A Potted History of London – Part 2 (1660 to 1970s)

As the sign indicates, this document is currently under construction. A readable version is unlikely to be available before May, 2021.

Part 1 of this Potted History of London covered the period from pre-history up to 1660 when Charles II came to the throne. Part 2 continues the narrative, which is split into three periods:

  • 1660 – 1815 (the Restoration of the Monarchy up to the battle of Waterloo)
  • 1815 – 1914 (the battle of Waterloo up to the start of the First World War)
  • And finally, 1914 – 1970s.

Contents

1660 – 1815

The Great Plague of London

Background to Bubonic Plague
The Epidemic

The Great Fire of London in 1666

The Conflagration
Rebuilding the City
The Results of Rebuilding

Expansion

Housing Development
The Middle Classes

Business in the 18 th and Early 19th Century

Docks
The Slave Trade
Industries
Retail Trade

Transport

Turnpikes
Rivers and Canals
Bridges

Finance

Banking
Stock Market
Insurance

Local Government

Law and Order

Policing
Radicals and Public Order

Health

Population Levels
Medical Training
Dispensaries
Hospitals

The Arts in the 18th Century

Artists
Writers
The Appearance of National Institutions

Publishing

Newspapers and Periodicals
Circulating Libraries

Meeting Places

Coffee Houses
Gentlemen’s Clubs
Inns, Taverns and Alehouses

Leisure

Theatre
Parks
Pleasure Gardens

Sport

Cricket
Athletics
Other Sports

Odds and Sods

Defining London

Bibliography and Further Reading

Acknowledgements

Version History

1660 – 1815

The English economy grew significantly during this period, aided by the arrival of Atlantic trade and by the first Industrial Revolution which began around 1760. Although London’s percentage share of overseas trade decreased slightly during the course of the 18th century, in monetary terms it rose threefold, albeit some of it was attributable to the slave trade. London was the centre for a wide range of industries.

London’s population stagnated up to the middle of the 18th century, infant mortality being one particularly notable factor. However, improvements in health and hygiene in the second half of the century saw strong growth with 1.1m in 1801, the year of the first official census.

The period also saw improvements and expansion in many other areas of life, including finance, transport, culture and leisure. However, it got off to an extremely disastrous start with the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in the following year, and it is with these events that we will start.

The Great Plague of London

Background to Bubonic Plague

Scientists class the 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague as being part of the Second Pandemic which intermittently appeared from the mid-14th century through to the mid-18th century.  This particular epidemic, although it probably killed 100,000+ Londoners, was not as devastating as the Black Death had been in 1348.

The plague was caused by the Yersinia Pestis bacterium which was carried by fleas. Until recently, rats had been pinpointed as the carriers of the fleas. However, current thinking is that the disease spread far too quickly in 1665 for it to be solely attributable to rats. It is considered that the bacterium was present in human fleas and ticks. They were to be found in people’s clothes which were seldom changed, and are thought to have been more likely sources of transmission.

The Epidemic

The first case of plague occurred in the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields in April, 1665. As the following official death figures show, it spread rapidly during the hot summer months, peaking in mid-September. Although all parts of London were affected, those areas where the well-off lived, notably in the City, fared much better than the poorer areas. See the detailed statistics in The Guardian for further information:

  • Last week in June – 470
  • Last week in July – 2013
  • Last week in August – 6142
  • Week commencing 12th September – 7195 (the peak)
  • Last week in September – 4957
  • Last week in October – 1037
  • Last week in November – 335
  • Week commencing 12th December – 282.

The individuals who were tasked with establishing the cause of death were known as Searchers. However, it is considered that some of them were slipshod, attributing plague deaths to other causes, and that therefore the official death toll of 68,000+ is almost certainly too low and may well have been 100,000+.

Charles II left London for Salisbury in July. He was not the only one to leave; many well-to-do people, professionals (including doctors) and merchants also left, while Samuel Pepys sent his wife to Woolwich in August. One estimate puts the departure figure at 20,000. Individuals who wanted to leave needed certificates to establish that they were healthy before they would be let out of the City gates. However, this did not stop the plague from spreading outside London, most notably to parts of East Anglia.

Various measures were adopted to help combat the spread of the plague. A red cross was painted on the door to indicate the presence of plague in the property within, and the house was put into quarantine for 40 days. The dead were only collected at night in a vain attempt to avoid panic, but eventually there were so many that daytime collections had to be resumed, and mass pits had to be dug to deposit the increasing number of bodies; one in Aldgate was 50 feet long, 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

The number of deaths began to reduce rapidly from October, and eventually people returned from their places of refuge to the City from January, 1666, with Charles II arriving back in February.

The Great Fire of London in 1666

No sooner had London managed to get on top of the plague in 1666, than it suffered another major disaster, the Great Fire which raged from Sunday September 2nd to Thursday September 6th.

The Conflagration

The fire started in a bakery in Pudding Lane just after midnight. Failure to quickly create firebreaks by demolishing nearby properties – the standard fire-fighting approach at the time – led to it spreading out of control when the wind got up, initially moving in a north and westerly direction.

On Monday, it spread south, but it was stopped by the river and by a pre-existing firebreak on London Bridge. This day saw rumours that the fires had been started by foreigners, resulting in incidences of disorder. It also saw the start of organised action with Charles II and his brother James getting involved.

