Here are some maps of the London that could have been after the Great Fire – and the one we actually got

A map of the City of London by Wenceslas Hollar, with the light area north of the Thames showing the extent of the area destroyed in the Great Fire of London, 1666. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

It’s 1666 and an incompetent baker managed has just managed to burn down London. After the Great Fire, all that remained of 13,200 houses and four-fifths of the City of London, including St Paul’s Cathedral, was a charred tangle of rubble.

A young William Taswell, who witnessed the old cathedral burn down from the other side of the Thames, recorded in his memoirs that it “blazed so conspicuous as to enable [him] to read very clearly an edition of Terence which [he] carried in [his] pocket”.

The part of London destroyed. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But the smoking hole in London offered the city planners of the age a unique opportunity. Here they could rebuild the capital from scratch, creating the model city with none of the Medieval hangups of its previous incarnation. When the monarch of the day, King Charles II, offered his support for a radical redesign, the planners lined up to remake the city.

The various designs put forward unanimously agreed on a grid system for this new London. Draughtsman Richard Newcourt proposed a rigid grid with churches in squares: a proposal that despite being utterly ignored for London’s rebuild, was later adopted for Philadelphia, USA.

The Newcourt plan: click to expand. Image: City of London/London Metropolitan Archives.

Christopher Wren, most famous for his post fire rebuild of St Paul’s Cathedral, had his own ideas. He envisaged long wide streets radiating out from plazzas – a plan reminiscent of today’s Parisian boulevards, but which predated Haussmann’s remodelling by 200 years. He also proposed to build a huge terrace along the river Thames, lined with the halls of the various city companies
 

The Wren plan. Image: Getty.

The reason that none of these best laid plans actually came to fruition is that actual Londoners got in the way. Around 65,000 people had been made homeless by the Fire: they couldn’t wait for the slow, top-down planning process to produce somewhere for them to live and work.

The comprehensively remaking of the city hoped for by the powers-that-be would have required the complete overhaul of property rights. This would have just taken too long for the 80 per cent of City of Londoners who needed to get on with their lives, who just wanted to rebuild their homes and restart their buildings. So the grand plans were abandoned: the rebuilding was instead hashed out by the landowners on a plot-by-plot basis.

Of course, it would have been mad to rebuild the city with all the same flaws that allowed the fire to spread so easily in the first pace, so some rules were imposed. The 1667 Rebuilding Act determined that all new buildings were required to be built predominantly from brick, rather than wood, and that upper floors were no longer allowed to jut out over lower ones. The roads were also made slightly wider, to make it harder for the fire to jump from block the block.

Apart from this London grew back in roughly the same shape as it had burned down Ogilby and Morgan's 1676 map of the City shows the same mass of confused and winding streets that were there before the Fire. And Wren’s dream of a terrace was blocked, as thrifty Londoners setup their riverside businesses.

Ogilby and Morgan's 1676 map. Larger version here. Image: British history online.

He still got to leave his mark with the towering St Paul’s Cathedral and the fifty-one churches built under his direction, mind you.


So the question is: did London miss an opportunity presented by the Great Fire’s destruction? Leaving the rebuilding to happen organically rather than through top down planning allowed for a quick restart to city life. Also, the final product worked; this was a city that would finance a global empire in the following years, and which never again saw fire on the same scale.

 No, we don’t have swanky boulevards – but London survived and rebuilt. If you’re still wondering whether it all happened in the right way, just take a walk down Fleet Street. You may not find an answer, but you’ll at least find enough pubs to help you forget the question in the first place.  

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.