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London, The Ever-Changing City

September 22, 2021
by Gillian Tindall

Distinguished Historian Gillian Tindall offers an ambivalent history of the development of London over the last five hundred years. Gillian’s books include The House by the Thames and A Tunnel Through Time, A New Route for an Old London Journey.


‘London Going Out of Town’ or ‘The March of Bricks & Mortar’ by George Cruikshank, 1829


“I remember when it was all fields round here.”  How many of us have heard these words spoken by an older person describing some outer district of London? The huge spread of our metropolis is often seen as a modern evil but the truth is that each successive generation has lamented it for hundreds of years. EM Forster in his pre-First World War novel Howards End, writing of the ‘red rust’ of bricks advancing across meadows far from the main streets of the capital, was just another voice in a long, long tradition.

The red rust has been held at bay since the Town & Country Planning Act of 1934 and then by the establishment of the Green Belt. Yet the new Planning Act proposed by our present government looks set to unleash another wave of bricks. There is nothing new in attempts to curb the growth of our capital but less comforting is the fact that, although these attempts have often succeeded in moderating and organising London’s growth, they have hardly ever stopped it.

The first who tried to was Elizabeth I, by issuing a proclamation in 1580 forbidding any new house to be built within three miles of the gates of London. It did not work. Thirteen years later, the same order was reissued with objections to ‘converting great houses into several tenements… and the erecting of new buildings between London and Westminster.’ Suburban sprawl had begun.

The reference to the gates of London is significant. Like all European cities, London was a close-knit hub of small streets lined with houses, many with walled gardens behind. All was contained within the City wall and accessible only through eight fortified gates that were shut at night. But by Elizabeth’s time, England had not been invaded by for five hundred years and even the Peasants’ Revolt – when the City of London was stormed by the poor and angry – had taken place two hundred years earlier. The walls and gates were more symbolic than useful.

Before Elizabeth came to the throne, in Henry VIII’s reign, a suburb had developed beyond the Lud Gate and the Fleet River, on the slopes of what were to become Fleet St and High Holborn. To the north, Clerkenwell was still open country with just a couple of monastic houses set in fields and the other end of the City, beyond the Tower and Aldgate, was the same. But fifty years later, Elizabeth’s contemporary, John Stow, mourned encroachment upon the pastures by the Tower, where he had played as a child and fetched milk from cow-keepers.

“…this common field, all which ought to be open and free for all men… being sometime the beauty of this city on that part, is so encroached upon by the building of filthy cottages… and with other enclosures and laystalls… that in some places it scarce remaineth a sufficient highway…”

To the east, Whitechapel was already developing the utilitarian character it would maintain for several centuries while grander citizens sought to build their homes to the west. Another favoured but more distant suburb, a true out-of-town destination, was Hackney, the green and flowery village where the wealthy built themselves fine houses.

Forty years later, Civil War fortifications were constructed beyond the walls. These ditches and ramparts would have proved ineffectual defence though, as it turned out, they were never tested. Once the Commonwealth was over and Charles II was restored in triumph to the throne, the gates were opened wide, and left that way.

Quite soon, blocks of stones were being hacked out of the walls to construct houses. In 1666, when the Fire destroyed much of the City, many of those who lost their homes moved further out to Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green to the east, or westward to Holborn and St Giles, to Soho and St James’s. The City was becoming part of a far bigger conurbation than that which today is known as Central London.

For the next two centuries, there was a natural limitation to growth. As long all vehicles were horse-drawn, the metropolis was as dependent on fodder as the modern city is upon fuel for lorries and cars. Hay was as essential as petrol today. While London was still a small walled city, it was not hard to provide it. Those green meadows Stow wrote about had been just over the door-step, or rather the gate-step, and in distant rural districts such as St Pancras or Stepney there was so much space for grass that a range of other arable crops such as wheat and barley were also grown. But by the end of Elizabeth’s reign the demand for hay had increased to the level that all the fields as far as Highgate were given over to its production.

Two hundred years later, when London had grown a great deal more, swallowing Islington and Knightsbridge, and creating Camden Town, all the land as far as Watford was said to be ‘down to hay.’ Yet there is a limit to how far a horse-drawn cart can travel in a day to bring fodder back to the metropolis. In early nineteenth century London, developers filled in all the space between the villages and old urban suburbs, such as Shoreditch, were crammed with ever more people.

The true explosion in London’s size could not happen until horsepower was superseded. When railways began arriving in the eighteen-forties, deliveries of hay or anything else from much further afield became possible. In 1863, the Metropolitan Underground Railway opened as the first in the world, offering the possibility of ‘living in the country and working in town.’ For centuries, most employees had walked back and forth between work and home each day. Many of them adopted the new way of life encouraged by cheap workmen’s fares. Within a generation, the country where the new houses were being built turned into suburbia – ‘Metroland’ – and then inexorably into an outlying part of the ever-expanding capital. EM Forster’s ‘red rust’ became manifest.

Yet the fodder-for-horses problem remained until vehicles could be powered by another fuel and until electricity replaced steam power to run the Underground, permitting deeper tunnels and more destinations. Both these transformative developments happened within a few years of each other.

Much of our present Underground was built between 1900 and 1910. Meanwhile street traffic, which was almost entirely horse-drawn at the turn of the century, became dominated by horseless-carriages within a decade. The last horse bus in London ran on the eve of the First World War and the last horse-tram eight months later. During the War, those who still had traditional status as ‘carriage people’ sold off their horses and bought motorcars. Livery stables shut all over the capital as garages opened.

By the end of the century, most Londoners were dependent on their motor cars and ancient road-systems were crudely transformed to accommodate this twentieth century monster. Yet now the assumptions that made King Car dominant for the last hundred years are unravelling. The question of how London must adapt once again is huge. The only certainty is change.


John Stow, the first historian of London, grieved over the redevelopment of the city in his lifetime

Photograph © Estate of Colin O’Brien

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall 

The Bones of Old London

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

One Response leave one →
  1. paul loften permalink
    September 22, 2021

    Thank you Gillian for this clear minded synopsis of the changes that have taken place in London over the centuries. As a Londoner I have seen a few changes during my lifetime. I am now a resident in Redbridge which was once just another of the green fields surrounding but is now an extension of East London . Where I now live we are part of the ever changing cycle that affects all Londoners. Speaking of cycles our local council recently introduced road closures that blocked cars from entering back streets and forcing them onto main roads in order to encourage use of bicycles and improve the environment. I understand there have been similar changes in most other boroughs in London, where the road closures have created uproar with particularly with drivers unable to get to their destination. The uproar was such that it forced the council to withdraw the road blocks. I must admit at first I was one of those that agreed with the protesters but after finding out it was the local Conservative opposition councillors that were behind most of the internet agitation It gave me cause for thought.
    Surely we need to face up to the fact that these events are a sign of the beginning of the end of private car ownership. Our roads are clogged with super-sized vehicles with one person at the wheel. The environment is slowly being poisoned regardless of the fact that the car is electric or not. There has to be another solution as to how we get about and do our shopping. The changing faces of London over time is evidence to this .
    For those people who are shouting and screaming about the roads being blocked and their loss of access to easy routes, there is a light what shines at the end of the tunnel. Have they actually thought about what will become of the drives at the front of their house that they own, that will just become a useless empty space when there no longer are any private cars about in London? They will no doubt be built upon and it will greatly increase the value of their property in an improved and more attractive environment for all Londoners

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