Tuesday was the worst day when the fire managed to jump across the River Fleet, while St. Paul’s, which was covered in wooden scaffolding at the time, was destroyed. Meanwhile, the fire was now moving eastwards, helped by the fact that the wind dropped in the evening.

On Wednesday, an effective firebreak prevented flames from reaching the Tower of London. Pepys recorded the sight of many homeless people camped on Moorfields to the north of the city. Finally, the fire was under control by Thursday, and rain on the following Sunday effectively extinguished it, although coal in cellars continued to burn for up to two months.

A brief summary of the overall destruction comprises: 13,500 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, 44 Livery Company Halls and the three western City gates. The monetary value of the loss has been very approximately put at around £1.7bn (in 2019 figures).

Some accounts say that many spent the following winter in homemade shelters in Moorfields and in the fields out towards Islington and Highgate.

Rebuilding the City

Grandiose plans from the likes of Wren, Evelyn and Hooke to produce a city of wide boulevards and grand piazzas were quickly considered to be unworkable due to practical and financial difficulties. Apart from anything else, the City was in financial trouble at the time, with annual expenditure of c.  £25k against £14k of income, along with debts of £279k. It did not have the £100k necessary to rebuild public edifices.

A team of Commissioners for Rebuilding was set up, consisting of six men including Wren, Hooke and Mills (the City Surveyor). The First Rebuilding Act (1667) laid down standards for road widths and building standards for house designs, storey heights and wall thicknesses. It also specified the procedures for resolving disputes with a Fire Court which would be manned by eminent royal judges. Rebuilding had to be completed within 3 years and 9 months.

The work of administering the Act (and a second one which was passed in 1670) fell to the mayor and aldermen. The 1667 Act provided for a tax of one shilling per ton on coal imported into London for a period of 10 years, a figure which was tripled in the 1670 act. Half the tax went to the City, while the other half was used to rebuild churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Rebuilding was a huge enterprise. Labour was recruited by offering the Freedom of the City for seven years (which could be extended to life) for those who worked on the rebuilding. Crafts tried unsuccessfully to defend their privileges. In terms of materials: Baltic timber was plentiful; brickmaking expanded with new works appearing in Moorfields, Islington and St. Giles-in-the-Fields; although stone was more difficult to obtain, leading to longer build times for churches.

The Results of Rebuilding

51 out of the 87 churches were rebuilt. The designs were in the hands of Wren, who was also the architect for the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was eventually completed 1710. The Monument, at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill, built to commemorate the Great Fire of London and the rebuilding of the city, was completed in 1677.

8,000 houses were built in place of the 13,200 that had been lost, with nearly half of them completed by the end of 1669 and almost all by late 1672, while the various Livery Company Halls were also mostly finished by 1672.

However, attempts to improve access to and use of the River Fleet were ultimately unsuccessful and it had been covered over by 1766. Similarly, plans to make improvements to the north bank of the Thames did not materialise.

Only two new roads were created: King Street and Queen Street, and so the City remained cramped and prone to traffic congestion despite the slight increases in road widths (35-40 feet).

Expansion

Housing Development

One of the results of the Great Fire of London was a reduced population in the City. The less well-off could not afford brick houses, and they drifted out into the suburbs, while tradesmen found that business was better and the taxes / communal duties less onerous around Covent Garden and the Strand. Their appearance in those areas had the effect of pushing the well-off further west and north to the likes of Soho, St. James and Mayfair.

The London social season, which reached maturity in the 18th century, helped to attract house purchasers from other parts of the country. Charles II made grants of land to a number of his supporters who developed their plots during the late 1600s: the Earl of Southampton – Bloomsbury; the Earl of St. Albans – St. James’s Square plus the area bordered by Piccadilly, St. James’ Street, Haymarket and Pall Mall; the Earl of Clarendon – Burlington House and what became Bond Street and Albemarle Street; and the Earl of Leicester – Leicester Square and the Soho area up as far as the Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street).

Further developments took place during the 18th century, including:  Hanover Square, Savile Row, Brook Street and New Bond Street; the Duke of Devonshire’s Berkeley Square; the Grosvenor estate, the centrepiece being the square; the Cavendish estate, again with the square at its centre; and the Portman and Berners estates which were situated between the Cavendish estate and Tottenham Court Road.

Meanwhile, gradual expansion had also been taking place to the north of the City in the century from 1660 to 1760, covering the likes of Finsbury Fields and Hoxton, while approaching Sadler’s Wells.

 In 1756-57 New Road was built to connect Paddington with Islington. This is part of today’s A501, the London Inner Ring Road. This led to further residential developments in areas to the south of the road in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Over to the east of the City, building work in the late 1600s had developed the areas from Cable Street-Back Lane to the Thames and Goodman’s Fields from Mansell Street to Back Church Lane. The 18th century witnessed a series of spidery developments along and close to the main roads in Stepney, Mile End and Bethnal Green. Populations in 1801 included: Bethnal Green 22,000 and Stepney (including Spitalfields, Wapping and Shadwell) 113,000. Note – the City of London and Westminster had respective populations of 128,000 and 161,000 at the time.

