Cite this page

A Population History of London

The Demography of Urban Growth

Humanity's first 'world city' was a seething and constantly growing metropolis of the young. Migrants and immigrants filled its neighbourhoods and gave to each one a distinctive character, which in turn changed decade by decade as new waves of both the desperate and the hopeful from Britain and across the world came to occupy the bright streets and dingy courts of the capital. In the process, many of the emotions and conflicts that fuelled the crimes recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings were created.

Contents of this Article


Mary Toft, the rabbit woman of Godliman, lies across a bed with several rabbits at her feet.  She is being examined by a group of well-dressed men.alt-text here

In terms of its population London overshadowed all other British and almost all European cities even in the late seventeenth century and continued to do so throughout the next two and a half centuries. By the early twentieth century it dwarfed its largest competitors, and formed an urban machine for living that was unprecedented in human history. From a population of around half a million when the Proceedings began publication in 1674, London reached a staggering population of over seven million by the time they ceased in 1913. From a city which was just starting to spill beyond the confines of the ‘Square Mile’, by 1913 London marched across the landscape, some seventeen miles from end to end.

This pattern of growth was not steady, nor was it entirely down to any single factor. But between them a gradual and punctuated decline in child mortality, in combination with in-migration, from the British Isles, Europe and the rest of the world, were decisive. The city that was created in the process was marked by its youth and its high proportion of women, drawn to the capital by domestic service.


In the mid-1670s, when the Proceedings began to be published, the population of the capital was approximately 500,000. Fourteen years later, Gregory King, Britain’s first great demographer, estimated it at 527,000. This was a period of low overall population growth, even stagnation in England and was characterised by a very late age at marriage, low illegitimacy rates, and relatively low levels of birth within marriage. These factors impacted just as much on the population of London as on that of the country as a whole, and were exacerbated by particularly high levels of urban infant mortality. As a result, the last three to four decades of the seventeenth century and the first two decades of the eighteenth are a period characterised by slow incremental growth. It is also a period during which a high proportion of London's inhabitants were migrants. Most women came as domestic servants seeking employment, while young men sought apprenticeships or more casual labour. One estimate suggests that a sixth of all people born in England around 1700 lived some part of their lives in London. It was only by maintaining this constant influx that the capital could possibly maintain its population and grow.

The combination of low overall fertility rates with high levels of migration substantially skewed the age structure of London. Low fertility rates, for instance, generally result in a low overall dependency ratio (the number of old and young people supported by the working population). For England as whole this ratio reached its lowest point in the 1670s. Because a high number of London's inhabitants were relatively young recent migrants over the age of 14, the effect would be even more powerfully felt in the capital. In other words, London in the late seventeenth century was not a city of children or the elderly. Instead, it was dominated by young men and women in their teens and twenties.

During the seventeenth century migration tended to be long distance and international. As a result, besides its youth, London's population in this period was also characterised by its diversity. All the regions and countries that made up the British Isles were well represented by self-conscious communities of migrants. Specific neighbourhoods were associated with Yorkshire, Scotland and Ireland. At the same time the Huguenot refugees from France successfully carved out a distinct district for themselves in Spitalfields; while Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazim from Poland and Germany settled around Whitechapel and Petticoat Lane. The Irish came to dominate the area around St Giles in the Fields, which came to be known as "Little Dublin".


A London crowd on a May morning

By 1715 the population of London had reached around 630,000; rising to approximately 740,000 by 1760. Population growth in this period was not, however, evenly spread. Steady growth up to around 1725 was followed by a period of relative stagnation to mid-century, followed in turn by stronger growth during the 1750s. Poor hygiene, living conditions and the "gin craze" are frequently cited as explanations for the high mortality rate, and demographers have in particular pointed to the extremely high rate among infants (20.2 deaths per 100 live births by the age of 2 years in the period 1730-9).

Changing attitudes towards child mortality in this period are reflected in both the establishment of institutions such as the Foundling Hospital in 1741; and in the Proceedings themselves, by the decline in prosecutions for infanticide noticeable from the 1730s onwards, as efforts shifted towards supporting single mothers rather than shaming them. The stagnation or very slow growth of the population of London in this period was also reflected by a marked depression in the building industries.


