A new type of society emerged in Britain; a more free, diverse and enlightened society.
British culture at this time was a mixture of the conventional and the revolutionary. The ‘Georgian Age’ was considered to be elegant and polite. As with the sweet comes the sour; the ‘Age of Hogarth’, a time of speculation, squalor and satire.
Georgian London was a fascinating time and place. It was a time of great change, and the city was growing rapidly. This period in London’s history is often overlooked, but it is definitely worth taking a closer look at! In this podcast, we will explore some of the most interesting aspects of Georgian London. We will take a look at the architecture, the culture, and the people who made it their home and how some of them are remembered and others forgotten.
Without further ado, let’s travel back to Georgian London!
An Introduction to Georgian London
Only one of Queen Anne’s seventeen pregnancies produced a potential heir, William, Duke of Gloucester (1689-1700). His death in (July 1700) at the tender age of eleven caused Parliament to institute the Act of Settlement making Electress Sophia of Hanover heiress presumptive. Electress Sophia died two months before Queen Anne.
The Georgian period began in 1714 when Georg, Elector of Hanover, second cousin to Queen Anne, became George I. George was an appealing choice to Parliament as he was Protestant and was willing to share the responsibility of rule with them. James Stuart, the heir to the throne by blood, was Catholic.
During the 123 years of the Georgian period, five monarchs reigned, slavery was abolished, the Americas were lost and the Gregorian calendar was adopted, replacing the Julian.
Georgian London’s Population
The 18th century was a period of rapid growth for London, reflecting an increasing national population, the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution, and London’s role at the centre of the evolving British Empire, London’s boundaries began to expand. Britain undertook its first census (1801) with the aim of capturing the nation’s population.
Greater London was the host of 1,097,000 people; 939,000 of those living or staying in inner London and 162,000 in outer London. The London areas with the largest populations were Westminster with 231,000, Tower Hamlets with 144,000, City of London had 129,000 followed closely by Southwark with 116,000 and Camden with 100,000.*Figures are estimates to the nearest thousand. By the end of the century about one tenth of the population of Great Britain lived in London.
On a London level, significant changes were afoot. The sharp population increase drove the demand of new infrastructure such as new roads such as Regent’s Street and the New Road (begun in 1756).
New housing was needed. Hamlets and small villages such as Chelsea and Islington grew. Brand new residential areas were built too, such as Belgravia and Pimlico. People from across the country and indeed the world moved to London, some running away from their past lives. Most people didn’t own their own home but rented rooms. The best room was at the front of the house, whereas the cheaper rooms were in the garrets.
Home was where you rested your head. People were highly mobile, sometimes only renting rooms for a couple of months. This, along with badly behaved tenants created challenges for Georgian Landladies and landlords. You can hear more in episodes 78. Georgian Lodgers & 79 Georgian Landladies).
New infrastructure such as bridges and roads were created in order to accommodate the growing population of Londoners. New transportation networks were developed, the Regent’s Canal was built to move produce across London and London-born George Shillibear launched London’s first omnibuses (1829) along the New Road.
The railway first entered London in the 1830s. The first section of the London and Greenwich Railway was built on a viaduct between Spa Road, Bermondsey and Deptford, near Greenwich. It was the first occasion where locomotives ran over a proper railway in the London district. Listen more about London’s First Railway.
Despite large city challenges such as poverty, disease and crime, London was a thriving and exciting place to live during the Georgian era. The people were creative and industrious, and there were many new opportunities available for those who were willing to seize them. In spite of its drawbacks, Georgian London was a fascinating place to explore and experience.
Building Georgian London
Georgian London was a building site. They were building for the future. Their style: elegant but grand. Some key developments included the construction of new roads, bridges, and public buildings. New markets and fairs began thereby bolstering the local economy.
The construction of Regent Street (began in 1811 and was completed in 1825), now one of the most famous streets in London and Trafalgar Square (1822) were part of a redevelopment project ordered by King George IV.
An increased interest in classical architecture saw it reflected on the streets of London; with the British Museum, the world’s first National museum (1753) and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House being built along with a new style of Georgian terraces.
