This is the week when London's population will finally overtake its previous peak

This is just one reason why London's population fell after the war. Image: Wikimedia Comons.

On 6 January, or thereabouts, London will hit an extraordinary milestone. The population has finally caught up with its 1939 peak population: from now on, it will be an all-time high. Has any other city in history bounced back from losing two and a quarter million people? 

Of course, 6 January is just a notional date based on forecasts by the Greater London Authority (GLA): we cannot know when it will actually happen, or even exactly what the peak was. 

But we can be confident that this phenomenon is happening. So, let's take a look at how things have changed.

1. How did we get here?

It was the 18th century when London overtook Constantinople (Istanbul, as it is today) to become the biggest city in Europe; after that, huge Victorian growth saw it become the biggest city the world had ever seen. By 1939, it had been overtaken by New York, but was still the second biggest in the world. But today, depending on how you count, there are between 20 and 30 cities bigger than London.

The city's population peaked in 1939 at around 8.6m, and immediately began a rapid fall. At first that was because of the evacuations, the Blitz, and people going off to serve in the war – but the surprising thing is how fast the population continued to fall after the war. By the early 1990s, London had lost a quarter of its population, the equivalent of Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast all leaving town. London lost twice as many people as Detroit did.

What went wrong? Well, mostly it was deliberate. Forty years before the war Ebenezer Howard had asked, “The people, where will they go?” The answer, it turned out, was mostly not garden cities, it was to London. In huge numbers.


That was seen as a huge problem – in 1928 Clough Williams-Ellis compared the city’s sprawl to an octopus, devouring rural England. In 1938 Sir Anderson Barlow began his Commission into the redistribution of the Industrial Population, and would say, “The continued drift of population to London and the Home Counties constitutes a social, economic and strategic problem which demands immediate attention.”

Out of these concerns came the Abercrombie Plan, New Towns, the Greenbelt, and a ban on office developments – a deliberate policy of constraint and dispersal that reversed the growth of one of the world’s great cities. It has taken London 75 years to recover from these blows. Now the Greater London Authority estimates that, at some point on 6 January, probably in one of London’s busy maternity wards, we will be joined by the 8,615,246th Londoner.

In 1939 London was the largest city in a global trading empire of half a billion people. Today it is again the largest city and main commercial centre in a trading block of half a billion people. But while the British empire in 1939 still included a quarter of the world’s population, the EU now has only 7 per cent.

London dominates the UK population less than it did, too. In 1939, 18 per cent of the UK’s population lived in London, compared to only 13 per cent today.

2. Who are we?

Country of Birth of London residents. Source: Quod.

In 1939 London was overwhelmingly white. Only 2.7 per cent of us had been born abroad, and nearly half of those came from Ireland (even then, mind you, the next biggest nationality was Polish).

Today, around 37 per cent of Londoners were born abroad. The city’s rebirth quite simply would never have happened without immigration, although the biggest source of growth today is births.

We’re healthier too – in 1939 there was no NHS, London still choked on smog, and even before war broke out the average life expectancy was only 62 years. It’s no wonder that pensions seemed more affordable then.

Today Londoners can expect to live to 82, and while London remains a very young city overall, the population pyramid below shows we now have fewer teenagers and more pensioners. We also have more adult men – in 1939 there was still a “missing generation” from the First World War.

London’s population by age. Source: Quod.

In 1939 statutory education only went up to age 14; so while we still use many old Victorian primary schools, in 1939, most of London’s 500 or so secondary schools had yet to be built. We need a similar wave of new schools now, with 133,000 more places needed in just the next four years.


Before the war barely 2 per cent of people went to university, and almost all of them were men. In London today it's 43 per cent – and a majority of them are women. London’s rebirth has been built on a high-skill, high-wage economy: the GLA forecasts that 90 per cent of all net new jobs will need a degree.

The number of people working in London hasn’t changed that much, but the industries we work in have. In 1939 around one in three people worked in manufacturing: London was still a major industrial city, and a quarter of million people worked in clothes-making alone. Almost as many worked in paper making as had “professional” jobs.

Now 90 per cent of these manufacturing jobs have gone: a million old jobs replaced by a million new jobs in services. Most people now work in industries that scarcely existing in 1939, including 250,000 working in IT. Another quarter of a million now work in hotels and restaurants – in 1939 tourism barely existed.