From approximately three-quarters of a million people in 1760, London continued a strong pattern of growth through the last four decades of the eighteenth century. In 1801, when the first reliable modern census was taken, greater London recorded 1,096,784 souls; rising to a little over 1.4 million inhabitants by 1815. No single decade in this period witnessed less than robust population growth.

In part this urban bloat resulted from a marked decline in infant mortality brought about by better hygiene and childrearing practices, and a changing disease pattern. By the 1840s children born in the capital were three times less likely to die in childhood than those born in the 1730s.

But much more important than mortality was increased migration and rising fertility. Long distance migration within the Britain Isles declined (with the exception of migration from Ireland), and was replaced by a higher level of regional migration, with London attracting large numbers from the home counties and from communities with strong links to London through coastal shipping. As a result, many more Londoners came to have family and friends back home within a few days walk than they would have done in the seventeenth century. This also ensured that the social identity of communities defined by a region of origin within the British Isles became relatively less important.

At the same time, international, and indeed global, migration (both economic and forced) became more significant. Following the end of hostilities at the conclusions of the Seven Years War in 1763 and the American War in 1783, a large number of black men and women from Africa, the Caribbean and North America settled in London. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century the black population of London is estimated to have been between 5,000 and 10,000. The outcome of the American War in particular also resulted in the establishment of a large American loyalist community, both white and black.

Marriage patterns evolved rapidly. From having a demographic regime at the turn of the seventeenth century in which people married in their late 20s and had relatively few children, in or out of wedlock, a new pattern took over in London from as early as the 1730s and was well established by the 1760s. This new regime was characterised by high levels of illegitimacy, an average marriage age of below 25, and high overall levels of fertility both within and outside marriage. This reflected a profound change in the behaviour of the still typically young and migrant inhabitants of London.

Throughout this period women continued to dominate the population as a whole. In 1801 54% of Londoners were female. This both reflected the importance of domestic service in drawing young people to London and exacerbated the impact of changing patterns of courtship and fertility.


In 1815 London was already the largest city in the world, but by 1860 it had grown three-fold to reach 3,188,485 souls. And many of the souls it contained were from elsewhere. In 1851, over 38 per cent of Londoners were born somewhere else.

The Irish made up perhaps the single largest immigrant group. In 1841, when the first census to record the birthplace of Londoners was taken, 4% of the population were from Ireland, representing 73,000 individuals. This rose to 109,000 in 1851 in the wake of the Great Famine (1846-9). A further 13,000 Londoners were from elsewhere in Europe and the rest of the world (rising to 26,000 in 1851). French, Italian, German and Spanish refugees (both economic and political) all formed substantial communities in London during these decades – many forced to flee following the political and economic disorder associated with the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. Added to these were smaller communities of Chinese, Indian and African sailors, living and working along the riverside. And finally, there was a thriving and substantial Jewish community, replenished decade by decade by further European migration.

As in earlier periods, however, the vast majority of the migrants who fuelled London’s remarkable population growth were from Britain, and in particular, from the counties and regions of the South East. As a result, Londoners continued to be both younger and more likely to be female than the inhabitants of other British regions. As in the preceding period, the first half of the nineteenth century also witnessed a steady decline in both child and adult mortality, primarily as a consequence of better sanitation, building standards and food supplies. For the first time, London ceased to be a sink of mortality for rural emigrants, as its death rate came to into line with that of the surrounding counties.


The last half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth saw continued strong growth, in some ways replicating and reinforcing the pattern set in preceding decades. The over three million people living in Greater London in 1861 more than doubled to become over seven million by the 1910s. During the same period, the flow of European immigrants rose from a steady stream to a regular river of humanity, while migration from the wider world also grew in importance.