Finally, the construction of Westminster Bridge (1750) and Blackfriars Bridge (1769) promoted growth south of the Thames with heavy settlements along Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth and Blackfriars Road. By 1801, the population of the southern suburbs, including Southwark, was 144,000, approximately 1/6th of London’s population.

The Middle Classes

While the estates in the west were aimed at the elite, they needed individuals, such as tradesmen, who provided services close by. Estimates indicate that around 1800 20-25% of London’s population could be described as middle class: businessmen, merchants, tradesmen, manufacturers, shopkeepers and individuals in the arts and other professions. Peter Earle estimates that in 1730 there were 5,000 lawyers, 1,000 clergy, 2,500 teachers and 1,000 surgeons and apothecaries.

Surgeons prospered. As James Boswell tells us in his diaries, there was a good trade to be had in treating venereal disease with compounds of mercury. Hans Sloane, physician to George II and president of the Royal College, left his huge collection of artefacts which formed the nucleus of the initial collection of the British Museum. He also had a large estate in Chelsea which was subsequently developed in the 1770s as Hans Town including Sloane Street, Hans Place, Cadogan Place and Sloane Square.   

Business in the late 17th and the 18th Century

London had handled 76% of English overseas trade in 1700, but by 1790 it was reduced to 63%. However, the pie was now significantly larger; London’s share in monetary terms, £10m in 1700, had grown to £23m in 1790. It had a monopoly of the East India trade and was conveniently positioned to re-export colonial goods to Europe. Merchants who dealt in overseas trade outnumbered all other professions among London’s wealthiest individuals.

Docks

Light and valuable cargoes, such as silk, offered greater profits but heavier, bulkier loads contributed more to the work of the river and port. As trade grew, the latter began to clog up the port, leading to delays as there were insufficient quays. There were therefore queues of vessels, waiting in the river. Lighters, flat-bottomed barges, could be used to transport goods between ships that were moored in the river and quays, or between quays and riverside factories. Of 3,500 barges and small craft in the 1790s, 1,700 were involved in the coal and timber trade. One estimate says that 25% of London’s workforce was involved in port or port-related activities.

The obvious requirement for more capacity in the port led to the building of docks. Early docks included: The West India Docks (1800-1802) on the Isle of Dogs – one for imports and one for exports initially, subsequently followed by a third; the London Docks in Wapping (1800-1805); and the East India Docks at Blackwall (1806). The East India Company and the West India Company also financed the privately built Commercial Road which linked docks with warehouses and sugar refineries in Whitechapel. Finally, the timber trade was accommodated in a sprawling system of docks on the south side of the Thames on the Rotherhithe bend, which generally went under the title of the Surrey Commercial Docks.

London managed to hold on to its position as the largest shipbuilder in England in the 18th century. In 1791-92, 116 ships were built, which represented 16% of English tonnage.

The Slave Trade

Slavery has always existed. The Romans had slaves, who were also ever-present in feudal England. Even today there are unfortunately some examples of slavery in Britain and elsewhere. However, it is the African slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries that is the most notorious, not least because of its sheer scale.

It had started slowly in England during the Elizabethan period when John Hawkins took a number of slaves to Haiti in 1562. The slave trade came to be driven by the demand for sugar, and later for cotton. It was triangular in nature: cheaply made goods were shipped to West Africa; slaves were transported from there to the Caribbean and subsequently to the southern states of the USA; and cargoes of sugar, rum, cotton and tobacco were brought back to Britain.

London dominated the trade in the second half of the 17th century and in the early 18th century, the Royal Africa Company being the major player.  In the period from 1660 to 1690, 15 mayors, 25 sheriffs and 38 aldermen were shareholders in this company. Bristol took over the leading role in the 1730s, but it was subsequently to be Liverpool which became the major player in the trade. However, the City was (and continued to be) the centre for financing slavery, insuring vessels and arranging cargoes for Africa.

Moves to abolish slavery started in Britain in 1783, resulting in the formation of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. William Wilberforce was its leading member. The Slavery Act of 1807 provided a first step, allowing existing slaves to be retained, but not sold. It was to be 1833 before slavery itself was thankfully abolished in British law. However, even this law still allowed existing slaves to be kept as “apprentices” for six years. After protests, these “apprenticeships” were abolished in 1838.

Industries

London hosted a number of major industries, including textiles and clothing, building, metalware and leather, but the bulk of the workforce were engaged in small crafts, which were often co-located in specific areas of London. For example, the silk industry was to be found in East London, notably Spitalfields; leather and furs in Southwark and Bermondsey; while hat-making was a south London speciality.

Watchmaking was to be found in Clerkenwell, St Luke and Shoreditch. The minute subdivision of work into 100+ specialised processes enabled them to become world leaders in output and quality. Clerkenwell also became a centre for jewellery, metal wares and precision instruments. Although places such as Birmingham and Sheffield could produce cheaper items such as gun components and knives, Clerkenwell excelled in the production of high-quality goods.

Furniture makers and coach builders were concentrated in an area around Covent Garden, Thomas Chippendale in St Martin’s Lane being the best-known name. However, the largest company was George Seddon and Son who had a two-acre site in Aldersgate St employing between 300 and 400 craftsmen and apprentices.

