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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.