London’s expansion and trade

In 1800, London, Europe’s biggest city, had just under one million inhabitants and measured five miles across from Hyde Park Corner to Wapping and two miles from Sadler’s Wells, Clerkenwell to St George’s Field, Southwark. There were three bridges across the Thames: London Bridge, Blackfriars and Westminster, plus a wooden bridge at Battersea.

In the first half of the 19th century London grew rapidly, driven by major building projects. The City Corporation promoted schemes to improve access roads, while old houses and narrow streets were demolished for new commercial development that cemented the city’s position as a leading financial centre.

Thomas Cubitt

London spread out north and west, adding streets, villages and towns to its built-up area. For example, Bloomsbury was developed around 1776. This trend gathered momentum in the 1820s, with speculative builder Thomas Cubitt to the fore. Cubitt leased land from the Grosvenor and Lowndes Estates to develop Belgrave Square, Eaton Square, Chester Square and the surrounding area. He was also instrumental in developing Pimlico, incorporating the Neat House market gardens that had provided fresh fruit and vegetables to Londoners for centuries. The building boom spread west, encompassing the villages of Knightsbridge, Chelsea and beyond, absorbing market gardens and fields.

North-west view of ‘Jenny Whim's’ Bridge over the Canal in Pimlico by an unknown artist, 1815. The Thames can be seen in the distance. Courtesy of the British Museum
North-west view of ‘Jenny Whim’s’ Bridge over the Canal in Pimlico by an unknown artist, 1815. The Thames can be seen in the distance. Courtesy of the British Museum

New river crossings

New river crossings also accelerated London’s growth towards the south. In 1809 and 1813 Parliament sanctioned three new bridges. Vauxhall Bridge (linking Pimlico to Vauxhall) was opened in 1816, Waterloo Bridge (connecting Strand with Lambeth) opened in 1817 and Southwark Bridge (joining the City and Southwark) in 1819. Vauxhall was the first cast-iron bridge spanning the Thames, but Rowland Burdon, a friend of Sir John Soane, had already used a cast-iron structure in Wearmouth Bridge at Sunderland in 1796. Soane had advised Burdon and helped finance the venture. In recognition, Burdon gave him a silver tureen with a Latin inscription that reads: “Without your help I would not have achieved my fame. Let the iron bridge over the Wear bear witness to this.”

View of the Vauxhall Iron Bridge by Robert Havall, 1821. Courtesy of the British Museum
View of the Vauxhall Iron Bridge by Robert Havall, 1821. Courtesy of the British Museum

Growth of Trade

Development towards the east was driven primarily by trade. The West India Docks had opened at the northern point of the Isle of Dogs in 1802 for sugar and other commodities. The London Dock Company opened docks at Wapping in 1805 for wine, brandy, tobacco and rice. The East India Docks opened in 1806 at Blackwell Point for the China and East India trade. South of the river, the Surrey and Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe, massively expanded between 1802 and 1815, and catered for Baltic and Scandinavian timber and grain. Pre-existing industry included silk manufacture in Spitalfields, sugar refining in Whitechapel, tanneries, iron foundries, glass works and dye manufacture in Hackney and distilleries in Southwark.  Expansion of the docks and shipbuilding led to increased housing development in the east.

View of the West India Docks near Blackwall, published in Ackermann's Microcosm of London, 1810. Courtesy of the British Museum
View of the West India Docks near Blackwall, published in Ackermann’s Microcosm of London, 1810. Courtesy of the British Museum

In 1812, the architect John Nash, with the support of the Prince Regent, devised a scheme to link the Prince Regent’s residence at Carlton House to a pleasure pavilion in Regent’s Park (which was never built). It transformed the London street scene from Regent’s Park via Portland Place to a new circus at Oxford Street, down a newly laid out street now known as Regent Street to Piccadilly, then down to Lower Regent Street and Carlton House. The scheme also included a street east from Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square and the Strand. Regent Street was completed in 1820.

View of Cumberland Terrace, part of John Nash's design for Regent's Park in central London, 1827. Courtesy of the British Museum
View of Cumberland Terrace, part of John Nash’s design for Regent’s Park in central London, 1827. Courtesy of the British Museum

‘The least said the better’

Soane was not a silent observer of the massive building programmes and their quality and impact. He condemned the role played by modern builders and speculators in developing London’s streets and squares and used his Royal Academy lectures to comment: “Our hopes of better architecture were destroyed by the monotonous houses forming many of the streets and squares which have been built…. I am sorry to have to add that some architects have materially assisted in establishing this revolutionary system in architecture by prostituting the credit of their profession.” Soane regarded Nash’s Regent Street scheme as a missed opportunity to make London one of the finest cities in Europe, commenting “the least said the better”. However, he spoke favourably of West India Docks and of the London Docks which he had helped to finance.


Sir John Soane’s Museum

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