Retail Trade

The older western suburbs and the City formed the retailing centre. Shops were typically small with windows of bottled glass which obscured the view of the interior, making it necessary for people to venture into the shop to see what was on offer.

Londoners were conspicuous consumers, which naturally attracted businesses from other parts of the country. Josiah Wedgwood opened a showroom in Grosvenor Square in 1765, followed by another in Great Newport Street in Soho, while Samuel Oldknow, the Stockport cotton producer, produced whatever his London agent thought was in fashion and hence in demand.

Transport

The 18th century saw significant improvements in the areas of road and water transport.

Turnpikes

The poor state of roads in England in the 17th century, particularly the main roads out from London to other towns and cities, began to affect the transportation of goods in the country’s growing economy, not least because cargo-related traffic exacerbated the condition of those roads. This ultimately led to the creation of turnpikes, stretches of maintained road which you had to pay to use. The first turnpike was between Wadesmill and Stilton on the Great North Road in 1656.

Middlesex Turnpikes from turnpikes.org.uk

However, it was around the beginning of the 18th century before turnpikes really began to become established. The resultant road system was not centrally planned. It was based on local enterprise. Bodies of local trustees, regulated by Acts of Parliament, were given powers to levy tolls on users of a turnpike, a stretch of road which was usually 15 to 20 miles in length, the income being used to maintain and improve the road.  Although the original intention had been that these trusts would only be in existence for 21 years, in fact they remained responsible for the majority of England’s trunk roads right through to the 1870s. It was in 1888 that the newly formed County Councils were given responsibility for them.

Rivers and Canals

The growth of the economy also necessitated an economical and reliable way to transport goods in large quantities, leading to developments in water transport. From the beginning of the 18th century the pragmatic focus had been on making improvements to river navigability. The Thames underwent significant improvements in the 17th and 18th centuries, including the provision of many locks, west of London, while the River Lea saw improved navigability from the Thames up to Hertford.

By the start of the Industrial Revolution around 1760, such relatively modest river improvement projects had more or less been exhausted. This led to the more expensive construction of canals which were typically funded by joint-stock companies.  There were ultimately 4,000 miles of canal across the country, and the resultant network allowed access to London from many parts of the country, usually via the Thames, including:

  • the Oxford Canal (1770-1790) which ran from Bedworth (between Coventry and Nuneaton) and connected with the River Thames at Oxford
  • the Grand Junction Canal (1793-1805) which connected Brentford in West London to Braunston in Northamptonshire
  • the Kennet and Avon Canal section was 57 miles in length, joining the River Avon at Bath to the River Kennet at Newbury (1794-1810), providing a navigable route from London to the Bristol Channel.

Bridges

Fulham Bridge, a timber construction, was built in 1730. It was the first new bridge on the Lower Thames for hundreds of years, mainly because various vested interests had previously prevented them from being built. However, Fulham heralded a rash of bridge building over the following century, including: Westminster (1750), Blackfriars (1769), Battersea / Chelsea (1771-2), Kew (1758-9 in timber and 1782 in stone), Richmond (1777), Hampton Court (1753), Vauxhall (1816), Waterloo (1817) and Southwark (1819). Many were built by the use of private funding with tolls being charged to claw back the investment. Fulham Bridge itself was demolished in 1880 and replaced by Putney Bridge in 1886.

Finance

Banking

Goldsmiths, jewellers and scriveners had often acted as part-time bankers, helped by Elizabeth I’s abolition of the laws against usury in 1571.

The Bank of England was a joint-stock company, authorised by charter in 1694 to raise £1.2m for the Crown by public subscription, a target which was achieved in only 12 days. There were 1,268 initial subscribers, mostly merchants and financiers who lived in or near London. This was the start of the National Debt which grew to £785m by 1815, much of it held by the Bank of England, the East India Company and the South Sea Company.

The Bank of England moved into a building in Threadneedle Street in 1734. Note that the current building is a 20th century construction. It was primarily a bank of government and commerce. During the first century of its existence, it opened no branches in London or anywhere else. Its charter prevented the formation of any other joint-stock banks until 1826. However, partnership banks thrived, serving the commercial or west-end market. Thirty-one banks formed the London Clearing House in 1773, and most of them opened accounts with the Bank of England which began to assume its role as the bankers’ bank.

The Industrial Revolution and increasing overseas trade saw the creation of merchant banks in the late 18th century, Rothschild and Baring being the most noteworthy in London.

Stock Market

The Royal Exchange had been founded in 1571 by Sir Thomas Gresham to act as the centre of commerce in the City of London. However, only a limited number of people were allowed access to the building, and much business was transacted in nearby coffee houses in Exchange Alley, notably Jonathan’s coffee house. In 1773 the members at Jonathan’s moved to a building behind the Royal Exchange in Sweeting’s Alley which they decided to call the Stock Exchange. This was followed by another move in 1801 when 550 dealers relocated to a private subscription club in Capel Street.

Insurance

Unsurprisingly, fire insurance became popular after the Great Fire. Two companies – The Sun Fire Office and Royal Exchange Assurance came to dominate the market until they were joined by Phoenix Assurance in 1782. In lieu of any organised municipal fire service, these companies set up their own small outfits to fight fires in attempts to limit their liabilities, often employing watermen as part-time firemen.