The Westminster Paving Act (1765) required streets be equipped with pavements, drainage, and lighting. Next year saw the same provision extended across the whole city with the The London Paving and Lighting Act (1766). Houses be numbered and streets and pavements be cleansed and swept regularly. Street lighting was more extensive than in any other city in Europe, something which amazed foreign visitors to the capital.
Some of London’s iconic fixtures were removed during the Georgian period, including the seven ancient gates enclosing the City of London (1761) which improved the movement of traffic, and the 40+ houses on London Bridge.
Westminster Bridge was London’s second overland crossing (opened in 1750).
Blackfriars Bridge (1769) was designed by 26yr old architect Robert Mylne, who was influenced by Piranese, an elegant and classical style with nine semi-elliptical arches of Portland Stone. Originally known as William Pitt Bridge (after the PM) but was changed when he fell out of favour.
The Age of Enlightenment
The age of enlightenment was now in full swing; Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was published, as was Mary Wollstonecroft’s Rights of Woman, both writers having strong connections with Islington. Fanny Burney and Jane Austen published novels and Dr Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language. The great enlightened thinker Voltaire spent a couple of years enjoying London’s charms. Listen to more about Voltaire in London.
Scientific discovery became the new frontier with Captain Cook embarking on three voyages and Erasmus Darwin became the first Briton to explicitly write about evolution. Fox Talbot developed the first photographic negative. Michael Faraday grew up near Oxford Street and lived at the Royal Institution in Mayfair, founding the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and discovering electromagnetic induction. Renowned experimental scientist Benjamin Franklin crossed the Atlantic and came back to London this time to live life as a gentleman. Listen to our episode about Benjamin Franklin in London.
The study and teaching of medicine was reaching a new age with Drs John and William Hunter leading at the experimental and non-institutional front. Listen to our episode about Drs William and John Hunter.
Dentistry was in its infancy with many people going to the local barber for a tooth extraction if they didn’t fancy doing a DIY job. Listen to our episode about Georgian Dental care.
John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement, first moved to London for school where he was a pupil at Charterhouse. The house he lived in as an adult for over a decade stands next to his first purpose-built Chapel. It is one of the finest surviving small Georgian townhouses in London and is somewhere you can visit.
Terror of the supernatural was widespread in the 18th-century. Methodists argued that ghosts may be real. Even though this was supposed to be the Age of Enlightenment, many of our Georgian ancestors regarded the threat of the paranormal as real and terrifying – and that left them vulnerable to the ghost hoax; cue Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane. Listen to our Georgian Ghost story.
Coffeehouses were popular in Georgian London, especially among the city’s writers and artists. These establishments served coffee and tea, as well as pastries and other snacks. They were often used as meeting places, where people could gather to discuss current events or share ideas. They were known for their lively debates and discussions, which sometimes turned into arguments. This is also the period of great growth in newspaper publications; the expansion of the production of newspapers. The newspapers would be subscribed and you could go and read them in the coffeehouses, but also a lot of the news was actually produced in the coffeehouses themselves. Listen to more about London’s coffeehouses.
Some of the most famous coffeehouses in Georgian London included Lloyd’s, Garraway’s, and John Russell’s. Lloyd’s was particularly popular among merchants and shipowners, while Garraway’s was frequented by politicians and journalists. John Russel’s was a favourite spot for artists and writers.
Before the financial revolution, if you wanted to invest your wealth, you’d put it into land but now regular people could now invest, which created the opportunity to financially profit from trading or indeed lose significant amounts such as in the South Sea Bubble episode 27 (1720). Listen to our episode about the South Sea Bubble.
The number of testosterone-filled gentlemen’s clubs increased. The Hellfire Club was founded, which was the name for several exclusive clubs for high-society rakes. The clubs were, in effect, “second homes” in the centre of London where men could relax, mix with their friends, play parlour games, get a meal, and in some clubs stay overnight. More about those in a future episode.
Social customs changed too; for example, later on in the period men no longer wore wigs or carried swords in public. From the early 1700s duelling was made illegal. Hyde Park was un-gated and so became one of the most popular venues in the 18th century for settling affairs of honour.
Bare-knuckle fighting was the most popular sport in the later Georgian period. Specialist sports writer, London born Pierce Egan. published accounts of the matches in great detail in the newspapers. The Prince of Wales attended many ‘mills’, along with many famous gentlemen of the time.
