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Material London

The physical environment experienced by London's population was transformed almost beyond recognition between 1674 and 1913.

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The material world of London in the two hundred and forty years covered by the Proceedings is both familiar and wildly unexpected. By 1700 you could buy a pineapple on the quays, or readymade breeches from Rag Fair. And yet London was still a pre-industrial city in which every object was handmade, and hence valuable: a watch, a bolt of fabric, and even a bit of lead attracted the attention of thieves and the desire of consumers precisely because of the amount of labour that had gone into their manufacture. By 1913, however, the products of mass production filled the shops. Trains and automobiles competed with horses and trams for the custom of commuters needing transport, and you could phone a police station to report the crime after having your pocket picked at a cinema. Although many of London’s economic and social functions, its roles in governance, the law, finance and international trade, were as important at the end as at the beginning of this period, these two and a half centuries nevertheless fundamentally changed the world in which Londoners lived and thought.

Detail from John Roque’s 1746 map of London, showing the expansion of the built-up area around Grosvenor Square. Grosvenor Square, John Rocque map of London (1746), from Ralph Hyde, ed., The A to Z of Georgian London (1981). London Topographical Society

Settlement Patterns

With the astounding population growth witnessed by the capital in the two and half centuries after the Great Fire (from around half a million people to over seven million), the physical scale and structure of London needed to change. It certainly grew in size, and in the century and a half up to 1830 it stretched out into rural Middlesex and Surrey along the routes of the nation’s major roadways, to Oxford and Bristol to the west, northward through Kentish Town and Highgate, southward over London Bridge and towards the south coast, and finally east and west hugging the shores of the liquid roadway of the Thames. By the late seventeenth century London had fully burst from its medieval walls, which up until then still formed a substantive and defining physical presence dividing London's all important core from its still juvenile periphery. During the same period, in the later seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in particular, the West End, with its arrogant stuccoed squares, grew to characterise more and more of London’s built environment.

The dome of St Pauls and the vague shape of other London landmarks are visible in the distance from the vantage point of Greenwich J.M.W. Turner, ‘London from Greenwich Park’ (1809).

By the end of the eighteenth century many people had begun to commute daily into the centre on the now regular coach services. Overstepping the penumbra of poorer communities which encircled the medieval City and to a lesser extent the West End, these services brought new development to a string of small villages within an hour’s walk of the centre. It is to this suburban development of the late eighteenth century that we owe the smug Georgian charm of places like Hampstead and Highgate.

With the coming of the railways from the 1830s this pattern changed. In the first instance, the railways simply brought wholesale destruction to many communities. Euston, Paddington, Kings Cross, Waterloo, and a host of smaller stations were built on the ruins of poorer communities. A pattern of migrational leapfrog evolved whereby new and poorer residents were moved from street to street as the ever voracious demands of the railways bit hard into London’s fabric. At the same time, the new transport system created a whole new set of essentially isolated commuter towns, housing middling sort and elite Londoners in bucolic new communities ten or twenty miles away, in places like Richmond, Ealing and Wimbledon.

The crowded platform at Paddington Station, built 1854. Paddington Station, from St John Adcock, Wonderful London (1928), p.523.

This pattern in its turn was transformed, first by the introduction of government stipulated workmens’ fares in 1864, and then by the new underground railways, in combination with the tram and trolley services that grew in regularity and convenience from the 1880s and 90s. Between them, these developments effectively turned a pattern of isolated towns, linked only by the railway, into a patchwork of increasingly urbanised and connected communities. By 1913 London possessed one of the world’s densest transportation networks, and with a population of over seven million (near its current size), London had come to take on many of its modern characteristics – its network of joined, but culturally distinct "villages"; its full set of parks and open spaces from Blackheath in the south to Alexandra Palace in the north; and its ever confusing and essentially anonymous low-rise, and relatively low-density terraced housing.


Just as important as its growing geographical size and transport network was the dramatic change in the nature of the buildings in which Londoners lived. During the eighteenth century, and even outside the areas affected by the Great Fire of 1666, wood and lathe, plaster, waddle and daub, were replaced by bricks, stone and stucco. The streets were newly paved and the roadways carefully divided from the pavements. Street lighting first became a familiar aspect of the London scene, and then gradually, with technical developments in the design of the lamps, began to have a significant impact on people's ability to see at night. Oil lamps were replaced by gas lamps that were in their turn replaced by electric lights. Street signs and numbered houses began to appear in the 1740s, becoming commonplace by the 1770s and ubiquitous by the 1800s.