Marine insurance was another major area of business, much of it being transacted in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house until 1769. Hence, Lloyd’s of London. In 1771 the brokers and underwriters moved into the Royal Exchange where they remained until 1928, except for a short break.

Local government

Outside the City of London, local government, such as it was, existed at parish level. These parish committees were known as vestries, as they met in the vestry of the church. They were originally informal and unregulated. The first signs of regulation came when they were made responsible for roads in 1555, and for administering Poor Relief after the 1601 act.

Vestries had greater control in the period from 1688 up to 1835. They were open, in the sense that all ratepayers could attend and participate, but they gradually moved to closed meetings, formally known as Select Vestries. There was no democratic control in these vestries, as members were not elected. They would typically be local “worthies” and businessmen.

Population growth led to some parishes being split. For example, Westminster gained six parishes: Covent Garden, Soho, St James’s, St. George’s Hanover Square, St. John’s and St George’s Bloomsbury. The Church Building Act of 1711 provided £350k to build churches in any new parishes. St Marylebone became a shining example of a well-run parish. Although all parish work had originally been voluntary, paid nightwatchmen and a paid vestry clerk gradually began to appear.

There was no coherent local government. Many Parliamentary acts were passed into law, but they reflected local initiatives rather than government policy, and almost inevitably they made metropolitan administration in the London area more complicated and fragmented. There were about 100 bodies of commissioners in London, mostly created after 1748, with the power to levy local rates to pay for a public service such as lighting, cleaning, draining, paving or watching the streets. Commissions could be made up of vestry members, or they might be separate statutory bodies, and their scope varied: Westminster Paving’s remit covered several parishes, while others, such as Lincoln’s Inn Fields, covered only a few streets.

Ever since the Middle Ages, City of London householders had been responsible for lighting, cleaning and repairing the street outside their properties. However, in the late 1600s there were moves by groups of householders to pay somebody to be responsible for these tasks, leading to an act of 1736 which allowed the City to raise a lighting rate. They followed this with a rate for paving in the 1750s. Westminster, which had been very substandard in comparison, particularly with respect to paving, improved dramatically when its Paving Commissioners raised a rate to cover paving, cleaning and lighting. Meanwhile, the other suburbs contained a mish-mash of approaches until the Metropolis Management Act of 1855 sanctioned the creation of a board of works to be responsible for London’s infrastructure.

Law and Order

Policing

Nightwatchmen, constable(s) and justice(s) of the peace formed the cornerstone of local law and order, while the Hue and Cry continued to provide occasional aid from bystanders until the various related statutes were repealed in 1827.

Originally, householders would take turns to fulfil the role of constable or nightwatchman. Gradually, some individuals started to pay others to do their turn until the 18th century when salaried staff began to appear.

In this somewhat makeshift system, thief-takers were often employed by victims to find and apprehend the culprit. Rewards which might be offered by the government or by individuals, often via newspapers, could make it a lucrative job. Thief-takers would develop a knowledge of the criminal underworld to assist them, and they could act as a negotiator between the victim and thief.

A system of rotation houses was set up in the 1730s, whereby there was always a magistrate who could be contacted. One of these houses was set up in Bow Street by Sir Thomas De Veil in 1739, and taken over by Henry and John Fielding in 1748 after his death. They initially hired thief-takers on a retainer, sending them out when a crime was reported. They were the first Bow Street Runners. The Fielding brothers were also responsible for: the deployment of part-time horse and foot patrols as a crime prevention measure; and the collection and dissemination of information on crimes and criminals, with Bow Street becoming the centre of a criminal information network.

The Middlesex Justices Act of 1792 set up seven police offices in the metropolis, each with three magistrates and six constables. In 1800, concern over thefts at the docks led to the founding of the Thames Police Office in Wapping, which was eventually staffed with three stipendiary magistrates and one hundred constables to police the dockside parishes and the river.

Radicals and Public Order

Londoners were generally perceived as being anti-government, with an increasing number of radicals in their midst. John Wilkes was a radical journalist and politician who was jailed for writing an article which criticised George III. His supporters, demonstrating against his imprisonment, were fired on by government soldiers in 1768, killing six or seven of them in an incident known as the St. George’s Fields Massacre. This was a use of the 1715 Riot Act when a crowd of twelve or more could be ordered to disperse, the phrase “reading the riot act” eventually passing into common usage to indicate a stern reprimand.  

The Gordon Riots of 1780 started out as an orderly protest (anti-Catholic sentiment) against the Papists Act of 1778 which aimed at reducing the official discrimination against British Catholics. Lord George Gordon, head of the Protestant Association, objected to this act. Unfortunately, his protest got out of hand and degenerated into violence which lasted for seven days with places such as Newgate Prison and the Bank of England being attacked. Magistrates had been too afraid to implement the Riot Act, and the government eventually sent in armed troops. Between 300 and 700 people were killed during the course of the riots.

The establishment became concerned that the French Revolution of 1789 would inspire radicals in Britain. Thomas Paine, an English-born American political activist, was arguably public enemy number one. He had written The Rights of Man, in part a defence of the French Revolution, having previously helped American patriots in their war of independence against Britain when he authored Common Sense. This fear of revolution was to remain in the air until the middle of the 19th century.

