What was London like in the mid-nineteeth century?

Along the way, we’ll examine the challenges faced by its inhabitants, the progress achieved through innovation, and the enduring human spirit that persevered through adversity. Together, we’ll uncover the lessons that can be learned from this captivating era and its lasting impact on the course of history. So, buckle up and prepare for an adventure into the heart of mid-nineteenth-century London!

In 1847, London was a city of striking contrasts and significant change. It thrived as a bustling metropolis at the centre of the British Empire, brimming with innovation, commerce, and cultural exchange. However, beneath the surface of progress, the city grappled with a host of social, economic, and public health challenges that deeply impacted the lives of its inhabitants, including the young Annie Besant. The rapidly expanding population, fueled by the Industrial Revolution, resulted in overcrowded living conditions, widespread poverty, and rampant disease. Amidst this intricate urban landscape, Annie was raised and confronted with the stark realities of inequality and social injustice. These experiences would later spark her enthusiasm for activism and strengthen her resolve to challenge the status quo, ultimately moulding her into a prominent social reformer.

The Victorian era saw London become the world’s most magnificent city, reaping the benefits and confronting the difficulties of the Industrial Revolution. In 1800, Greater London had a population of approximately one million, surging to 6.5 million by 1900. The city experienced growth in affluent areas like Regent and Oxford streets in the west, while new docks in the east bolstered London’s status as a global trading powerhouse.

The railroad’s arrival in the 1830s was a crucial factor in London’s expansion, displacing thousands of residents and prompting a population shift from the City to suburban areas. However, the city’s explosive growth and global trade supremacy came with a hefty price, as unimaginable squalor and filth were widespread. Personal hygiene and clean clothing were often neglected, and the stench of unwashed bodies in cramped spaces would have been overwhelming.

The New Poor Law of 1834 marked the Victorian approach to addressing the needs of the impoverished and destitute. Before this legislation, individual parishes were responsible for supporting the poor. The new law required parishes to cooperate and establish regional workhouses where those in need could seek assistance. Yet, these workhouses were effectively penal institutions for the poor, where civil liberties were stripped away, families were separated, and human dignity was disregarded. The living conditions and treatment within these workhouses were frequently so appalling that many desperately poor individuals would go to extreme lengths to avoid seeking help there. Instead of providing a compassionate solution to poverty, the New Poor Law further marginalized the underprivileged and reinforced the social stigma associated with poverty. This system perpetuated the harsh realities faced by the poor in Victorian society, creating a cycle of desperation and hardship that was difficult to break.

The congested city streets saw wealthy and impoverished individuals intermingle. Street sweepers worked tirelessly to clear the roads of manure, a byproduct of the numerous horse-drawn vehicles. Following the Stage Carriages Act of 1832, the hackney cab was progressively replaced by the omnibus as the primary mode of transportation within the city. By 1900, 3,000 horse-drawn buses transported 500 million passengers annually. A traffic count conducted in Cheapside and London Bridge in 1850 recorded a thousand vehicles per hour traversing these areas during the daytime. This contributed to a massive volume of manure that needed to be cleared from the streets. During rainy weather, straw was spread across walkways, storefronts, and carriages to help absorb the mud and moisture.

Countless chimneys in the city belched coal smoke, causing soot to accumulate everywhere. Raw sewage flowed along the gutters in several areas and emptied into the Thames. Street merchants loudly advertised their goods, adding to the cacophony of urban sounds. Pickpockets, prostitutes, intoxicated individuals, beggars, and vagrants all contributed to London’s vibrant, chaotic scene at the time.

English journalist and sociologist James Mayhew estimated that during the 1850s, around 12,000 costermongers, or street sellers, lived on the streets of London, as detailed in his book London Labour and the London Poor. These enterprising individuals sold various products, including fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, pies, muffins, and other items. Costermongers typically began their day early in the morning, purchasing goods from London’s bustling markets, such as Billingsgate Fish Market, Covent Garden, or Borough Market. They haggled for the best possible prices, using their “stock money.”

After acquiring their merchandise, these street sellers transported them throughout the city using rented barrows. As they navigated the crowded streets, they hawked their products to passersby, providing a vital service to the residents of London. In doing so, costermongers became an integral part of the city’s commercial landscape, contributing to its lively atmosphere and ensuring that goods were accessible to people from all walks of life.

During this period, temperatures in London often swung to extremes. The heat near fires could be overwhelmingly intense, while the cold away from them chilled to the bone. The main streets were dimly illuminated at night by weak gas lamps. Side streets and less important roads were frequently left in complete darkness, necessitating the hiring of link boys to guide travellers to their destinations. Indoors, a solitary candle or oil lamp struggled against the darkness, gradually causing the ceilings to blacken from soot.

London Stereoscopic Company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Annie Wood was a young lady who grew up in mid-nineteenth-century London. Learn about Annie’s London life.


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