Reflecting increasing fertility rates, by 1901 the proportion of Londoners born elsewhere had declined to just 33% of the total, but with the growing size of the new megalopolis the number of new migrants was nevertheless huge. And while the Irish born population of London declined from 107,000 in 1861 to just 60,000 in 1901, other groups came to take their place in the hard-scrabble economy of immigrant London.

The bowsprit and prow of a large sailing ship overhanging the terraced housing of Manchester Road in Cubitt Town

The great revolutions and political struggles of late nineteenth-century Europe brought many from Russia, Poland, France, Italy and Germany - including revolutionaries and political activists such as Karl Marx. But most came to work, or to escape persecution. In 1901 there were 27,400 Germans, 11,300 Frenchmen and women, and 11,000 Italians. But most prominent of all the immigrant communities were the Jews. From the 1860s in particular, the well established London Jewish community was dramatically expanded by those fleeing conscription into the armies of the Austrian Empire, and famine in Russia in 1869-70. The Russo-Turkish War of 1875-6 created a new batch of refugees, but it was in the 1880s, and as a result of the persecution of the Jews in both Russia and Prussia, that most came. It is estimated that by 1901 there were 140,000 Jews living in London, three times as many as two decades earlier.

Chinese and Indian immigrants became a more prominent and established part of the London whirl in these same years, while Indian sailors, and a small but significant African and Black Caribbean community continued to prosper. The Pan-African Conference was held in London in 1900; reflecting the extent to which the capital acted as the centre of imperial dissent as much as the centre of the imperium. The 1901 census recorded 33,000 Londoners as having been born in British colonies or dependencies.

The Demography of Crime

A traffic jam of carts, waggons and people struggle to pass Ludgate Hill with the dome of St Pauls in the distance

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the population of London was dominated by the young and by women, and in some ways this is reflected in the Proceedings. From 1789 the age of men and women convicted of crimes is regularly recorded (as is the age of other defendants whose youth or old age provided some mitigation). Just as the population as a whole was dominated by the young, so too was the population of convicted criminals, though this pattern was exacerbated by a greater inclination to prosecute juvenile delinquents. Those prosecuted for violent crimes, in particular, continued to be predominantly young men, and to a lesser extent young women.

As the nature of the court at the Old Bailey changed to focus more exclusivley on serious crime (and in particular fraud) the number of younger, relatively petty offenders declined. After the 1850s most pick-pockets and shoplifters were dealt with by the police and magistrate’s courts, removing their largely juvenile perpetrators from the Proceedings.

Nevertheless, throughout this period almost two-thirds of the defendants for whom age is recorded were between fourteen and thirty.

Immigrants, whose financial security and cultural capital were limited, are similarly prominent. In part, this is a simple reflection of the marginal economic position of most new migrants, but it also reflects the prejudices and bigotry of prosecutors. Throughout the nineteenth century approximately one per cent of all trials involved an interpreter called upon to translate the proceedings to the defendant.

One group whose presence in the London population is not clearly reflected in the Proceedings is women, who account for less than a third of the defendants in the eighteenth century, declining to around 15% in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and just over 8% in the first decade of the twentieth. Given that women formed a majority of the population as a whole, these figures are extremely low. For a more detailed discussion of the role of gender in the criminal justice system see Gender in the Proceedings.

Introductory Reading

  • Finlay, Roger A.P. and Shearer, Beatrice Robina, "Population Growth and Suburban Expansion" in Beier, A.L. and Finlay, R., eds, London 1500-1700 : The Making of the Metropolis (London, 1986), 37-59
  • Landers, John, Death and the Metropolis: Studies in the Demographic History of London, 1670-1830 (Cambridge, 1993)
  • Wrigley, E. A., "A Simple Model of London's Importance in Changing English Society and Economy, 1650-1750", Past & Present 37 (1967), 44-70. Also in Philip Abrams and E.A. Wrigley, eds, Towns in Societies: Essays in Economic History and Historical Sociology (Cambridge, 1978)
  • L.D. Schwarz, London in the Age of Industrialisation: Entrepreneurs, Labour Force and Living Conditions, 1700-1850 (Cambridge, 1992), part II.

For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.

Back to Top