It is this ability for reinvention that has meant one of the biggest financial centres in the world has shrugged off the financial crisis: instead it's piled on jobs in tech, media and business services.

3. How do we travel?

In 1939, motor omnibuses had already largely replaced horses, and were starting to replace electric trams, too. But horse-drawn freight drays were still a common sight. The remarkable “multi-storey horse park” in Paddington still housed 500 working horses over three floors.

Hardly anyone had a car. There were only 2m private cars in the whole of Britain (25 people per car), compared to 2.6m cars in London alone today. There was still plenty of traffic, though, and rush hour speeds in central London have changed very little. Our roads are much safer, though: in 1939 1,187 people died on London’s roads, compared to only 132 people last year.

There is a perception (borrowed from America), that London’s huge 1930s suburbs grew up around the car, but in fact they were originally as much about the growth of the Underground and the bus. The 1930s saw the birth of mass commuting as we know it – the number of people travelling into central London for work had doubled in the previous 20 years. Bus use had grown to around 2.2bn journeys a year. It's now nearly back at those levels, at 2.1bn journeys a year.


Walking and cycling, however, have fallen dramatically – in 1939 they were one of the main ways many people got around. There are no exact figures, but cycling levels now are an order of magnitude lower than in 1939, despite the recent resurgence.

Perhaps the most remarkable change is in use of the Underground. In 1939, the tube was still divided into first and third class carriages, and even retained a few steam locomotives. There were no Jubilee or Victoria lines, and large chunks of the Central and Northern were still under construction. The London Passenger Transport Board had only just taken over responsibility from the private firms that started the Underground.

In 1939 there were 500m new journeys a year. Today we ​are hitting new records, with 1.3bn journeys and rising.

And aviation? Just 26 years after the invention of the plane, the world’s busiest international airport was… Croydon.

4. Where do we live?

The physical fabric of London has changed in many ways. In 1939 St Paul’s was still the tallest building in London, and had been for more than 200 years: it was still a city that Canaletto would still have recognised. Now St Paul’s is only the 41st tallest building in the London. Consider those under construction or with planning permission already granted, and it's clear it may soon not even make the top 100.

House prices have grown extraordinarily. While incomes have more than trebled in real terms, homes cost 15 times more in today’s money. In 1939 the average home cost around three years’ salary; now it is more like 16 years salary.

Tenure of London homes. Source: Quod.

Despite housing being more affordable in the 1930s, most people rented. The growth of the “property-owning democracy” was really only just beginning, and statutory provision of social housing was quite new, too. In 75 years private renting in London has more than halved, from 58 per cent of households to 26 per cent now. Nonetheless, the pressures of the housing crisis mean we are heading back to the future.

Source: Quod.

This map shows how London’s population has decentralised. The boroughs are distorted according to their 1939 population, and coloured to show how much this changed to today. What is clear is that the inner boroughs have shrunk, and the outer ones have grown.

This process had already gone a long way by 1939, but continued long after, as post-war “slum” clearance replaced very high density inner London Victorian housing with lower density social estates. Londoners are now much more evenly distributed across the city than before.

By the start of the Second World War, London had just witnessed a frenzied decade of housebuilding, creating the shape of suburban London as we know it today. This next map shows pre-war areas in blue, and post war areas in red: the shape of London has hardly been allowed to change since 1939, although the redevelopment of docklands stands out.

Thise second map shows the areas of London that were newly built in 1939 in blue: well over half a million new homes were built in the 1930s. In red are the bits that are new today, much of it commercial rather than housing development. Since 1992, when London started to grow again, housebuilding has been barely a quarter of the 1930s rate.

So, London is back to its peak, and while it has changed in so many ways, it faces some of the same challenges. Just like 75 years ago, we have extraordinarily fast population growth, with commuting patterns and housing pressure spilling way beyond the city’s boundaries.


Last time we responded by choking off that growth and imposing 50 years of decline. What do we choose this time? Can we invest and support growth?

Barney Stringer is a director of regeneration consultancy Quod, who writes about cities, economics and infrastructure. This article was originally posted on his blog here.

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How a Welsh lawyer invented the hydrogen fuel cell – in 1842

A hydrogen-powered bus. Image: Getty.

