Wednesday, December 7, 2011

London in the early 19th century

by M.M. Bennetts

We like to think of London in the early 19th century--at the time of Jane Austen or the Regency--as this almost magical place. One where the traffic-less streets and squares are lined with graciously proportioned brick or Bath stone mansions, inside which ladies clothed in beautiful muslins and gentlemen in cravats flirted discreetly while sipping their ratafia. Right? And it all ends happily in marriage.

And whereas dramas purporting to shew mid-18th century London offer a robust, even rambunctious, view of the city with all classes and trades rubbing coat-tails in a Hogarthian panorama, the early years of the 19th century are presented as one of an ordered, elegant, static society operating within this hermetically-sealed neo-classical environment of pristine paintwork and pilasters...with, if I may say so, nary a sniff of reality.

For the reality is quite, quite different.

In 1800, London was the greatest metropolis in Europe, with a population of 1.1 million souls. Great Britain itself had a population of some 11 million. So roughly one-tenth of the population lived within the city boundaries of London and Westminster.

And, like all cities during all periods of history, London in the early 19th century was a place of transition, never static. It was a city in flux, a product of the Tudor, Restoration and Georgian building, development and neglect, a rambling amalgamation of the centuries which was only starting to give way to the ideas of the new century--ideas of adequate housing for the poor, proper sewage and drainage, safety...

The London fog--which is not a product of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's imagination, but rather the effect of burning coal for domestic heating--was pervasive, even in summer, an acrid, dull grey blanket hanging perpetually over the city, obscuring the dome of St. Paul's, even often making it impossible to see across the street.

Gas-lighting in the streets wasn't introduced until 1814 and thereafter. The roads and streets were rarely cobblestone, but rather clay poured onto grit which turned to a glaucous soup of sludge during heavy rain--and would have been covered in horse muck. (As in Dickens' day, there would have been sweeps, who, for a small fee, stood ready to clean the way across the road for pedestrians...)

There were somewhere around 30,000 vehicles in London in 1813, including 1100 hackney coaches for hire and about 400 sedan chairs. Some 400 coaches departed London each day for destinations all over the country too--most of them from Charing Cross. So London was a place of perpetual comings and goings, of bustle and hub-bub.

And the noise of it--all the people and horses and carriages and drays, the industry, the docks and dockworkers--was immense, unimaginable even. "A universal hubbub; a sort of uniform grinding and shaking, like that experienced in a great mill with fifty pairs of stones..." is how one visitor to the West End described it.

Visitors to the city were often by struck by two things--the beauty and magnificence of the great monuments, such as St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and the "tumult and blaze", or in other words, the noise and smoke and fog. As during Shakespeare's day, London could still be smelled and tasted on the wind from as far away as 50 miles.

And even that area we associate with Regency society, the West End, was in a state of flux--only half built or only recently completed, there were building sites and builder's rubbish everywhere. Building in the 18th and 19th century was a slow process even at the best of times--builders were often speculators who went bust before completion. And there were, of course, no power tools.

St. James's Square, the ultimate address (Viscount Castlereagh and his wife lived at Number 11), was only completed in 1792, though it had been begun in 1736. Berkeley Square was built and completed in the mid-18th century, as was Chesterfield St (home to Beau Brummell until 1814). Hay Hill was under construction from 1760 until 1812.

Boodles' Club on St. James's Street was only completed in 1765 and Brooks' in 1778, with some building works unfinished until 1826. So much of St. James's Street was still brand spanking new, though it was, from the outset, a male enclave with all of a gentleman's requirements and desires catered for within just a few minutes' walk in one direction or the other. Hatchard's the bookseller was and is just around the corner on Piccadilly; Lock's, the hatter, still has premises just a few steps down from White's Club. And St. James's Street itself runs directly into King Street, a not-new neighbourhood, well-known for its high-class brothels and gambling hells.

And here, let me say that in the 18th and early 19th century, London was the sex capital of Europe. There have been several reprints of the notorious Harris's List--an addressbook of prostitutes in the capital. The artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, (founder of the Royal Academy) was known to have had at least one copy. Nor was he alone in this. The small book went into several printings (usually sold out within days)...

And just beyond the permeable boundaries of West End enclave of the rich and aristocratic, rubbing shoulders with it, jostling it at every turning, the rest of London was not new, not pristine...quite the opposite.

It was Old London, slum after slum of the most notorious reputation. Or it was home to the industry which had made the city rich. A city of banking and mercantile interests that spanned the globe. Or it was dockland--for London was a great port as well as everything else.

The most notorious slum of Old London was the 'Mint', a ten-minute stroll from London Bridge (present day Southwark)--a place of uninhabited buildings, unroofed and in ruins, many shored up by great beams propped up in the centre of the road, blackened timber houses, their upper floors leaning precariously over their foundations, or relics of once-fine mansions now falling down and surrounded by narrow courts and alleys--a place of squalor where some 3000 families lived in cramped rooms where the sewage bubbled up through the floorboards--home to the most desperate of thieves, beggars, prostitutes and outlaws.

Near Westminster Abbey was another notorious slum, the Almonry, which lay beside Tothill Fields--though many knew the area as 'the Devil's Acre'. Near St. Martin-in-the-Fields, at the west end of the Strand, was another warren of squalor. And beyond that, to the west, St. Giles, the most notorious of all, also called the Rookery or Little Dublin because of its predominately Irish population--conveniently located for those who followed thievery as a trade at the east end of Oxford St., which even 200 years ago was a mecca for shoppers. (There was a good reason for taking a tall, strapping footman to attend on one when one went to shop...)

