Did your ancestors face plague, fire or a life of destitution in the slums? Here’s your guide to the highs and lows of London since Stuart times

Place in Focus, Discover Your Ancestors

Place in Focus

Discover Your Ancestors

London has always been a city of renewal – plagues and fires have decimated its population and scarred its buildings, but every time it has recovered and rebuilt itself bigger and better than before. Little wonder, then, that so many of our ancestors were drawn there, whether from dwindling rural settlements around the country or from countries across the globe.

Of course, for many of them the dream of new opportunities turned into a nightmare of slum life in the unsanitary and crime-ridden ‘rookeries’. But the ever-changing city also brought with it employment in trades from cab driving to lamplighting, from being a Thames lighterman (working on barges) to a bookbinder in Clerkenwell.

London’s expansion beyond the boundaries of the City really began in the 17th century. Immediately to the north was Moorfields, which had recently been drained and laid out in walks, but it was frequented by beggars – travellers, who crossed it in order to get into London, tried not to linger. Mile End, then a common on the Great Eastern Road, was known as a rendezvous for troops.

Second Thames Bridge
The second Thames Bridge (shown here in 1890) was only built in 1750

The general meeting-place of Londoners in the daytime was the nave of Old St Paul’s Cathedral. Merchants conducted business in the aisles, and used the font as a counter upon which to make their payments; lawyers received clients at their particular pillars; and the unemployed looked for work. St Paul’s Churchyard was the centre of the book trade and Fleet Street was a centre of public entertainment.

Fleet Street
Fleet Street was a centre of public entertainment and known as a place for clandestine marriages as shown here

During Charles I’s unpopular reign, aristocrats began to inhabit the West End in large numbers. Country landowners and their families lived in London for part of the year simply for the social life – the ‘London season’.

Samuel Pepys

Overcrowding saw plagues throughout the centuries. As James I was about to take the throne in 1603, a plague killed around 30,000 people, and the Great Plague of 1665 killed more than twice that – a fifth of the population. Diarist Samuel Pepys, most famous for describing the Great Fire in the following year, wrote that 6000 people died in one week and there was “little noise heard day or night but tolling of bells”.

Although the fire saw little loss of life, it ultimately changed London from a medieval city to a modern one. Many aristocratic residents never returned to the City itself, preferring to take new houses in the West End, where fashionable new districts such as St James’s were built close to the main royal residence of Whitehall Palace. The rural lane of Piccadilly sprouted courtiers’ mansions such as Burlington House. The separation between the middle class mercantile City of London, and the aristocratic world of the court in Westminster became complete.

The East End also became heavily populated in the decades after the Great Fire. London’s docks began to extend downstream, attracting many working people who worked on the docks themselves and in the processing and distributive trades. These people lived in Whitechapel, Wapping, Stepney and Limehouse, generally in slum conditions. Meanwhile the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 led to a large migration of Huguenots to London, typically working as silk weavers in Spitalfields.

London began to become the hub of the future empire as the 18th century began. The Bank of England was founded, and the British East India Company was expanding its influence. Lloyd’s of London also began to operate. In 1700 London handled 80% of England’s imports and 69% of its exports. This role as a trading post meant that London never relied on industry in the same way as the great cities of the North and Midlands.

As people flocked to London to trade and seek employment, crime grew in proportion. The Bow Street Runners were established in 1750 as a professional police force. Penalties for crime were harsh, with the death penalty being applied for fairly minor crimes. Public hangings were common in London, and were popular public events.

In 1780 London was rocked by the Gordon Riots, an uprising by Protestants against Roman Catholic emancipation led by Lord George Gordon. Severe damage was caused to Catholic churches and homes, and 285 rioters were killed.

A more peaceful phenomenon of 18th century London was the coffee house, which became a popular place to debate ideas. Growing literacy and the development of the printing press meant that news became widely available. Fleet Street became the centre of the embryonic British press.

During the 19th century, London was transformed into the world’s largest city and capital of the British Empire. Its population expanded from 1 million in 1800 to 6.7 million a century later. While the city grew wealthy as Britain’s holdings expanded, 19th century London was also a city of poverty, where millions lived in overcrowded and unsanitary slums, as immortalised by Dickens.

Famous ‘rookeries’ include the St Giles area of central London, which existed from the 17th century and into Victorian times. It was demolished in the late 19th century along with others in the East End as part of slum clearance and urban redevelopment projects.

London’s next major transformation came with the railways, above and then below ground. These allowed the development of suburbs in neighbouring counties from which middle-class and wealthy people could commute to the centre. The growth of greater London again exacerbated the class divide, with the poor left to inhabit the inner city areas.

William Frith’s The Railway Station,1862
William Frith’s The Railway Station, 1862

As the capital of a massive empire, London saw ever more waves of immigrants from the colonies and poorer parts of Europe. A large Irish population settled in the city during the Victorian period, at one point making up about 20% of London’s population. London also became home to a sizable Jewish community, and small communities of Chinese and South Asians settled in the city. To this day London retains its rich and diverse character, making London ancestry exciting to explore.

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Key Resources

London Lives
A searchable database with information about more than 3m Londoners from 1690 to 1800

Guildhall Library
The records office for the City of London holds parish registers, apprenticeship records, trade directories and many other resources

London Metropolitan Archives
The LMA is London’s equivalent of a county record office, with a huge range of records covering the cities of London and Westminster and the county of Middlesex

City of Westminster Archives
Westminster also has its own record office, with parish registers, newspapers, trade directories and more

A General View of the City of London

Places to Visit

Places to visit to discover what life in London was like in the past

Museum of London
The definitive museum of London history from before Roman times to the present

The Jewish Museum
A recently revamped museum celebrating Jewish life and culture in London and beyond

Charles Dickens Museum
A celebration of the definitive London author, with big plans for his bicentenary in 2012

Dr Johnson’s House
One of the few early 18th century residences still surviving in the City, this is where the great man of letters lived and worked

Dennis Severs House
This Georgian house in Spitalfields offers a unique experience – go on a tour to explore London from the 18th and 19th centuries through the eyes of one family

Charles I executed outside the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall
Around 70,000 people killed in London by plague…
…but less than 20 killed in the Great Fire which destroyed 13,000 homes
1684 Large numbers of Huguenots begin settling in London, especially around Spitalfields and Bethnal Green
Thomas Coram opens the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children in Bloomsbury
Westminster Bridge is built – the first crossing after London Bridge
Hogarth paints Gin Lane, satirising alcoholism in London
Between 5,000 and 10,000 black people begin to arrive in London after the American Revolution
London’s population reaches one million
London’s population reaches one million
Charles Dickens completes Oliver Twist
The census reveals 109,000 Irish people living in London after the potato famines; also the year of the Great Exhibition
The Great Stink, which led to the development of a new sewer system
The first section of the London Underground opens, built by 2000 navvies

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