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A Brief History Of Change

May 17, 2021
by Gillian Tindall

Contributing Writer, historian Gillian Tindall, has written many books about London, including ‘The Fields Beneath’ which first appeared in 1977 and is regarded as a classic of urban writing.

Clerkenwell before the railway came through

Every generation believes they are perched on the frontier of time, leaving the safety of known things for an uncharted future. ‘The good days’ or even ‘the bad old days’ are reassuring to contemplate because we know how things turned out. There is also a broad assumption that, apart from times of war or plague, life continued much the same for centuries, with no modern conveniences and with everyone knowing their allotted place in society.

Yet this notion of the past is as deceptively simple as a distant view of green hills. Examined more closely, past centuries are a saga of continual evolution – only the speed of it varies.

Older people get used to younger people saying ‘You must have seen a lot of changes round here?’ or guessing what Londoners felt/behaved/thought/assumed/took for granted in the distant and quaint decades of the forties or fifties, before pop-stars or skyscrapers or the internet, when money was measured out as four-and-ninepence or half-a-crown. I observe them politely disbelieving me when I try to tell them that – actually – the changes that those of my age have seen in our lifetimes are minor compared with the constant, rolling transformation experienced by someone living in London one hundred years earlier.

Imagine you were born in 1838, the first year of Queen Victoria’s reign. This was also the year in which the first railway in London, all three-and-three-quarter miles of it, began running on a new viaduct from the future London Bridge Station towards Greenwich. England was still a land of roads, gravelled or muddy, of horseback riders, of coaches, coaching inns and stabling, and the huge numbers of people this trade employed.

In London there was no public transport beyond a few recently invented horse buses. From anywhere in the capital you could walk into the countryside within an hour or less. Whitechapel and Bethnal Green were getting built up, but Stepney and Bow were still rural. Camden Town had rows of terraced houses though Kentish Town, half a mile to the north, was a country high road sprinkled with cottages and pubs, and fields behind on both sides. Hampstead was a distant separate village. Kensington High St was beginning to be well-populated, but Chelsea and Earls Court were market gardens and pastures. So was all the land north of Paddington station. As for South London, beyond Southwark and a bit of ribbon development along main roads, it did not exist.

Yet before you had even reached middle age this green and pleasant land would be transformed, like a dystopian nightmare, into sooty, fog-darkened, heavily-populated inner city. Grazing cows and timbered taverns with tree-shaded yards became a faded memory. Many of these, rebuilt in urban style, retained their country names, but the cows were moved into sheds behind narrow terrace houses. Instead, milk was arriving on overnight trains at one of London’s half-dozen main railway stations. Meanwhile the occupants of the terraces, mile after mile of them expanding London’s population several times over, were less likely to walk to work than to take the Metropolitan Line which opened in 1864 or the District Line that proliferated from it. Horse buses were everywhere now and, after 1860, they were joined by trams, horse-drawn still but on rails. These in turn were replaced around 1900 by electric trams and the deep Underground was constructed. Even then our Londoner born in 1838 would only be in their early sixties.

Enough change for one lifetime, you might think? Far more was to come. By the eighteen-nineties entirely new ‘horseless carriages’ were seen in the streets, as the petrol-driven internal combustion engine arrived. Twenty years later, when our ageing Londoner reached the end of their life, the horse buses were only a memory, stables were disappearing and streets were dominated by cars.

All this is just building and transport! What else had come and gone in the preceding eighty years? The rapid postal service, following the expansion of the railways, had transformed communications, and from the middle of the century telegrams became a reality. By the early nineteen-hundreds grand houses and the larger City offices all had a telephone. It was a far cry from the centuries-old culture of the messenger on horseback. Typewriters, accompanied by lady typists, had appeared in offices by then. They were not only early signs of what became a feminist revolution, they resigned to history a five-hundred-year-old tradition of clerks writing by hand.

By 1909, clerks could collect a tiny Old Age Pension. Massive social progress had taken place since Victoria came to the throne. The poor were no longer left to live or die – soup kitchens, dispensaries, free hospitals and a mass of other charities abounded. So did cheap newspapers and universal literacy. Rather than sending your children out to become sweep chimneys or beg, you were obliged to send them to one of the free schools that had been built in every district of London. There were a great many policeman, and it was generally agreed that the so-called ‘Heart of the Empire’ – by now the world’s largest city – was far more orderly than in the bad old days that few could remember any more. It was populated by huge numbers of Londoner in suits and bowler hats whose immediate forebears had been farm labourers or servants but had climbed the ladder to become middle class. Let no one kid themselves that ‘social mobility’ is a recent invention.

