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.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.