Health

Population Levels

Population growth stagnated between 1670 and 1740 due to factors such as late marriage, low birth rate and higher death rates, particularly among infants. In the 1730s there was an infant mortality rate of 40 per 100 among children under the age of two.

Higher death rates have often been blamed on the gin craze which ran from 1720 to 1751. Gin was cheaper than beer or French brandy which had both seen heavy increases in duty. It is claimed that in the East End and in Southwark there was a gin shop for every eight houses. The Sale of Spirits Act of 1751, coupled with a campaign to encourage people to drink less gin which included Hogarth’s Gin Lane print, saw national consumption reduce from eight million gallons per year to two million. Typhus and Tuberculosis were other significant killers in the 18th century.

Incoming migrants helped to offset any decline in population. They tended to be young, looking for apprenticeships or casual labour, and included: Huguenots, driven out of France by Louis XIV, who settled in Spitalfields; the Irish who were to be found in St. Giles-in-the-Fields; and Jews from eastern Europe in Whitechapel. A significant number of single women also came to the capital, often looking for jobs as domestic servants.

1760 to 1815 saw strong population growth: the figure of 740,000 in 1760 increased to 1.1m in 1801, the year of the first reliable census, and 1.4m in 1815. 54% of the population were women in 1801. This period saw younger marriages, higher fertility rates and lower infant mortality rates. The figures for the death rates among children in the 1840s were three times less than they had been in the 1730s, aided by a successful campaign to encourage breastfeeding. Health was generally improved by better hygiene and street cleaning, along with the arrival of smallpox inoculation.

The late 18th century saw greater regional migration, particularly from the Home Counties, while the black population was estimated to be between five and ten thousand and the Jewish population around 15 thousand.

Medical Training

Medical training consisted of a seven-year apprenticeship to an apothecary or a surgeon. The trainee then presented himself to the Surgeon Company or Apothecary Society for examination. If he passed then he received a diploma and could practise. If he failed then he could still go out into the provinces and practise without a diploma.

Dispensaries

Initial attempts at setting up dispensaries were short-lived. In 1687 the College of Physicians agreed to give free medical advice to the sick poor in the City and within a seven-mile radius. However, no definite times or places were given and there was no mention of medication.

Dr Samuel Garth lobbied for a dispensary, and one was opened in the college building in Warwick Lane in 1697, followed by branches in St. Martin’s Lane and St. Peter’s Alley, Cornhill. However, there were opposing factions within the college and they had been  closed down by 1725.

In 1769 Dr Armstrong opened a dispensary for sick children in Red Lion Square, moving to Soho Square in 1772. It was a charity but supporters dwindled, and once again there were detractors, resulting in its closure in 1781.

The General Dispensary in Aldersgate St. in 1770 was the first well-staffed, well-run dispensary. Others followed, including: the Westminster General Dispensary which opened in Soho in 1774; the London Dispensary in Artillery Street in 1777; the Surrey Dispensary in Union Street, Southwark in the same year; and the Metropolitan Dispensary in Fore Street, Cripplegate in 1779. By 1802, 50,000 patients a year being seen across an area of fifty square miles around the City.

Hospitals

New hospitals in the 18th century were typically founded by philanthropic men, often via bequests in their wills. They were called Voluntary Hospitals and included: Westminster (1720), Guy’s (1727), the London Hospital in Moorfields (1740) and the Middlesex (1754).

Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital (1739) cared for abandoned infants, witnessing the start of attempts to support single mothers rather than to prosecute them for infanticide or to shame them.

Maternity hospitals, called lying-in hospitals, began to appear around the middle of the 18th century, although they were often limited to married women. They included: the British Lying-in in Long Acre (1749); the City of London Lying-in in Aldersgate Street (1750); and the General Lying-in on Westminster Bridge Road (1767).

The Arts in the 18th century

Artists

European artists were drawn to London, notably Canaletto, along with British artists such as Allan Ramsay from Edinburgh. They, and home-grown artists such as Joshua Reynolds and George Stubbs, were all attracted by royal and aristocratic patrons.

William Hogarth’s approach was different. He hit on the idea of producing prints of lively London scenes which became popular among the middle classes, depicting the moral and physical chaos of London with A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress.

Writers

Aristocratic and courtly patronage of writers was generally on the wane, although Pope, Swift, Johnson and Goldsmith were among those who still managed to enjoy it to some degree, while London theatres helped to provide playwrights such as Dryden, Fielding and Sheridan with a living.

The rapid rise of publishing in the form of books, newspapers and periodicals produced opportunities for professional writers. Daniel Defoe was arguably the most successful, writing for all forms including novels such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

Alexander Pope hit on the very lucrative idea of putting the names of those individuals who made advance payments for his translation of the Iliad and The Odyssey in the finished book.

However, many writers were “forced” into journalism, including Doctor Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. Johnson’s quote “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” is perhaps apposite.

The Appearance of National Institutions

At a national level, the British Museum was established in 1753 by Royal Assent, initially to house the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, an Irish physician and naturalist, along with the Cotton, Harley and Royal libraries.

Several attempts had been made at setting up academies to teach art, including Hogarth’s establishment in St Martin’s Lane which lasted for 30 years. Eventually, there was a clamour to establish a national academy, and in 1768 George III granted a charter to the Royal Academy of Arts. It initially had rooms in Somerset House, and then in the National Gallery, which was established in 1824, before settling into its current home in Burlington House in 1868.