Boxing wasn’t only a spectator sport. Poet Lord Byron noted in his diary that he took regular boxing lessons and that he considered boxing a sport that developed both the body and the mind, a widespread concept at the time.
Fencing became an acceptable form of exercise for an English gentleman (think Mr Darcy). Gentlemen sports clubs offered classes as well as boxing. Fencing was then one of a gentlemen’s necessary accomplishments, along with riding and dancing.
Cricket, rugby and golf were also created during this time.
It wasn’t a time for peace, there were three quashed Jacobite rebellions, George II was the last British monarch to lead troops into battle (Battle of Dettingen, Germany),oh and the Seven Years war (1756-63). It was an era of national heroes such as General James Woolf at the capture of Quebec (1759), Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo (1815). The statue of General Woolf stands tall on the top of the hill at Greenwich Park, looking over the Royal Borough. He was a local boy who is best known for his training reforms and for his victory over the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec as a major general (1759). He rests in the crypt of St Alfege, Greenwich with a plaque and painting ensuring he is remembered.
Nelson, also with Greenwich connections, is remembered more grandly with Trafalgar Square, even though it was originally to be named for William IV commemorating his ascent to the throne (1830).
The Duke of Wellington’s London legacy is extensive. The first seven years of the project to build what we now know as Waterloo Bridge was going to be called Strand Bridge, but was renamed as ‘a lasting Record of the brilliant and decisive Victory achieved by His Majesty’s Forces in conjunction with those of His Allies’. Opened by the Prince Regent on the second anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. The Georgian bridge, built of Cornish granite, comprised of nine spans, measuring 378m /1,240ft between its abutments. Both Nelson and Wellington rest in impressive tombs in St Paul’s Cathedral.
For most of the period the Princes of Wales maintained their courts in town houses rather than grand palaces. They behaved as though fashionable members of the aristocracy making them perceived to be more of the people. The Prince Regent moved into Carlton House on Pall Mall having been remodelled by John Nash and was now a palace befitting the son of George III, a new palace in all but name.
Buckingham House was built (1703 – 1762) as a private home for the Duke of Buckingham until George III acquired the whole site (1762) as a private family residence for his wife, Queen Charlotte, and their children. The Queen’s room ceilings were designed by Robert Adam and painted by Giovanni Battista Cipriani making them some of the most sophisticated of their time. It wasn’t until the 1820s when George IV commissioned John Nash to create most of the Buckingham Palace we recognise today.
Politically, it was an age of advancement too. Sir Robert Walpole became Britain’s first ever Prime Minister (1721) and William Pitt the Younger became Britain’s youngest PM (to date) at the age of 23.
The Reform Act (1832) was the catalyst for the amendment of some acts including the Factory Act (1833) which restricted the working hours of women and children. The Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) which halted government payments to the able-bodied poor unless they entered workhouses and thereby established workhouses as the main means of providing welfare. This inspired authors such as a young Charles Dickens to focus his written works on the social injustices and gaining the title of ‘spokesman of the poor’. The Parish Boy’s Progress, more commonly known as Oliver Twist was his first novel to realistically depict the impoverished London underworld and illustrates his belief that poverty leads to crime.
The Somerset Case (1772) lead the way to the Slavery Abolition Act which abolished slavery in most of Britain’s colonies (1833). Britain started shipping convicts to its American colonies (1718) before they started to transport them to Australia 69 years later (Portsmouth to Botany Bay in 1787).
Arts and Culture
This was an era bursting with artists with painters such as; Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, John Constable, Joseph Turner and William Hogarth.
A young Hogarth lived in Clerkenwell before moving to Leicester Square to join Reynolds. Romney and Constable sought the fresh air of Hampstead Village where Constable and his family now rest in peace. Turner grew up in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden and lived in Marylebone for 40 years and had a country house in Twickenham.
Many famous artists came to prominence. One such artist was Thomas Gainsborough, who is known for his portraits and landscapes. He was born in 1727 in Sudbury, Suffolk, and he became a Royal Academician in 1768. Some of his most famous works include The Blue Boy and Mr and Mrs Andrews.