How do we assess change from 1938 to the present day by comparison? I leave readers to write that chapter themselves. What is clear is that less and less, in recent decades, have we believed change, growth, development, expansion are necessarily good things. Now there is wariness, a fear of London’s fragile financial supremacy, a growing unease in recognising this planet’s resources are finite and a sense that in past ways of life may lie the solutions we seek in vain today.

Have I seen big change in London since my post-war childhood, you ask? No, I have not. Elsewhere, yes, countrywide and worldwide, but in the capital – in relation to the rapid change of the past – not that much, all told. But I do ask myself and wonder, for how much longer?

London Bridge

In Westminster

Bridgefoot, Southwark

Butcher’s Row, Strand

Waterloo Bridge Rd

River Fleet at St Pancras

Illustrations from Walter Thornbury’s London Old & New courtesy Bishopsgate Institute  

You may also like to take a look at

A Walk Through Long Forgotten London

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 17, 2021

    A friend of mine recently showed me a fascinating map he has got of London which was drawn just before the coming of the railways and as Gillian points out it is amazing to see how small London still was then, and to imagine the phenomenal growth and change that London would go through in the next eighty years.

    Definitely one of the most fascinating periods in history, especially for our capital city.

  2. Sally permalink
    May 17, 2021

    What a fascinating read, thank you very much for posting.

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 17, 2021

    What has struck me in all the years that I have been researching family history is the contrast between the Victorian lifestyles of my fathers family and my mother’s.. My paternal grandmother’s history is all in London from the 16th century whilst my mother’s is all completely rural and I doubt very much whether her parents ever went to London. Those who lived in London would have seen all the changes that Gilliam mentions but the rural families lived much as their ancestors had lived with none of the modern ‘improvements whatsoever until the arrival of the railway in the nearest town and then later on, early cars and motor buses in the 1920s. Electricity and gas were unknown, no-one had a telephone and very few had indoor plumbing. Things were so different and London must have seemed like a whole new world to them.
    My paternal grandparents, on the other hand, reversed the exodus from the country to London by moving out from Clapton to a village on the border between Essex and Suffolk in 1910. Thinking about it now I cannot begin to imagine what a culture shock it must have been for my grandmother who had grown up in a very comfortable home with all the then mod cons to suddenly find herself living in a small cottage with earth and brick floors, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no telephone and no gas or electricity, but she said she had never been so happy. Perhaps there is a lesson for us all in that.

  4. Ian Johnson permalink
    May 17, 2021

    I enjoyed this piece very much. It is a period of London history in which most of my great grandparents left their working class lives in the countryside and moved into East London, presumably because, whereas the rural economy was in decline, the rapidly growing metropolis offered the prospect of employment. The next generation had prospered to the extent that they were able to move to the outer suburbs, buy their own properties and build the lower middle classes from the ground up.

    My grandmother was one of those “lady typists” who took over from the generations of male clerks. Here is a fragment of a brief memoir she wrote, shortly before her death in the 1980s, describing her experience as an office worker in Edwardian London.

    “I Ethel S Johnson met Walter Johnson at the Hearts of Oak Benefit Society in Euston Road, nearly opposite St Pancras LMS station. The Insurance Act had just started and the H. of Oak was in chaos as all letters had been hand written and copied on a file of interleaved carbon and the men there were horrified to see an army of girls and typewriters invade their domain (we were all fixed up in the Boardroom temporarily) and did they lead us a dance, I was in charge (on account of “age and deportment”)”

  5. May 17, 2021

    Hard to imagine the Stepney and Bow I know as once being rural!
    The London I grew up in and loved is being turned into a Developers playground.
    Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Hackney are just few of the places that will be unrecognisable before long…..not forgetting Spitalfields and Norton Folgate. But life goes on …….

  6. Cherub permalink
    May 17, 2021

    It’s always fascinating to read how rural places merged together to become parts of towns and cities. My mother was from one of a small collection of mining villages on the east coast of Scotland, it eventually became part of a large industrial town in the early 1930s. When I see photos of how it was before then it looked quite impoverished. It’s now a historic village on a coastal path for walkers as it has buildings dating back to the 14th century and was famous for salt mining.

    I’ve been very lucky to live in a small city in Switzerland for the past 5 years, again made up of what was farmland and rural villages. My district is called Breite which I believe is Swiss German for meadow. The verges and green spaces are planted out with meadow flowers every year to keep that feel and it’s a very pretty place close to the Rhein.

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