The names of the streets perhaps evoke most effectively this London: Dark Entry, Cat's Hole, Pillory Lane...Beyond St. Giles lay Seven Dials and beyond that Clare Market--a maze of streets with an evil reputation into which wayfarers were said to vanish and from which they never emerged.

Beyond to the East lay Saffron Hill and Chick Lane--washed by the stinking River Fleet--a teeming thieves' quarter and rooming houses where the freshly laundered (stolen) handkerchiefs would be suspended on poles across the narrow streets to ruffle and shimmer in the breeze.

And so it goes. Clerkenwell, which contained Jack Ketch's Warren, leads on to Smithfield with its cattle market, Spitalfields and another thieves' quarter around Flower and Dean Street, and beyond, Petticoat Lane--the distribution centre for much of the city's stolen goods...And south of that, Whitechapel with its many slaughterhouses.

South of the river, around Lambeth were the suburbs of labourers--artisans, clerks and tradesmen...Indeed tradesmen, merchants, warehousemen and shopkeepers could be found living just about anywhere, for London was a teeming residential city, with many of its workers living 'above the shop', even in St. James's.

And beyond? Beyond the city lay not countryside, but wasteland. Or something we don't associate with European cites at all: shanty-towns.

Tomlin's New Town, a vast spread of wooden hovels, had been growing up on what is modern-day Paddington for nearly forty years. Elsewhere, animal dealers lived in wagons and huts, surrounded by their dogs, rabbits, fowls and birds...Over in Battle Bridge (what is now King's Cross) there were "mountains of cinder and filth", thousands of vast piles of horse dung, or the refuse of "waste-grains and hop-husks" dumped there by generations of London ale-brewers.

Amazing, isn't it? And terrifying. And alarming and exciting. This then is the real London of the early 19th century, a roiling sea of humanity, all shouting, hawking, riding, running, buying, selling, banking, dealing, stealing, eating, laughing, praying, all caught up in the business of living in the new century, following all walks of life, from "St. Giles to St. James" as they used to phrase it.

Food for more than one novel, wouldn't you say?

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth century British history and the Napoleonic wars, as well as the author of two novels set in this London of the early nineteenth century - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Visit to read more.


  1. Brilliant post, M. M. Bennetts. I'm often surprised in novels at some of the street descriptions being so tame. And I'm sure you know as well as I that some street names in the most notorious areas had far more graphic names to denote exactly what went on in them. I'll not go into detail here for fear of offending anyone :))) I always so enjoy your posts, keep them coming.

  2. Thank you most kindly.

    No, I generally omit the cruder of the street names--even in my novels. Ha ha. (There's no point in getting oneself banned for obscenity.)

  3. Excellent post! I feel as if you lived it. This one bears reading several times.

  4. Thanks M.M. Bennetts. I really enjoyed this vivid description of London in Regency times.

  5. What a good reminder of what plumbing, water treatment plants, electricity, and public transportation- just to name a few have done for us so that we forget that all was not Mayfair. I suspect that you could share that it was not all that rosy behind the facades of the rich neighborhoods either.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thanks for this enlightening view into the real world of Regency London! I don't think I would have survived a day there, lol! I love reading about it but I also enjoy modern laws and sanitation.

  7. Wonderfully informative post. When I read Regency sources, I often wonder if the Victorians weren't hell bent on cleaning up our perception of their parents and grandparents. I like your more honest and robust view than the laundered and scented version.

  8. Marvelous post! It vividly evokes the many facets of London and it does send plot ideas percolating through my brain.

  9. Excellent post, reminding us that Jane Austen is depicting an ideal of sensitive ways and cleanly habits.

  10. Brilliant post and very accurate. I'm glad you included the Spitalfields area in London which is the dark and desperate rookery featured in all of my novels. And of course the Old Nicol centred around St Leonards Church in Shoreditch which immortalised, although not totally accurately, in the Victorian novel the Child of the Jang and brilliantly documented In the Making of a Victorian Slum by Fiona Rule.
    As it was Regency you could have included the old St Katherine's area just East of the Tower which, like Covent Garden and The Devil's Acre was a jumble of medieval houses clustered around the 13th century church of the same name.
    I find the poor areas of Georgian, Regency and Victorian London so much more fascinating than the upper classes, which is why I write about them.
    Well done and lets have more of the same.

  11. Wonderful post--especially about the building going on and the rubbish lying about. One of my projects features construction at Regent's Park--there is so much detail that really makes the time come alive.

  12. Thank you, MM, for preparing this post at short notice. It is really interesting information, and learning the reality behind the novels and movies is eye-opening.

  13. Great post. The juxtaposition of wealth and squalor is one of the things that make Georgian and Regency London so fascinating. The characters in my novel George in London see all of this in 1751 London. Swift wrote of the Fleet River -- or "Fleet Ditch":

    “Sweepings from the butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood,
    Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drench’d in mud,
    Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.”

  14. wonderful post! I've always been interested, or should I say attracted, in London's early histories(such as this one -- the early 19th century)despite my young age.. haha.

    I really enjoyed reading this, thank you so much for the post!

  15. What a great depiction of Regency London, almost makes me feel like I'd jumped on a stage-coach and rattled down to explore those streets myself. Thank you.

  16. Thanks for the post! i was trying to choose a proper location for my main character to live.


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