Let us start, in the spirit of steampunk, by imagining a new and different past. One that is just a little different to that which we currently have.

So welcome to the year 1867. The Victorian age is at its zenith and a new, powerful and monied middle class is looking for things to do with their cash. Towns and cities seem to be growing bigger with each passing day, and horizons are transformed as new buildings appear everywhere.

One aspect of the urban landscape never changes though. Everywhere you look you will see one of the huge gasometers that have been a constant feature of the cityscape for almost 20 years now. They are filled with the hydrogen gas essential to run the fuel cells – or gas batteries, as the Victorians call them – that are so vital for the economy and for powering everyday life.

In both this imagined and the real past, the gas battery was invented in 1842 by a young Welshman from the then town of Swansea, William Robert Grove. It was a revolutionary device because rather than using expensive chemicals to produce electricity like ordinary batteries, it used common gases – oxygen and hydrogen – instead.

However in this timeline, unlike our own, within 20 years the Welsh man of science’s amazing invention had ushered in a new industrial and cultural revolution.

Towering gasometers. Image: Franz Kapaun/Wikimedia

Our imagined scene is the British Empire’s new electrical age. The horseless carriages that run along roads and railways are all powered by electricity from banks of gas batteries. So is the machinery in the factories and cotton mills that produce the cheap goods which are the source of Britain’s growing wealth. The demand for coal to produce the hydrogen needed to run gas batteries has transformed places such as Grove’s own south Wales, where coalfields are expanded to meet the insatiable need for more power.

Middle-class homes are connected to those gasometers through networks of pipes supplying the hydrogen needed as fuel to run all kinds of handy electrical devices. Machines for washing clothes – and dishes – have trebled the workload of domestic servants by transforming their employers’ expectations concerning daily hygiene. There are machines for cleaning floors and furniture. Electric ovens are fast replacing the traditional kitchen range in the more fashionable houses. Gas batteries also run the magic lanterns that provide entertainment for middle-class families every evening after dinner.

Of course, none of this actually happened. The true history of energy, and the culture that depends on that energy, over the past 150 years or so has been rather different. It was coal and oil, rather than hydrogen, that powered the 19th and 20th-century economies.

A curious voltaic pile

The gas battery’s real history begins in October 1842, when Grove, newly appointed professor of experimental philosophy at the London Institution, penned a brief note to chemist and physicist Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution.

“I have just completed a curious voltaic pile which I think you would like to see,” he wrote. The instrument was “composed of alternate tubs of oxygen and hydrogen through each of which passes platina foil so as to dip into separate vessels of water acidulated with sulphuric acid.”

The effect, as Grove described it to Faraday, was startling: “With 60 of these alternations I get an unpleasant shock and decompose not only iodide of potassium but water so plainly that a continuous stream of thin bubbles ascends from each electrode”. Grove had invented a battery which turned hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and water.

The technology described in Grove’s letter to Faraday. Image: Wikimedia/EERE.

In 1842 Grove was busily making a name for himself in metropolitan scientific circles. He had been born in 1811 into a leading family in the commercial and public life of Swansea, and grew up in a world where the importance and utility of science was commonly understood. The Groves’ neighbours included prominent industrialists including pottery manufacturer and botanist Lewis Weston Dillwyn and John Henry Vivian – an industrialist and politician – who were also fellows at the Royal Society.

Grove studied at Brasenose College Oxford before going to London to prepare for a career in the law. While there he became a member of the Royal Institution and it is clear that from around this time he started to become an active electrical experimenter.

Economical batteries

This is when some of Grove’s earliest forays into scientific work began to appear. In 1838 he gave a lecture to the society describing a new battery he had invented: “an economical battery of Mr Grove’s invention, made of alternate plates of iron and thin wood, such as that used by hatters”.

This emphasis on economy was a theme that would recur in his work on the powerful nitric acid battery that he developed a year later – and which led to his aforementioned appointment as professor, and fellowship of the Royal Society – as well as in his work on the gas battery.

Grove described in a letter to Philosophical magazine how the battery “with proper arrangements liberates six cubic inches of mixed gases per minute, heats to a bright red seven inches of platinum wire 1/40th of an inch in diameter, burns with beautiful scintillations needles of a similar diameter, and affects proportionally the magnet”. This is typical of the way battery power was demonstrated. Scientists would show how it could break down water into its constituent gases, make wires glow, or work an electromagnet.