A classic row of London terrace houses with cast iron rails and an area below street level to the front Cheyne Row, built 1708, from St John Adcock, Wonderful London (1928), p.713.

In the process of rebuilding and building afresh, Londoners created a new type of house, a machine for living in a new way. The terraced house, with its vaults, kitchen and services on the lower ground floor and its living quarters above, became both the standard template for all new housing, and the architectural expression of a new set of aspirations. Despite changing decorative tastes, this lasted relatively unchanged in its essentials throughout the period covered by the Proceedings. For middling sort and elite Londoners, this new architectural style, with sash windows and an ever-growing pallet of room types - bedrooms and parlours, front rooms and libraries - created a seductively sophisticated style of urban life. These houses, at least superficially, allowed servants to be more fully separated off from their masters and mistresses, thereby providing a new kind of privacy to the well-off, and seemed to create the stage upon which a new kind of polite sensibility could naturally emerge.

What was not built into the design of these terraces was space for trade and manufacturing. These activities were increasingly separated off into purpose built structures. Commuting between home and work became a familiar part of everyday life for both working people and the middling sort. At the same time, in the back streets, and between the new built terraces, older houses survived in remarkable numbers. Small houses, frequently built of wood in a distinctive London vernacular style, filled many courts and alleys in the areas of the city left untouched by the Fire.

To supply the demands of these newly housed Londoners, shops and patterns of shopping became ever more complex. Shop fronts gained newfangled glass windows from the 1700s, and standards of display and internal ornamentation rose steadily through the eighteenth century, while fashionable arcades and exclusive shopping districts gradually developed in the West End – the Burlington Arcade marking a highpoint in this evolution when it opened in 1819. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed in turn the evolution of the "Department Store", and by 1913 many familiar names could be found, including Whiteleys, Harrods, Maples and Heals. With the coming of the telephone a new world of shopping by phone emerged after 1900. In a pattern similar to present-day shopping online, solvent housewives created accounts at the great stores, and phoned in their weekly and monthly orders, demanding doorstep delivery within a few hours.

Public Spaces

A design map of Regent’s Park as envisaged by John Nash Regent’s Park as designed by John Nash in 1811. British Library (Crace XIV/33)

New types of public spaces also emerged. The traditional open spaces of London, Moorfields, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the western parks (St James’s Park, Hyde Park and Green Park) were gradually confined by new building over the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century a whole new series of open and ordered public spaces was created. First came Regent's Park, Trafalgar Square and Regent Street, carved from the Royal Mews, farmland and a plethora of squalid neighbourhoods in the early nineteenth century. Picking up speed after the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, ever growing swathes of open space were taken into public control and recreated as urban "parks" Joining private ventures such as Victoria Park in the East End, opened in 1846, Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common, Finsbury Park and Blackheath, all came under the Board’s control and were redesigned with public access in mind during the decades after 1855.

The Metropolitan Board of Works was also responsible for an even more fundamental reconstruction of London’s infrastructure. In 1855 the water, sewerage and cemeteries provided for the dense network of medieval parishes and communities that had made up London for half a millennia remained essentially unchanged. The Thames still functioned as an open sewer, and for many, drinking water was still provided by stand-pipes and wells. The creation of the Board started a process of thorough and destructive renewal. The City’s churchyards were dug out, and their mortal remains transferred to new homes in suburban reliquaries. Following the Great Stink (1858), and with the political will of Parliament behind him, the Board’s chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, implemented his great scheme to reduce the width of the river and make universal sewerage a possibility. In the process the Victoria Embankment was born, and London turned its back on the Thames.

The Goods of Life

A late seventeenth-century image of a man with a barrow of oysters on the street. An oyster seller, Marcellus Laroon, The Cries of London, c.1688. Corporation of London Libraries and Guildhall Art Library

Despite the increasingly self-contained and sophisticated rows of new houses, and the ever growing number of shops and then arcades and department stores, each household was still dependent upon a vast collection of services and markets to supply its needs. The streets were crowded with hawkers and pedlars selling buns and mackerel, newspapers and tinware, while delivery and errand boys, and later shop vans on their daily rounds, hustled through the streets. The kitchen doors below street level in the new terraced houses opened to the providers of everyday goods and services. And what was not delivered to the door was, in the eighteenth century, purchased at markets, and increasingly over the nineteenth century bought from the ever growing body of local grocers, butchers and bakers.

At Billingsgate, Covent Garden and Smithfield, and the plethora of smaller markets spread throughout the capital, vegetables and meat, dry goods and clothing could all be purchased. The streets were also full of stands and stalls selling food, which only declined in importance towards the latter half of the nineteenth century as more formal restaurants and cafes took over their functions. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many people, but most especially the poor and working classes, purchased and consumed breakfast, lunch and dinner on the street. For what people paid for these projects, see the Cost of Living.

