Wednesday, September 13, 2017

London in 1800: A Stranger's Arrival

By Mark Patton.

Between 1801 and 1841, the population of London increased by an average of 22,500 people per year, or 1875 per month. The overwhelming majority of the new arrivals came, like the fictional David Copperfield; Nicholas Nickleby and his sister, Kate; from other parts of England, Scotland, and Wales (the most significant waves of Irish and Jewish immigration came later). Many had been uprooted from the communities of their birth by changes in their family circumstances: David's journey begins with the death of his mother; that of Nicholas and Kate with the loss of their father; Charles Dickens's own parents had moved to London in a forlorn attempt to escape a looming mountain of personal debts.

The Mail Coach, as taken by David Copperfield and Mr Quinion, was the fastest means of getting to London from the countryside, but was also among the most expensive (image is in the Public Domain). 

Private stage-wagons offered a cheaper, but less comfortable, means of transport (image is in the Public Domain).

In an age before the coming of the railways, almost all of the new arrivals, like their Medieval predecessors, would have made their way to London by road, and many of them on foot. Most of the road along which they had traveled were Roman in origin, but had been improved by the Eighteenth Century Turnpike Trusts, and the threat formerly posed by highwaymen removed almost entirely.

The Roman and Medieval walls and gates of the City had, for the most part, been demolished, and the newly broadened roads were lined with coaching inns, where the better heeled among the new arrivals may have spent their first London nights, and held their first conversations with their new urban neighbours. There were doubtless offers of employment to be had, and business propositions to be negotiated, but there would also have been con-men, all too ready to relieve a naive country lad or lass of what little money he or she had in wallet or purse.

A young man or woman arriving in London from Kent might pause at Blackheath. His or her first impression of the capital, seen from afar, might well have matched David Copperfield's:

"What an amazing place London was to me when I saw it in the distance, and how I believed all the adventures of my favourite heroes to be constantly enacting and re-enacting there ... I made it out in my own mind to be fuller of wonders and wickedness than all the cities of the earth ... "

Lodging at Southwark's Queen's Head, he or she might have strolled across London Bridge the following morning, along the main thoroughfares of the City, and on into the West End. The prosperity of London's maritime commerce, obvious enough from the forest of ships' masts in the Pool of London, to the east of London Bridge, was reflected both in the grandeur of the public buildings (the Mansion House, the Bank of England, Saint Paul's Cathedral), and in the elegant dress and comportment of those passing between them. One did not have to search far, however, to find another side to London life.

The Queen's Head, Borough High Street (image is in the Public Domain).

"Imports from France," by Louis Peter Boitard, 1757 (image is in the Public Domain).

London's Mansion House (image is in the Public Domain).

Apsley House ("No.1, London"), home of the Duke of Wellington. The Duke encouraged his fellow aristocrats to spend part of the year in London, rather than on their country estates: this facilitated both the growth of the retail trade in the West End, and increasing demand for domestic servants.

In the shadow of the grandest buildings could be found men, women, and children eking out the most precarious of livings. In 1856, the campaigning journalist, Henry Mayhew, observed from the balcony beneath the dome of Saint Paul's Cathedral, the "sauntering forth" of the "unwashed poor:"

" ... some with greasy wallets on their backs to hunt over each dust-heap, and eke out life by seeking refuse bones, or stray rags and pieces of old iron; others, whilst on their way to work, are gathered at the corner of some street round the early breakfast stall, and blowing sauces of steaming coffee, drawn in tall tin cans that have the red-hot charcoal shining crimson through the holes in the fire-pan beneath them; whilst already the little slattern girl, with her basket slung before her, screams 'water-creases!' through the sleeping streets ... "  

Dust-sifters (image is in the Public Domain).

A watercress seller (image is in the Public Domain).

The fortunes of any man or woman, newly arrived in London in the opening decades of the Nineteenth Century, hung very much in the balance. Those who could call upon the support of a relative, or family friend, already established in the capital, were far more likely to find work (whether as City clerks, West End retail workers, or as domestic servants) than those who could not. Those who did not find a "position" had to create their own opportunities: selling watercress, coffee, or sandwiches on the streets; scavenging on dust-heaps; or, as a last resort, prostitution or crime. Social mobility was real, but it operated in both directions.


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at He is a published author, whose books may be purchased from Amazon.

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