Moritz von Jacobi’s electromagnetic motor, 1873. Image: Wikimedia/Julius Dub.

Significantly, Grove also went on to say that as “it seems probable that at no very distant period voltaic electricity may become a useful means of locomotion, the arrangement of batteries so as to produce the greatest power in the smallest space becomes important”. Indeed, shortly after Grove announced his invention, the German-born engineer Moritz Hermann von Jacobi used a bank of Grove’s batteries to power an electromagnetic motor boat on the river Neva in Saint Petersburg. And the technology later went on to be used extensively by the American telegraph industry.

Born of necessity

It was Grove’s continuing work on making batteries more efficient and economic that led directly to the gas battery which was to be the forebear of the now modern fuel cell. He wanted to find out just what happened in the process of generating electricity from chemical reactions.

It showed how “gases, in combining and acquiring a liquid form, evolve sufficient force to decompose a similar liquid and cause it to acquire a gaseous form”. To Grove, this was “the most interesting effect of the battery; it exhibits such a beautiful instance of the correlation of natural forces”.


The gas battery provided powerful evidence in favour of the theory Grove had developed regarding the inter-relationship of forces, which he described a few years later in his essay, On the Correlation of Physical Forces. There he argued:

that the various imponderable agencies, or the affections of matter, which constitute the main objects of experimental physics, viz. heat, light, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and motion, are all correlative, or have a reciprocal dependence. That neither taken abstractedly can be said to be the essential or proximate cause of the others, but that either may, as a force, produce or be convertible into the other, this heat may mediately or immediately produce electricity, electricity may produce heat; and so of the rest.

In other words, forces were interchangable and any one of them could be manipulated to generate the others.

But what about utility and practical power? Grove clearly believed, as did many of his contemporaries – including the electro-magnet’s inventor, William Sturgeon – that the future was electrical. It would not be long before electromagnetic engines like the one that Jacobi had used for his boat on the Neva would replace the steam engine. It was just a matter of finding the right and most economic way of producing electricity for the purpose.

As Grove put it to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1866, if:

instead of employing manufactured products or educts, such as zinc and acids, we could realise as electricity the whole of the chemical force which is active in the combustion of cheap and abundant raw materials... we should obtain one of the greatest practical desiderata, and have at our command a mechanical power in every respect superior in its applicability to the steam-engine.

We are at present, far from seeing a practical mode of replacing that granary of force, the coal-fields; but we may with confidence rely on invention being in this case, as in others, born of necessity, when the necessity arises.

He was clear that realising this particular dream was not his problem, however: “It seems an over-refined sensibility to occupy ourselves with providing means for our descendants in the tenth generation to warm their dwellings or propel their locomotives”.

A new past

Grove certainly made no attempt to turn his gas battery into an economic device, but like many Victorians he was fond of looking into the future and putting his technologies there. In many ways it was Victorians such as Grove who invented the view of the future as a different country that we are so familiar with now. Their future was going to be a country full of new technologies – and electrical technologies in particular.

William Robert Grove, circa 1877. Image: Wikimedia/Lock & Whitfield.

By the time Grove died in 1896 commentators were prophesying a future where electricity did everything. Electricity would power transport systems. Electricity would grow crops. Electricity would provide entertainment. Electricity would win wars. It seemed almost impossible to talk about electricity at all without invoking the future it would deliver.

All this brings us neatly back to the new past for Grove and the gas battery that our future technologies may deliver. If the future of new and clean electrical technology – that contemporary promoters of the fuel cell are today offering us – really happens, then the obscure story about a curious little invention by a largely forgotten Welsh man of science will become an epic piece of technological history.

That future, if it happens, will change our past. It will change the ways we understand the history of Victorian technology and the ways in which the Victorians used those technologies to tell stories about their future selves. We should not forget that we still pattern our own projected futures in the same way as they did. We extrapolate bits of our contemporary technologies into the future in the same sort of way.

The ConversationIt is interesting to speculate in that case why particular sorts of technologies make for good futures and others apparently do not. At the end of the 19th century the gas battery clearly did not look like a good piece of future-making technology to many people. It does now.

Iwan Morus, Professor of History, Aberystwyth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.