Publishing

Newspapers and Periodicals

The government had been very wary about newspapers, and censorship was the order of the day for much of the 17th century, latterly through the Licensing Act of 1662. In fact, the most often mentioned publication, the London Gazette, was in fact the official record of the Crown. The Act lapsed in the 1690s, which had the effect of encouraging new publications. However, it was a precarious existence, and many struggled to survive, in part due to the various taxes, stamp duty and paper duty among others, that were imposed by the government, quite probably with the aim of limiting criticism of it by the media.

Early survivors included The Daily Courant (1702) which was London’s first daily newspaper and The Public Advertiser (around the 1740s).

Of current titles, The Times appeared in 1785 while The Observer became the first Sunday newspaper in 1791. Another Sunday paper of the period was Bell’s Weekly Messenger (1796), which was reprinted on Monday for national distribution. Newspapers also appeared in the provinces, although the printing was often done in London.

A significant number of periodicals also appeared in the 18th century, including: The Spectator (1711), The Gentlemen’s Magazine (1731) and Lloyd’s List (1734).

Circulating Libraries

In the 1660s, the bookseller Francis Kirkman had advertised that he rented books, but it was to be the 1700s before circulating libraries, as they became known, proved to be popular. It is estimated that there 1,000 in England by the end of the century, the largest being William Lane’s Minerva Press Circulating Library in Leadenhall Street which boasted 20,000 titles in its catalogue.

It was estimated that in 1740 approximately 40% of printed books were held by circulating libraries. It is therefore not surprising to know that some libraries went into the publishing business, and that some publishers went into the library business.

Meeting Places

Coffee Houses

Coffee houses were very popular in the 18th century with around 550 of them in London by 1740. They served tea, hot chocolate and light meals, as well as coffee. Importantly, they became places where people with similar interests could meet, talk and do business. Examples included: financial people in the area around the Royal Exchange; a scientific club which ultimately became the Royal Society; the Kit-Kat club for Whigs with political and literary interests; and the Scriblerus Club which was an informal association of authors which included Pope and Swift.

Gentlemen’s Clubs

Private clubs where men (and only men) from the upper classes could socialise began to appear in the 18th century. They typically included a dining room, bar, billiards room and various parlours. One of the main attractions was arguably the opportunity to gamble, which was illegal outside members-only establishments.

The early clubs were to be found in the area of St. James, and they were definitely aimed at the aristocracy. They included: White’s (1697), Boodle’s (1762), the Jockey Club (1750) and Brook’s (1764).

Towards the end of the century, gentlemen’s clubs began to grow in popularity, rivalling coffee houses as a place for the upper classes to meet.

Inns, Taverns and Alehouses

There was an overlap between them in terms of the services that they offered. Inns were at the top of the tree. There were around 200 in the 1730s, some of them, the Talbot on Borough High Street for example, acting as transport centres in the days before the railway. They offered board and lodging for the well-off, warehousing and marketing facilities for merchants, along with stabling and repairs for stagecoaches and wagons.

An estimated 500 taverns in the 1730s offered many of the social functions that could be found at inns. They included private rooms where friends, business acquaintances and clubs could meet. Doctor Johnson and his friend James Boswell met and dined at the Mitre Tavern (subsequently called the Lyre) in Fleet Street, a popular area for taverns. At the bottom of the tree were alehouses, possibly 6,000 of them in the 1730s. They varied, just as pubs do today. At the top end were well-run places that offered cheap food, while at the bottom end were rough establishments that attracted criminal elements.

Leisure

Theatre

Only two companies were licensed to perform serious drama (called the Patent Theatre companies). They were the Duke’s Men and the King’s Men. The main venues for their performances were the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (founded 1663), Theatre Royal Haymarket (1720) and the Royal Opera House (1732).

Venues outside the West End could host music, comedy, circus et cetera, known collectively as popular culture. Sadler’s Wells (1683) was one such venue, followed by other purpose-built buildings in Shoreditch and Whitechapel. In addition, theatre booths were to be found in short summer fairs, including: May Fair near Piccadilly; Southwark Fair; and Bartholomew Fair in Smithfield.

Parks

The Royal Parks were enclosed hunting areas. Much of the land had originally been owned by the Church: Hyde Park by Westminster Abbey; and Regent’s Park by Barking Abbey. Henry VIII had acquired significant areas of Church land both before and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The royal connections with Richmond Park go back to Edward I in the late 13th century, when it was known as the Manor of Sheen.

During the 17th century the monarchs made improvements, converting them into parkland, and they gradually opened them up, albeit they were mainly limited to gentlefolk. It was to be the 19th century before they became generally open to members of the public.

Common land in England was historically an area where individuals had traditional rights to graze livestock, collect wood and dig turves for fuel. There were over one hundred in Greater London. They were also gradually converted into parkland. Hampstead Heath had originally been owned by Westminster Abbey. Clapham Common was slowly converted during the 18th century when cricket was played there and a number of residential properties were built around the periphery.