Billingsgate Market with the Monument in the background, crowded with fish-porters ‘Fish-Porters of Billingsgate Gathered about Consignments Lately Arrived from the Coast’, from St John Adcock, Wonderful London (1928), p.458.

What People Stole

Eighteenth-century London was remarkably modern, but it was still a pre-industrial society. Every plank of wood was sawn by hand, and every piece of cloth was hand woven. Even by the second quarter of the nineteenth century industrialisation had only a marginal impact on this reality. As a result, many goods that a modern consumer would expect to be relatively cheap were very valuable. Lead, cloth of all sorts, clothing, pots, pans, spoons and forks were all stolen and easily passed on. Rag Fair, the market for used clothes on Rosemary Lane near Tower Hill, formed a ready outlet for the most commonly stolen items, while lead and cast iron could be sold at almost any chandler's. In addition to their legitimate business of loaning money on the security of personal possessions, pawnbrokers dealt in most types of stolen goods.

The humble pocket handkerchief is perhaps the best example of the different value that eighteenth-century London put on the goods of everyday life. Charles Dickens' Artful Dodger exists in full measure in the Proceedings, and as Dickens observed, his favourite object for theft was the handkerchief. A simple cotton handkerchief could be resold for six pence, while a silk one might fetch six shillings - enough cash to keep you in hot food for a week. To search for any particular type of stolen good in the Proceedings, specify "search in" crime description.

John Cuff, a master spectacle maker, and one of his employees at their workbench surrounded by the tools of their trade. Johann Zoffany, ‘John Cuff’, spectacle maker (1772). The Royal Collection HM Queen Elizabeth II

Over the course of the nineteenth century, in response to industrialisation, mechanisation and global trade the price of many of these everyday goods tumbled. Cloth and clothing, in particular, but also furniture and metal ware became more commonplace and affordable.

Over the course of the two hundred and forty years after 1674, what was stolen, and more particularly the nature of the thefts that came to trial at the Old Bailey changed. At the beginning of our period dock workers could legitimately take, as a "perquisite", loose tobacco and sugar from the sweepings left behind after a ship was unloaded. By the 1790s, this kind of "pilfering" was condemned and criminalised. Each new technological and financial development brought with it a new crime and a new object of theft. Even more significantly, the changing role of the court and the contemporaneous rise of local police and magistrates’ courts ensured that trials at the Old Bailey, particularly from the mid nineteenth century, tended to concern more serious forms of theft and violence. The forms of petty theft so characteristic of the eighteenth-century Proceedings largely disappear from the 1850s onwards. As the nineteenth century progressed, forgery, fraud and violent assault came to take up more and more of the court’s time, at the expense of simple thievery. Whereas in the eighteenth century non-violent theft accounted for over 80% of the court’s business, by the 1900s this had fallen to under 5%. While the court was increasingly preoccupied with other crimes, simple thieving did not disappear; it was simply prosecuted in other ways. Further information on the varieties of theft prosecuted at the Old Bailey can be found on the types of crimes page.


In creating this new world, in the evolution of a great city from a pre-modern, handmade metropolis to an industrial behemoth, a whole panoply of new goods became commonplace. Emblematic of these deeper changes, cast iron rails, that ubiquitous sign of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social anxiety, sprang from every side, and formed a handy weapon, a frequent object of theft, and a danger to the unwary. The roofs of the new houses were sealed with lead, forming a constant temptation to the criminally inclined; while bricks filched from the new railways soon became handy projectiles for smash and grab thieves, hungry for the goods on display in the ever more elaborate shop windows. In the process, many Londoners came to desire new goods in a new way. Many would come to understand the feeling expressed by Elizabeth Wild when she appeared at the Old Bailey in 1716 charged with stealing a pair of black silk gloves. Her only defence was that "she long'd for them, and that she knew not why else she did it, not having any occasion as she knew of for them".

Introductory Reading

  • Cruickshank, Dan and Burton, Neil, Life in the Georgian City (London, 1990)
  • Dyos, H.J. and Wolff, Michael, eds, The Victorian City: Images and Realities (London, 1973)
  • McKay, Lynn, "Why they Stole: Women in the Old Bailey, 1779-1789", Journal of Social History 32 (1999), 623-39
  • White, Jerry, London in the Nineteenth Century (London, 2007)
  • Porter, Roy, London: A Social History (London, 1994)

For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.

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