London, the capital of the United Kingdom, has seen a dramatic change since the early 1800s – in the space of 200 years, transforming from a city showing glimpses of its potential to becoming a genuine global powerhouse. The London that you see today is nothing like the city of Victorian times, which was awash with disease, a terrible smell (owing to sewage in the River Thames) and on the cusp of an industrial revolution.
From 1825, London was the largest city in the world and that certainly wasn’t where the expansion ground to a halt. With the world’s largest port to boot, London was the beating heart of international trade, but while the city was thriving in one sense, it was struggling in others much closer to home.
At the turn of the 19th Century, London was home to one million people, which would grow to six million by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1901. That inflation of the city’s population did not go unnoticed, but it took time for London infrastructure to catch up, causing millions of Londoners (as well as migrants who arrived from overseas in the city looking for work) to live in squalor. Working-class families in the 1800s were struggling to make ends meets, so much so that many children were denied education to enter the workplace.
In contrast, middle and upper-class families could afford to live outside of the city, commuting to London for work (usually the man of the house), with children educated at grammar and boarding schools, as well as at home with a private tutor.
Not a Pleasant Place to Live
While London was regarded as a prosperous place to live, much like it is today, it certainly wasn’t a pleasant place to live…even if you were head of state. Until the first sewer network, the work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was opened in 1865, the city’s streets had a terrible odour running through it which not even Queen Victoria, in Buckingham Palace, could get away from.
As well as an unpleasant smell, the dispersal of sewage directly into the Thames was the result of outbreaks of disease such as cholera, which would take many, many lives – especially those from a poorer background. Hygiene and sanitary standards were almost non-existent.
The Divide in Class
As the times moved into the later 1800s and the sewage issues were a thing of the past, London still had its problems owing to the divide between the upper and lower classes. In many ways, not that dissimilar to the present day. The desperation to make ends meet caused many from a working-class background to turn to petty theft, which made up 75% of all crime in the capital in the 19th Century.
Murder in the Capital
While theft was the biggest concern for police forces, it certainly wasn’t the only thing grabbing the attention of officers. Around 10% of crime was classified as violent, which included murder and that made the most vulnerable residents cautious about heading out at night which, in Victorian London, was far from being well-illuminated.
In 1888, murder was on everyone’s lips as what became known as the Whitechapel Murders dominated the city’s press coverage. An anonymous killer, known simply as Jack the Ripper, became one of the most famous figures in the country (and, yet, still no one knows his true identity) by killing five prostitutes with, what is widely agreed to be, a surgical knife.
While criminal investigations were nowhere near as thorough as they are today, the methods employed by police forces improved vastly – as well as the introduction of forensic science – have helped to make London a safer place. Criminals are far likelier to be caught and forced to face the consequences of their actions.
The Mark Left by Victorian London
Even as you walk through modern-day London, you will still see signs of its Victorian heritage. Some of the most famous of which include the clock tower, in which Big Ben is housed, as well as the rebuilt Houses of Parliament which was originally burned down in 1834.
The sewer network, mentioned already, is still in use and the 1800s also saw the construction of transport systems such as the London Underground, railway lines connecting the city with most of the country and the famous King’s Cross Station. Everywhere you look, there are plenty of signs of London’s rich heritage dating back to Victorian times and earlier.