Pleasure Gardens

The growth of the middle-class and rising incomes encouraged the birth of paid-for entertainments in the form of pleasure gardens. Vauxhall Gardens in Lambeth (1729) and Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea (1742) were the premier venues, offering music, dancing, eating and drinking, regular firework displays, operas, masquerades and illuminations.

Smaller pleasure gardens were to be found at Sadler’s Wells, Marylebone and Hampstead.

Sport

We have hinted at the appetite of the upper classes for gambling, and sport provided an ideal opportunity for them to indulge this passion during the course of the 18th century. While ordinary folk might partake in sporting activities, it was the exploits of the nobility which tended to be covered in the newspapers. Let us take a look at cricket and athletics.

Cricket

Keen members of the nobility and gentry would employ good players with the primary intention of incorporating them into their teams. Matches between such teams involved a wager. It is important to note that we are talking about professional sport here. The concept of amateurism was to be a Victorian invention, as we shall see later.

White Conduit House

These “important games”, as the press called them, were typically played at Lamb’s Conduit Field in the days before Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital was built, and subsequently at the Artillery Field in Finsbury, before moving in 1782 to White Conduit Fields in Islington. During its short existence, members of the White Conduit Club included the 9th Earl of Winchilsea, the 4th Duke of Richmond and the 3rd Duke of Dorset. Winchilsea led a team which played gentlemen from Kent in 1785 for the eye-watering sum of 1,000 guineas (worth circa. 150,000 guineas in 2018).

However, the members were unhappy that the ground was an open area where members of the public, often the rowdier sort, could stand, watch and voice their opinions. Thomas Lord, a professional bowler at the club, saw a business opportunity. Winchilsea and Richmond asked him to find a new ground, offering him a guarantee against any losses he may suffer in the venture. So, Lord took a lease from the Portman Estate on some land at Dorset Fields, where Dorset Square is now situated. It was named Lord’s cricket ground and, since it was in Marylebone, the White Conduit Club members who relocated there decided to call themselves the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). The current ground in St. John’s Wood is actually the third playing area that Lord’s has occupied.

Athletics

Another common wager among the upper classes might be a foot race between my footman and your footman. The poor state of roads and tracks at the time necessitated a servant who walked / jogged alongside, or behind, your carriage to ensure that there were no stones or tree roots which might impede the coach. He would also run ahead to prepare for the arrival at your destination. Such footmen would obviously have to be physically fit to perform their duties.

Nobles and gentry will bet on anything!

These competitions between footmen were arguably the precursors to pedestrianism, that is professional race walking and running. As well as races, wagers were placed on individual feats, such as distances covered within a prescribed period of time. One of the most celebrated feats was achieved by Robert Barclay Allardice of Ury (known as Captain Barclay) who won 1,000 guineas for walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours in 1809.

Other Sports

Prize-fighting was illegal, but it was popular on account of the gambling opportunities that it provided to the nobility and gentry.

Continuing with the gambling theme, bull-baiting and cock-fighting continued until they were banned in 1835, which is not to say that they then disappeared.

Watermen, those individuals who provided a river taxi service, competed against each other for prize money. The oldest surviving race is Doggett’s Coat and Badge from London Bridge to Chelsea which was first run in 1715.

Odds and Sods

Defining London

Defining the area covered by London is not straightforward. There have been multiple definitions depending on the perspective. For example, education authorities may have different boundaries. What follows is an attempt to provide a simplistic view for the general reader.

The City of London has largely remained a separate entity.

Inner London was first mentioned in the 1840s, and it was used in the 1851 Census. At the time, it comprised twelve boroughs, excluding the City. They were: Camden, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Lewisham, Newham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Wandsworth.

The Metropolitan Board of Works, founded in 1855, provided basic infrastructure services to Inner London. It became the effective form of local government until the Local Government Act of 1888 created County Councils, and London was made a county council (LCC) in 1889.

Moving forward to 1963, Greater London consisted of the 32 London Boroughs plus the City of London. The Greater London Council (GLC) was formed shortly afterwards in 1965, but it was dissolved in 1986. It was eventually replaced by the Greater London Authority (GLA) which was established in 2000 with a mayor and jurisdiction over Greater London and the City.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Inwood, S., A History of London, 1998, Macmillan

Ackroyd, P., London The Autobiography, 2000, Chatto & Windus

Sargent, A., The Story of the Thames, 2009 and 2013, Amberley Publishing, Stroud

Internet Links

General

Peter Stone’s History of London
A New History of London – British History Online
Museum of London
Hidden London
History of London – Wikipedia
London – History – Britannica
Lost London
the-river-thames.co.uk 
Lambert’s short history of London
Layers of London

Slave Trade

Royal Africa Company
London and the Slave Trade

Finance

History of Banking in the UK
History of Insurance
London Stock Exchange

Transport

Turnpikes
History of UK Canals
London Bridges

Law and Order

Bow Street Runners
John Wilkes
Gordon Riots

Old Bailey – Population history

Health

Medical Dispensaries in 18th Century London (pdf)
London Lives – Hospitals

Newspapers and Periodicals

Circulating Libraries
Newspapers and Periodicals

Inns

Leisure

An Introduction to 18th Century Theatre
Brief history of London Parks
Royal Parks
Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Defining London

Inner London – Wikipedia
Metropolitan Board of Works – Wikipedia
County of London – Wikipedia

Acknowledgements

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