Six more ways of visualising London's growth: mapping the capital’s expansion

London from space. Image: NASA.

So on Tuesday, we looked at London's population growth, and considered whether the city was poised to break its bounds. While the green belt holds, this is a largely theoretical question, but it's one worth asking nonetheless – because, for two and a half centuries, London was basically a machine for swallowing up the surrounding countryside.

With that in mind, let’s go back to the beginning of that process, and take a look at the map.

1700

London's population: c600,000

So, here we are at the start of the 18th century. Poor people walk, rich people ride, and the stage coach is the hyperloop of its day. Consequently, London is pretty compact, and the city mostly occupies the same space it has for decades.

Nicolas de Fer's 1700 map of London. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The city does extend beyond the old Roman walls, and a few suburbs poke over into Westminster, Southwark and Tower Hamlets (all names with long histories). But they’d done that for some extent for centuries and, 300 years ago, London still mostly occupied the area we’d now call the City.

This is long before anyone had considered doing a proper census, but historians have estimated the population at that time as something like 600,000. That's a lot of people crowded into not much space. But don't worry, because the industrial revolution is about to kick off, and the city is about to start getting bigger.

1806

London's population: 885,000

Mogg Pocket or Case Map of London. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Here we are a century later. Much of what we'd now call central London is now under brick; but the city still stops at Hyde Park, and you can still find open fields south of what is now Euston and Pentonville Roads.

These roads are now among the city's biggest and most congested, and effectively mark the northern boundary of central London. But they actually started life as London's first bypass, opened in 1756 to allow farmers to get their livestock to the markets like Smithfield driving them through the city itself.

If London’s footprint had grown considerably during the 18th century, so had its population. The first census, in 1801, put the city's population at around 885,000 – which is quite a lot, when you remember that no one had yet thought to build anything as hygienic as a working sewer system.

1862

London's population: 2.8m

Reynold's Pocket Map of London, 1862. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It's difficult to know exactly when, but by some point in the early 19th century, London had become the largest city in the world. And by now, it was beginning to change rather fast. During the first half of the century, its population tripled, and its physical extent had expanded to meet the demand for homes. By 1862, London stretched from Chelsea to Hackney, and Greenwich to Kentish Town.

Partly that's because London was now the political and economic centre of the largest empire the world had ever seen, which is the sort of thing that can do wonders for a city’s growth. But it was also for a more prosaic reason: in 1824, the capital got its first railway, from London Bridge to Greenwich. For the first time it was convenient to live several miles out, and still travel to work each day in town.

The railways mostly stopped at stations dotted around the city's core, partly because of regulation, and partly to get around the need for expensive demolition: this wasn't exactly convenient for the discerning commuter. In 1854, though, the Metropolitan Railway had been granted permission to build the world's first underground line. It opened in 1863, so at just the time this map was being drawn, workmen were busily digging up the Euston Road to create the line from Paddington to Baker Street.

1900

London's population: 4.7m

By now, we have to zoom out to see the full extent of the city.

Bartholomew's map of London, c1900. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

London got its first proper municipal body, the London County Council (LCC), in 1889. (Membership of its predecessor, the Metropolitan Board of Works, had been appointed, rather than elected, making it a sort of Victorian quango.) The LCC is the area within the thick red line there.

Almost as the council came into existence, though, its boundaries already looked out of date, and suburbia had swallowed up surrounding villages like Chiswick and West Ham. That's because the transport systems which defined the extent of London extend well beyond the LCC's boundary.

Chief among these was the (still privately-owned) tube network. As new lines extended into open countryside, new housing developments would automatically spring around them: an early example of what's now known as transit-based development.

1930

London's population: 8m

We've zoomed out again: even though it's not fully developed, this is the area that's today's Greater London.

In case you're wondering, that thick line passing between Barking and Rainham is the boundary of the Metropolitan Police District. After the creation of Greater London in the 1960s, the boundary was moved in stages to match it, bringing in Romford, and throwing out chunks of what are now Surrey and Hertfordshire.

Lange-Diercke – Sächsischer Schulatlas: A German map of London’s hinterlands, dating from around 1930. Image: Wikimedia Commons

This is London on the eve of its last great push into suburbia. The city’s residents were increasingly demanding homes that came with multiple bedrooms, outdoor space, and as few walls shared with their neighbours as physically possible, and much of the open country featured on that map would not survive the decade.

This map, courtesy of Barney Stringer, of regeneration consultancy Quod, finishes the story. The blue dots are homes built during the 1930s: a thick ring right around London. If you've ever wondered why so much of outer London looks identical, just miles upon miles of endless semi detached homes, then this is why.

Image: Barney Stringer/Quod.

Stringer's map only features homes within the bounds of today's Greater London, of course. But the shape of the city today is very similar to the shape of the city then. The speed of London's physical expansion after World War One had scared the hell out of just about everyone, and led directly to the imposition of the Metropolitan Green belt. After nearly two and a half century of physical growth, in the mid-20th century, London stopped.

Now, of course, the city is expanding once again – in population, if not in scale. The question now is whether we have room for it.

This is part two of a three part article. (It was originally two parts, but it grew in the telling. Give us a break here.) You can read the first part here, and the next one will be with you shortly.

 
 
 
 

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.