluted with coal smoke and smuts. Significant improvements only came with the Metropolitan Board of Works (established in 1855), and the decision to create a comprehensive sewerage and water system in the wake of the awful summer of 1858 – the Great Stink. The City’s churchyards were dug out and the mortal remains of dead Londoners were transferred to new homes in suburban reliquaries; and in the 1860s, Joseph Bazalgette implemented his great scheme to bring the Thames within a narrower compass, and harness the new land to the massive task of disposing of the tons of human waste created each day. Hiding his handiwork beneath the Victoria Embankment, Bazalgette both helped make it possible for London to house seven million people, and at the same time fundamentally changed how the city worked. Between them, Bazalgette’s new sewer system, in combination with the railways, allowed London to turn its back on the Thames.

The same rebuilding of London also saw the creation of new types of public space. 1811 saw the creation of Regent's Park, Trafalgar Square and Regent Street, carved from the Royal Mews, farmland and a plethora of squalid neighbourhoods. Then came Victoria Park in the East End, opened in 1846. Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common, Finsbury Park and Blackheath all came under the Board of Work’s control and were redesigned with public access in mind during the decades after 1855.

Governance and Politics

While London grew exponentially throughout the nineteenth century, its government and organisation never really caught up – and was never encouraged to do so by the central government. Having long-since expanded beyond its medieval boundary, metropolitan London evolved into a collection of competing administrative areas. At its centre was the old City of London – the "Square Mile" – governed by an annually-elected Lord Mayor, Court of Common Council and Court of Aldermen. The old City contained 25 wards and almost a hundred parishes, many containing fewer than a thousand people. As the economy shifted from manufacturing and warehousing to finance and exchange, its residential population steadily declined just as its wealth increased.

William Edward Kilburn, View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common (1848). From Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast, the majority of the population of greater London lived in the county of Middlesex, run in the first instance by appointed magistrates and administered from the Sessions House in Clerkenwell. Middlesex was in turn divided between the City of Westminster and the wider county – which even at the end of the nineteenth century included many rural and agricultural parishes, as well as crowded districts such as St Giles in the Fields. In addition to Middlesex, north of the river, the parishes of the East End spilled into Essex; while south of the river, a rapidly growing population was governed by the counties of Surrey and Kent.

This patchwork of administration was never fully unified, and its ghostly presence remains to this day. The first tentative steps in the creation of a London-wide form of government came with the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 (described in detail on the Policing page). This was followed in 1855 by the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works, which was charged with developing an infrastructure that transcended London’s administrative maze.

The first truly London-wide system of government had to wait until the end of the nineteenth century, with the creation of the London County Council (LCC) following the passage of the 1888 Local Government Act. This was followed in 1900 by the creation of a lower tier of 29 Metropolitan Boroughs. Together these new forms of government helped to give some coherence to planning and organisation, and created a limited form of democratic accountability. Despite this, the old City remained separate and self-governing, and many traditional powers were retained by the parishes and the counties of Middlesex, Surrey, Kent and Essex. Fear that an elected LCC might result in a socialist majority ensured that the Metropolitan Police was managed directly by the Home Secretary.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this political incoherence, London remained at the centre of wider national and international politics throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While few took to the streets to demand the reform of local government, urban radicals played a significant role in the long-drawn-out campaigns for the extension of the franchise. During the 1790s, a powerful political infrastructure was created in the form of the corresponding societies. This laid the foundations for later radicalism. By the 1820s, after the popular upheaval associated with the Queen Caroline Affair, and driven by economic dislocation, working- and middle-class Londoners became increasingly politicised. In the 1830s and 1840s there were mass meetings of reformers, most notably the Chartists. There was rioting in Hyde Park at the time of the Second Reform Act in 1867, a massive demonstration in the same park in 1884 with a crowd estimated at 120,000, during votes on the third reform act, and turbulence in the late 1880s as political radicals sought to channel the anger of the unemployed and underemployed. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, political agitation in the metropolis found a new voice and new forms of action with the Suffragettes.

Fenian radicals, anarchists, Marxists, all flavours of anti-imperialism and nationalism could also be found in nineteenth-century London. That London was chosen as the venue for the first Pan-African Congress, held in July 1900, reflects its global political significance.


At the point of their criminal trials, the vast majority of the convicts whose lives are evidenced in the Digtial Panopticon could call London home. And their lives fully reflect London’s unique and diverse character. Like the typical Londoner, these defendants were young and frequently single; and they were likely to be recent migrants. They also reflected the geography of the capital. They came from poor neighbourhoods and frequently from poorer backgrounds. To name the slums and rookeries of nineteenth-century London is to name the homes of many convicts. The Criminal Justice pages, and the individual life narratives on this site, give a flavour of the complex system that defendants and convicts were forced to navigate, and the complex circumstances that engendered criminality. What is perhaps more difficult to encompass is the shock of imprisonment and transportation for these men and women raised in the midst of remarkable urban possibility. They were used to crowds, and a city-scape of untold complexity, and would have experienced either the soul-destroying regimen of the silent system and the new-style prisons, or the sheer strangeness of a new land, as profoundly disconcerting and depressing.

Further Information

Author Credits

This page was written by Tim Hitchcock, with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.