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.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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