London: from rural patchwork to urban sprawl

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You might dispute some areas' village status nowadays, but back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people were farming in Islington and building country piles in West Ham. Time Out examines five period maps which trace the relentless growth of the city

  • London: from rural patchwork to urban sprawl

    Detail from J Chatelain's drawing of West Ham circa 1750

  • Fear of London’s rapid growth and subsequent strangulation of the surrounding countryside has been with us for years. The most famous example is George Cruickshank’s 1829 etching ‘London Going Out Of Town’, which depicts an automated army of hods and spades descending on the countryside, while terrified haystacks cower beneath an onrushing deluge of bricks and mortar. But Cruickshank’s illustration does not tell the whole story. In the same year, Londoners created the Metropolitan Police, and the boundary they mapped for the city showed that people were already thinking big.

    ‘The men in positions of influence already knew London was going to expand, and the boundary they chose was more or less where the M25 is now,’ explains Peter Barber, Head of Map Collections at the British Library, who has identified a number of maps that help to illustrate London’s change from a series of peripheral towns and villages to a bustling metropolis.‘In 1829 with the Met and again in 1850 with the postal districts, they were already extending the boundary halfway to Windsor; mentally, Greater London was already there,’ Barber continues. ‘So there was this curious imbalance: on one hand people were saying this is the countryside, and on the other hand they were saying this is London.

    ’This was the middle of London’s first great growth spurt: it is estimated that there was as much development between 1760 and 1835 as there had been in the preceding 200 years as the city swept through Victoria, Edgware, Limehouse, Rotherhithe and Lambeth. The pace picked up with the advent of the railway, built almost in its entirety between 1852-1887, which saw village after village swallowed up by the advancing city, so that by 1872 London had consumed Waltham Green, Kensal Green, Hammersmith, Highgate, Finsbury Park, Clapton, Hackney, New Cross, Blackheath, Peckham, Streatham and Tooting. Between 1801 and 1891 the population of Greater London increased from barely a million to more than 5.5 million.

    As London changed so rapidly, this was also a period of intense mapping. Alex Werner, senior curator of the Museum of London, says, ‘The nineteenth century was the period when there were loads of different people doing maps of London, something that had almost completely died by the twentieth century when London’s limits were more firmly established.’In ‘London: The Biography’ Peter Ackroyd writes: ‘London colonised each village or town as it encompassed them, making them a part of itself, but not changing their fundamental topography. They were now London, but they retained streets and buildings of an earlier date. Their old structure can just be recognised in the remains of churches, marketplaces and village greens, while their names survive as the titles of Underground stations.’

    But as Barber explains, the transformation might not even have been this alarming: ‘Greater London existed in the minds of these people way before the houses actually got there and that was very important because it meant that when the expansion happened there wasn’t the shock horror, or there wasn’t quite the shock horror, that you get nowadays. There were elements of it – George Cruickshank was horrified. But the people that really counted had already built Greater London in their heads.’

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