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London: The City that Shaped the World

February 4, 2015

II. The Fruits of Industry

The Industrialization of London


This is part two of a four part series on London's turbulent history up to 1945. The Then pictures are courtesy of the Telegraph and the Museum of London, while I took the Now photos in January 2015.

Industrialization has reshaped every city on earth, and few moreso than London. Britain spearheaded the development of factory mass production, railways, telegraphs, steamships, and every other conceivable industrial innovation of that transformative era. With her industrial strength, massive empire, and control of the seas, British companies were able to accumulate vast wealth and influence. London became the world's centre of finance and trade, in addition to a manufacturing hub.

Londoners were not afraid to innovate. Marvels of engineering and architecture like the London underground and the Crystal Palace were built, while the dockyards were expanded to build the most advanced ships of the age. For those who rode the wave of prosperity these were good times. They had no shortage of places to spend their newfound wealth, from swanky theatres to exclusive restaurants and upscale shopping districts.

But as London steamed ahead millions were left by the wayside, or, more likely, consumed to power the industrial leviathan. Extreme poverty of the sort almost inconceivable to the modern mind pervaded society. A few hundred yards from the balls, operas and displays of extravagant wealth in London's West End people were literally starving to death in the streets. The East End was a congested labyrinth of rat-infested slums and disease-ridden hovels, unfit for human habitation. Yet it was the people who lived in these places that kept the juggernaut of industry lurching ahead into the 20th Century. A damning indictment of the system amidst the glory of empire and high finance.

Then and Now Mouse

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Construction of the District Metropolitan line on the banks of the Thames outside the Somerset House. Constructed through the back-breaking cut-and-cover method, the work looks exhausting.

Another photo of underground construction by Paddington Station. This was the first underground line ever built. Initially poor ventilation meant the stations and cars filled with noxious smoke from the engines, though the novelty and convenience of the tube meant this did not greatly impact ridership.

Here we see welders at work on the SS Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs. Working at night, the scene is lit by gaslight. The Great Eastern was meant to be a symbol of Britain's naval power, engineering prowess and industrial strength. Designed by the legendary Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship was six times bigger than any other afloat at the time of its launch in 1858. It wouldn't be surpassed for another 40 years.

Workers gather to listen to a preacher speak at the Gatehouse of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Woolwich had been the centre of British armaments manufacturing since the 17th Century, one of the world's largest manufacturing centres. By the First World War, a few years after this photo was taken, over 80,000 people were employed in the sprawling complex. Today the Royal Arsenal is a historic site and hosts the excellent Royal Artillery Museum.

Regent's Circus, or Oxford Circus as it is now known. Most of the buildings have been knocked down or at least redeveloped in the last 130 years. In the foreground you can see a man pulling an organ grinder, a form of entertainment very popular with the urban poor at the time.

Harley Street, an upscale area where many doctors had their practices.

The swanky Palace Theatre.

A nanny poses with a baby for a photograph. The photographer has brought along his mobile dark room.

The Prince of Wales theatre. Home of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the focus of English entertainment throughout the world, London has always had a vibrant and trend-setting theatre scene.

The Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition in 1851. It was the first large building constructed of walls of plate glass supported by iron struts. This novel building that didn't require any interior lighting astonished visitors and was named the Crystal Palace because it reminded viewers of crystal.

The Palace was a triumph of British engineering and drew visitors from all over the world. In 1936 however it was destroyed in a massive fire.

A sumptuous banquet held in the halls of the Crystal Palace.

A crowded street in front of Liverpool Station. Only the building on the left survives, the pub owners proudly reminding us that it's still "open as usual." In 1801 Greater London had a population of just over a million. By 1901 this had increased to well over 6 million, the largest surge in population seen anywhere up to that point and making London far and away the largest city in the world. Second was New York (4 million), followed by Paris (3.3 million), Berlin (2.7 million) and Chicago (1.7 million). These people were overwhelmingly concentrated in Inner London and most of them lived in cramped and fetid conditions. This is opposed to today where the majority of London's inhabitants inhabit outer London.

A crowd watches a Punch and Judy Show in Waterloo Place. On the left can be seen the Crimean War Memorial. Punch and Judy shows are mobile booths where puppet shows can be put on. They were wildly popular with the lower classes.

Traffic on the Strand.

The Carter was hard put to keep the pace at which we walked (he told me that he had eaten nothing that day), but the Carpenter, lean and hungry, his grey and ragged overcoat flapping mournfully in the breeze, swung on in a long and tireless stride which reminded me strongly of the plains wolf or coyote. Both kept their eyes upon the pavement as they walked and talked, and every now and then one or the other would stoop and pick something up, never missing the stride the while. I thought it was cigar and cigarette stumps they were collecting, and for some time took no notice. Then I did notice.

From the slimy, spittle-drenched, sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and, they were eating them. The pits of greengage plums they cracked between their teeth for the kernels inside. They picked up stray bits of bread the size of peas, apple cores so black and dirty one would not take them to be apple cores, and these things these two men took into their mouths, and chewed them, and swallowed them; and this, between six and seven o’clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world has ever seen.

-Jack London, People of the Abyss

St. John's Gate. Originally built in the 1500s, it served as the entrance to the inner sanctuary of the Knights Hospitallers Priory. In the 19th Century it was restored and for a time served as the publishing house of the famous Gentleman's Magazine.

Slums on lower Fore Street near Moorgate. These slums, like many slums throughout London, were cleared out early in the 20th Century.

The streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined; and lounging at every corner, as if they came there to take a few gasps of such fresh air as has found its way so far, but is too much exhausted already, to be enabled to force itself into the narrow alleys around, are groups of people, whose appearance and dwellings would fill any mind but a regular Londoner's with astonishment.

-Charles Dickens, Seven Dials

Women selling flowers in Covent Garden in front of Saint Paul's Church.

The Clare Market which was once on the edge of Lincoln's Inn Fields. Once a densely populated slum, now the London School of Economics stands on the spot.

One of Claude Monet's paintings of the Houses of Parliament. He painted these as he sat in his hospital bed in Saint Thomas looking out the window across the Thames. The buildings are shrouded in smog the dense smogs typical of the time that were the origin of the term "London pea souper". The smog was caused by the burning of coal for home heating and cooking, a practice detrimental to the health of all the city's inhabitants.

The poverty stricken millions
Who challenge our wine and bread,
And impeach us all as traitors,
Both the iving and the dead.

And whenever I sit at the banquet,
Where the feast and song are high,
Amid the mirth and music
I can hear the fearful cry.

And hollow and haggard faces
Look into the lighted hall,
And wasted hands are extended
To catch the crumbs that fall.

And within there is light and plenty,
And odors fill the air;
But without there is cold and darkness,
And hunger and despair.

And there in the camp of famine,
In wind, and cold, and rain,
Christ, the great Lord of the Army
Lies dead upon the plain.


-Henry Longfellow, The Challenge

London: The City that Shaped the World

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