Another famous artist from Georgian London was Joshua Reynolds. He was born in 1723 in Plympton St Maurice, Devon, and he served as the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. His most famous paintings include The Age of Innocence and Cupid Sleeping. These are just two examples of the many talented artists who flourished during Georgian London! Their work still inspires people to this day.
When Jane Austen came to London in 1813, she was entering a world that was rapidly changing. For centuries, the city had been dominated by the aristocracy, but now new social classes were emerging. Wealthy businessmen and industrialists were starting to gain power, and they were eager to spend their money on luxury goods and services. At the same time, there was a growing movement against the traditional elite. Writers and artists were calling for more equality and democracy, and they were appealing to the middle class as well as the working class.
The Royal Academy was established within the walls of Somerset House (1779), becoming the first resident of a newly built Somerset House in what is now known as the North Wing. Nash had plans for a new home for the Academy in what was to become Trafalgar Square.
George Frideric Handel was appointed Composer to the Chapel Royal composing British patriotic anthem such as Zadok the Priest for the coronation of King George II (1727) which has since been sung prior to the anointing of the sovereign at the coronation of every British monarch since its composition. A young Mozart stayed for 15 months moving between Soho and Pimlico and performing at the new Buckingham Palace no less than three times.
It was a time of great dramatists such as David Garrick and Edmund Kean. Garrick was an actor, playwright and theatre manager who lived in Covent Garden. He had a London street and a theatre named after him. London born Edmund Kean, a celebrated Shakespearean stage actor, trod the boards of the West End theatres but also Windsor Castle and retired to Richmond. Both Garrick and Kean are remembered with monuments in the Rotunda of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
London born Joseph Grimaldi drew the audiences in with his slapstick comedy and gin-infused wit. His final resting place is along the New Road where you can dance on his grave, quite literally.
Theatre was a huge part of Georgian London culture. There were dozens of theatres in the city, and they were all incredibly popular. Theatres were where people went to see new plays, hear music, and enjoy other forms of entertainment including opera.
Pleasure Gardens, the most famous of all was Vauxhall Gardens. Live music, fireworks and the biggest names of the day drew the crowds. Mock Naval battles were staged on the Serpentine in Hyde Park depicting the British defeat of the French, which ended with the French fleet being set on fire. Fireworks, water rockets and a grand fair delighted the crowds further. Listen more about Regency London.
From the 1700s cookery writing really took off. Hannah Glasse wrote a cookery book called ‘The Art of Cookery’ which was a big seller (in the 1740s). This was a time where jelly and ice cream were high stake food. Listen more about Regency Food.
In the English countryside ingredients were for the most part grown and bought locally, and word travelled quickly in small communities. Meat came from local farms or estates, and farmers and landowners had reputations to maintain, as did the local mill for flour, and the local shopkeepers for all that they sold. It was a different story in cities, including London; shopkeepers and “costermongers” would source, store, prepare and supply the produce.
A wider market meant that tradesmen were often less concerned with quality, as they were with cost. The worst affected were the poor, often living from hand-to-mouth, buying food in “pennyworths” or even “half-pennyworths.”
Women’s fashion changed. The most notable difference was the waitlist. At the beginning of the era the waistline was at the natural level, at the end it was sitting directly underneath the bus, what we now the empire line.
Regency corsets had two separate gussets that held each breast. They were made out of fabric and they were soft and they didn’t have any boning in them. https://londonguidedwalks.co.uk/podcast/regency-dress-myths/
Mens fashion changed through the Georgian era too; emphasising the shoulders, with neat waists and an emphasis on the hips and legs and groin, which was now visible for the first time in quite some time. Men had the option of using supportive undergarments to keep them trim. If a gentleman wanted to keep an eye on his weight he could go to what is now one of the oldest shops in London, Berry Bros. & Rudd in St James’s. If you go in now, you’ll notice a large pair of scales and these date from 1765 and they’re huge, and many notable customers have been weighed here. So names such as Pitt the younger. Lord Byron, Beau Brummel and the Prince Regent.
Boots were practical exercise footwear. Society men such as London born Beau Brummel popularised the fashion of trousers.
The Georgian era ended with the death of William IV June 1837 and his niece, the 18 year old Princess, became Queen Victoria.
We offer two options for you to walk Georgian London; private tour and public walking tours: