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If It Wasn’t for the ’ouses in Between

In many works of nineteenth-century fiction, characters stand upon an eminence, such as Primrose Hill or Fish Street Hill, and are struck into silence by the vision of the city’s immensity. Macaulay acquired the reputation of having walked through every street in London but by the year of his death, in 1859, it was unlikely that anyone would have been able to reproduce that feat of pedestrianism. Here was a source of anxiety for an indigenous Londoner. He or she would never know all of the city thoroughly; there would always be a secret London in the very act of its growth. It can be mapped, but it can never be fully imagined. It must be taken on faith, not on reason.

It grew so large in the nineteenth century that Donald Olsen has remarked in The Growth of Victorian London that “Most of the London we enjoy is Victorian either in its fabric or its layout, or at least its inspiration.” And what is that inspiration? A passage in Building News of 1858 put the case that “It is the duty of our architecture to translate our character into stone.” The great rebuilding and extension heralded an equally great destruction of the past; that, too, was part of the Victorian “character.” Its improvements destroyed “the old gabled shops and tenements, the quaint inns and galleried court-yards, the churches and the curious streets that were the existing records of the life of another century.” Yet just as the Church yielded to commerce so the narrow streets gave way to wide and ever wider thoroughfares lined by new dwellings; great hotels, office buildings and blocks of flats, in brilliant limestone or burnished brick or terracotta, rose above the city. Shaftesbury Avenue, Northumberland Avenue, Holborn Viaduct, Queen Victoria Street, Charing Cross Road, all were driven through the capital so that a reporter in 1873 could observe that “old London … the London of our youth … is becoming obliterated by another city which seems rising up through it.” There was a disconcerting sensation, much remarked upon, that a strange city was emerging ineluctably like a phantom in a mist. And it was changing everything that it touched. The concerted impulse to create a gigantic London—to widen streets, to put up great monuments, to create museums and law courts, to drive huge new thoroughfares from one part of the capital to another—meant a chaos of demolition and reconstruction, with entire areas becoming building sites complete with hoardings and heavy machinery. The Holborn Viaduct was built to span the valley of the Fleet, linking Holborn Circus with Newgate Street; the great enterprise of the Victoria Embankment transformed the northern bank of the river and was extended into the heart of the city by Queen Victoria Street; Victoria Street transformed all of Westminster, while Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road created the “West End” as it is commonly understood. The City itself was steadily being depopulated, as bankers and merchants moved out to Kensington or Belgravia, until it became nothing but a counting-house. “This monster London is really a new city,” Charles Eliot Pascoe wrote in 1888, “new as to its life, its streets and the social conditions of the millions who dwell in them, whose very manners, habits, occupations and even amusements have undergone as complete change within the past half-century as the great city itself.” This is one aspect of London which the nineteenth century thoroughly revealed; the city itself changes its inhabitants, for better or worse, and actively intervenes in their lives. From that, of course, may spring a sense of oppression or imprisonment.

Yet there was a genuine feeling of awe concerning the vast extent of the city, as if a quite new thing had been created in the world. Where some saw only poverty and deprivation, others saw intelligence and industry; where some recognised only shabbiness and ugliness, others noted the blessings of trade and commerce. In effect London was now so large that practically any opinion could be held of it, and still be true. It was the harbinger of a consumer society. It represented energy, and zeal, and inventiveness. But it was also the “Great Wen,” a monstrous growth filled with “the bitter tears of outcast London.”

Another aspect of its size, therefore, was the fact that it contained everything. When Henry Mayhew ascended above London in a balloon he observed “that vast bricken mass of churches and hospitals, banks and prisons, palaces and workhouses, docks and refuges for the destitute” all “blent into one immense black spot … a mere rubbish heap” containing “vice and avarice and low cunning” as well as “noble aspirations and human heroism.” But in such a vast metropolis, forever growing, “vice” and “heroism” become themselves unimportant; the sheer size of London creates indifference. This, in a sensitive mind such as that of Henry James, can lead to acute depression or feelings of estrangement. “Up to this time,” he wrote to his sister in 1869, “I have been crushed under a sense of the sheer magnitude of London—its inconceivable immensity—in such a way as to paralyse my mind … The place sits on you, broods on you, stamps on you.” That is another aspect of its unimaginable size; it acts as a giant weight or burden upon each individual life and consciousness. It is not simply that the citizens were literally dwarfed by the huge blocks and intricate machinery of the Victorian city, but rather that the sheer scale of London haunted its inhabitants. No one could ever memorise a map of Victorian London with its streets packed so tightly together that they could hardly be made out; it was beyond human capacity. But a place of such vastness, without limit, is also horrifying. It weighs upon the mind. It may lead to desperation, or release energy.

Disraeli remarked upon this “illimitable feature” as the “special character” of London but in turn it resulted in the city’s becoming “very monotonous.” That is another paradox of this paradoxical city. Sheer size may arouse not sensations of awe and admiration but rather those of dullness and ennui. Disraeli was possessed by a vision of “flat, dull, spiritless streets” stretching in all directions so that “London overpowers with its vastness” and its sameness. If it was the largest city in the world it was also the most impersonal, spreading its dull life everywhere.

One of the characteristics of London faces was the appearance of tiredness. To journey through the city was itself fatiguing enough; it had grown too large to be manageable. The Londoner returned home exhausted, spiritless, dead to the world. So London wears out its citizens; it drains them of their energies, like a succubus. Yet for some “this senseless bigness,” as Henry James described it, was a source of fascination. Disraeli’s vision of a vast uniformity was reversed in that context, because the absence of limits could also mean that everything is there; there were myriad shapes to be discerned, an endless profusion and prodigality of scenes and characters.

“When I came to this great city,” an African traveller wrote, “I looked this way and that way; there is no beginning and no end.” He could have walked through Kennington and Camberwell, Hackney and Bethnal Green, Stoke Newington and Highbury, Chelsea and Knightsbridge and Kensington without ceasing to marvel. Between 1760 and 1835 the development rivalled that of the preceding two hundred years. By the latter date streets and terraces had reached Victoria, Edgware, the City Road, Limehouse, Rotherhithe and Lambeth. In the next sixteen years alone the city conquered Belgravia, Hoxton, Poplar, Deptford, Walworth, Bethnal Green, Bow Road and St. Pancras. By 1872 it had expanded exponentially again to encompass Waltham Green, Kensal Green, Hammersmith, Highgate, Finsbury Park, Clapton, Hackney, New Cross, Old Ford, Blackheath, Peckham, Norwood, Streatham and Tooting, all of it growing and coming together beyond any civic or administrative control. The roads and thoroughfares were not planned by any Parliament or central authority; that is why the city’s development was often compared to some remorseless instinctive process or natural growth. London colonised each village or town as it encompassed them, making them a part of itself, but not necessarily changing their fundamental topography. They were now London, but they retained streets and buildings of an earlier date. Their old structure can just be recognised in the remains of churches, marketplaces and village greens, while their names survive as the titles of Underground stations.

It was often said that all England had become London, but some considered London to be an altogether separate nation with its own language and customs. For others London corresponded to the great globe itself or “the epitome of the round world,” as one nineteenth-century novelist put it. It is an indication of its prodigiousness, when such a great mass exerts its own form of gravity and attraction—“lines of force,” Thomas De Quincey called them in an essay entitled “The Nation of London.”

Ordinary human existence seems uninteresting or unimportant in this place where everything is colossal. “No man ever was left to himself for the first time in the streets, as yet unknown, of London,” De Quincey continued, “but he must have been saddened and mortified, perhaps terrified, by the sense of desertion and utter loneliness which belongs to his situation.” Nobody regarded De Quincey; nobody saw or heard him. The people rushing past, bent upon their own secret destinations and contemplating their own hurried business, seemed “like a mask of maniacs” or “a pageant of phantoms.” Against the magnitude of stone, the city dwellers are like wraiths, replacing others and in turn to be replaced. It is a function of London’s size, and of its age, that all of its citizens seem merely its temporary inhabitants. Within the immensity of London any individual becomes insignificant and unnoticed; this is a tiring condition, too, and may also help to explain the weariness and lassitude which mark many London faces. To be perpetually reminded that the single human life is worth very little, that it is reckoned merely as part of the aggregate sum, may induce a sense of futility.

To live in the city is to know the limits of human existence. In many Victorian street-scenes the city dwellers seem lonely and unregarded, trudging along the crowded avenues with their heads lowered, carrying their burdens patiently enough but isolated none the less. This is another paradox of Victorian London. There is an appearance of energy and vitality in the mass, but the characteristic individual mood is one of anxiety or despondency.

“What is the centre of London for any purpose whatever?” De Quincey asked, and of course the city has no centre at all. Or rather, the centre is everywhere. Wherever the houses are built, that is London—Streatham, Highgate, New Cross, all as characteristically and indefinably London as Cheapside or the Strand. They were part of the malodorous, coruscating city, awakened from its grandeur and rising into shabby daylight as a wilderness of roofs and tenements. Not all were stable; not all were noble. This was another aspect of the ever expanding city; there were areas which were only of fragile growth. The various classes, and subdivisions of classes, were broadly segregated in distinct neighbourhoods; the difference between working-class Lambeth and genteel Camberwell, both south of the river, for example, was immense. But there were areas of more uncertain nature, where the chances of going up or down were precariously balanced. Pimlico was one such neighbourhood; it could have become grand or respectable, but was constantly on the verge of shabbiness. This in turn reflected a general anxiety among middle-class city dwellers; it was easy to go under, through drink or unemployment, and the tense respectability of one year might be succeeded by wretchedness in the next. Will this newly built terrace along the Walford Road become the dwellings of ambitious city workers, or will it degenerate into a set of tenements? This was the unspoken question about much of London’s development.

And then there was the immensity registered by its endless crowds. That is why the urban fiction of the nineteenth century is filled with chance encounters and coincidental meetings, with sudden looks and brief asides, with what H.G. Wells called “a great mysterious movement of unaccountable beings.” Travellers were frightened at street-crossings where the sheer number and speed of pedestrians created the effect of a whirlpool. “A Londoner jostles you in the street,” a German journalist observed, “without ever dreaming of asking your pardon; he will run against you, and make you revolve on your own axis, without so much as looking round to see how you feel after the shock.” Workers walked to the City from Islington and Pentonville, but now they came in from Deptford and Bermondsey, Hoxton and Hackney, as well. It has been estimated that, in the 1850s, 200,000 people walked into the City each day. As Roy Porter has put it in London: a Social History, “dislocation and relocation were always occurring—nothing ever stood still, nothing was constant except mobility itself.” To be engaged in a process of perpetual growth and change for their own sake, and to be sure of nothing but uncertainty, may be discomfiting.

Yet as the city expanded so continuously and so rapidly, there was no possibility of walking over its vast extent; as it grew, so did other forms of traffic emerge to steer a way through its immensity. The most extraordinary agent of innovation came with the advent of the railway; nineteenth-century London, in the process of its great transformation, was further changed by the building of Euston in 1837 followed by Waterloo, King’s Cross, Paddington, Victoria, Blackfriars, Charing Cross, St. Pancras and Liverpool Street. The entire railway network, which is still in use almost 150 years later, was imposed upon the capital within a space of some twenty-five years between 1852 and 1877. The termini themselves became palaces of Victorian invention and inventiveness, erected by a society obsessed by speed and motion. One consequence was that the city became truly the centre of the nation, with all the lines of energy leading directly to it. Together with the electric telegraph, the railways defined and maintained the supremacy of London. It became the great conduit of communication and of commerce in a world in which “railway time” set the standard of the general hurry.

The influence was also felt much closer to the capital itself, with the proliferation of branch or suburban lines in the northern and southern suburbs. By the 1890s there were connections between Willesden and Walthamstow, Dalston Junction and Broad Street, Richmond and Clapham Junction, New Cross and London Bridge, the whole perimeter of the city being ineluctably drawn into its centre with characteristic stone arches on both sides of the river.

When William Powell Frith exhibited his painting of Paddington Station, The Railway Station, in 1838, the “work had to be protected by railings from enthusiastic crowds”; they were fascinated by the crowds depicted upon the canvas itself, conveying all the magnitude and immensity of the great railway enterprise. Nineteenth-century Londoners were drawn to the spectacle of themselves, and of the achievements wrought in their name; it was indeed a new city, or, at least, the quality of experience within it had suffered a change. Somehow the great heavy urban mass had been controlled; the new lines of transport which crossed it also managed to hold it down, to elucidate it in terms of time and distance, to direct its palpitating life. “The journey between Vauxhall or Charing Cross, and Cannon Street,” wrote Blanchard Jerrold, “presents to the contemplative man scenes of London life of the most striking description. He is admitted behind the scenes of the poorest neighbourhoods; surveys interminable terraces of back gardens alive with women and children.” London had become viewable, and therefore legible. There was the phenomenon of railway-mania, too, when the stocks and shares of the variously competing companies traded high in the City; by 1849 Parliament had agreed the building of 1,071 railway tracks, nineteen in London itself, and it could be said that the whole country was transfixed by the idea of rail travel. The railway even managed to recreate London in its own image; thousands of houses were demolished to make way for its new tracks, and it has been estimated that 100,000 people were displaced in the process.

The opening of a new railway station provided mixed benefits. Older suburban retreats such as Fulham and Brixton came within range of the new commuters, previously unable to live at such a distance from their place of work. City dwellers poured in, and small or cheap houses were constructed for them. The growth of the railway system actually created new suburbs, with the Cheap Trains Act of 1883 materially assisting the exodus of the poorer people from the old tenements to new “railway suburbs” such as Walthamstow and West Ham. Areas such as Kilburn and Willesden became flooded with new population, creating the vague monotony of terraced housing which still survives; in these latter two districts lived the colonies of navvies who were themselves involved in the building of more railways.

But railways were by no means the only form of transportation within the capital; it has been estimated that in 1897 the junction of Cheapside and Newgate “was passed by an average of twenty three vehicles a minute during working hours.” This was the great roar, like that of Niagara, by which the city dwellers were surrounded. This vast crowd of moving vehicles comprised omnibuses and hansoms, carts and trams, horses and early cars, broughams and motor buses, taxis and victorias, all somehow managing to manoeuvre through the crowded granite streets. A wagon might break down, and bring a long line of carriages to a halt; a cart, a carriage, a dray and an omnibus might follow each other in slow procession, while the quicker cabs darted between them. In early moving pictures of London’s traffic you see the boys running among the vehicles to clear up horse-dung, while pedestrians make sorties into the road with the same courage and defiance as they do still. In photograph, or on film, it is a scene of indescribable energy as well as confusion; it might be a bacterium, or an entire cosmos, so instinctive its movement seems.

A photograph of Regent Street in the nineteenth century, with its relatively new phenomenon of the “sandwich man” as well as the horse-drawn omnibuses.

The porters at Billingsgate were well known for their characteristic attire. In a city of appearances, and street theatre, it was important to be dressed for the part. No man, whatever his trade, was seen without a hat.

Old houses in Bermondsey, at the end of the nineteenth century; they were swept away, or bombed, while in their place arose one of the great council estates of south London.

Clerkenwell Green: this inoffensive and often overlooked “green,” in the middle of Clerkenwell, has been the site of more riots and more radical activity than any other part of London. What is its secret?

River scavengers: these were the real tradesmen of the city, earning a meagre living by combing the banks of the tidal river.

Women sifting dust mounds: in a city where everything had its price, there was money to be made out of refuse of every kind. These women, sometimes known as “bunters,” inherited their noxious trade.

A wheel at the exhibition in the 1890s (and a similar wheel at Bartholomew’s Fair in the seventeenth century) anticipated the modern wheel of the “London Eye” in the year 2000. In a similar echoic spirit, the modern Lloyd’s building was erected on the site of the old London maypole.

William Whiffin’s marvellous photograph of children following a water cart. Many London children went barefoot in all weathers, however.

The stance and attitude of this ragged boy epitomise the defiance and independence of London children who were often brought up “on the stones.” The miracle is that they survived at all.

A photograph of a Millwall street, taken in 1938. Street games have been characteristic of London children ever since London was established, and somehow the most barren districts have become areas of play. Not all streets, however, are shadowed by great ships.

The “London particular” was the name given to the characteristic fogs of the city which descended without warning and created darkness at noon. This gaily dressed citizen is attempting to protect himself against what was considered to be a bearer of disease.

The “smog” of the Fifties and Sixties was a miasma of fog and smoke.

A Paraleytic Woman: Géricault visited London in the 1820s and was at once intrigued and horrified by the predicament of the poor. In a city based upon money, the indigent and the vagrant are the sacrificial victims.

Stanley Green, “Protein Man,” walked up and down Oxford Street for many years, parading the same dietary message. He was commonly ignored by the great tide of people who washed around him, and thus became a poignant symbol of the city’s incuriosity and forgetfulness.

The ruins of Paternoster Row, beside St. Paul’s, photographed during the air-raids of the Second World War by Cecil Beaton. It had been a street of stationers and publishers for three hundred years, but is now only a name.

Don McCullin’s photograph, taken near Spitalfields in 1969, provides an image of anger and helplessness. The poor and the desperate have always been a part of London’s history, and it might be said that the city is most recognisable by the shadow they cast.

The omnibus first emerged upon the streets of London in 1829 and, twenty-five years later, there were some three thousand of them, each one carrying approximately three hundred passengers a day. There is a painting of 1845 by James Pollard, entitled A Street Scene with Two Omnibuses, which vividly recalls the transport of that period. Each of the two buses is being pulled by two horses; in the first bus eight gentlemen in stove-pipe hats are sitting on the open roof behind the driver, while other passengers can be glimpsed sitting within. The bus is painted green and in large letters along the side it is advertised as part of the “FAVORITE” group; a board on a post attached to the back proclaims that it drives between Euston and Chelsea, while on the side are painted its other destinations. The original fares were sixpence rising to a shilling, so this form of transport was not favoured by the labouring classes of London, yet steady competition reduced the prices of tickets to twopence or a penny. The first journey of the day was filled with office clerks, and a second with their employers, the merchants and the bankers; towards midday “the ladies” entered the bus for shopping expeditions, together with mothers taking their children “for a ride.” In the evening the vehicles were filled with all those returning to the suburbs from the City while, in the other direction, travelled those who were “out for the night” at the theatres or supper-clubs.

A traveller in 1853 noted that “the omnibus is a necessity and the Londoner cannot get on without it,” and added that “the word ‘bus’ is rapidly working its way into general acceptation”; he remarked upon the prepossessing appearance of these carriages, brightly painted red or green or blue, as well as the high spirits of conductors and drivers alike. The former shouted out “All right!” and banged the roof of the vehicle to signal that it was time to move on, and all through the journey he was “never silent” but calling out destinations continually—“Ba-nk! Ba-nk!”

The London horses deserve attention and celebration, also, because their training in the streets and their “natural sagacity” meant that they could proceed through the crowded thoroughfares at a good pace without causing accidents. One late Victorian recalled that, at one of those moments when traffic came to a halt, he could see “hundreds of horses” which “tossed their heads and blew air from their nostrils” while their drivers “shouted and bellowed” greetings and pleasantries to one another.

Of all vehicles, however, the hansom-cab became most closely associated with Victorian London. Introduced in 1834 it was a four-wheeled vehicle with an interior more comfortable than that of the previous two-wheeled cab, and with the driver at a more impersonal distance behind the carriage. Once again the changing appearances of transport reflected the changing culture of London. But if the form of the cabs was altered, the appearance and manner of their drivers remained constant; they were well known for their “chaff” or insolence, and their dishonesty. “Whenever a stranger is bold enough to hail a cab, not one, but half a dozen come at once”; this German traveller’s observation is supported by other accounts of the violent competitiveness of cab-drivers all over the capital. They became the tutelary spirits, or imps, of the road. Although there were statutory fees they would attempt to bargain, with the customary phrase “What will you give?” They were also notorious for their drunkenness and, in turn, for their argumentativeness. “An old Londoner only may venture to engage in a topographical or geometrical disputation with a cabman, for gentlemen of this class are not generally flattering in their expressions or conciliating in their arguments; and the cheapest way of terminating the dispute is to pay and have done with the man.” The drivers of the hansom cabs were “as full as exacting and impertinent as their humbler brethren,” the drivers of the growlers or four-wheeled cabs, but they had more spirit, “most skilful in winding and edging their light vehicles through the most formidable knot of wagons and carriages.” London’s cab-drivers epitomise the spirit of the city—fast, restless, audacious, with a propensity for violence and drunkenness. They are closely related to the butchers and the street-criers, whose trades are also intimately attached to the life of the city: all part of London’s family.

By the end of the nineteenth century there were more than ten thousand cabs of various kinds, and even the new thoroughfares could scarcely accommodate the onrushing flood of vehicles of every description. Sometimes the crush grew too great, and there was a “stop” or “lock” (in the twentieth century, a “jam”). Nevertheless it is a matter for astonishment that through the centuries the city has managed to keep its avenues and thoroughfares open to the ever increasing demands of its traffic. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the endless stream of cars and buses and taxis and lorries is coursing along roads which were built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for quite different forms of transport. The city has the ability to recreate itself silently and invisibly, as if it were truly a living thing.

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