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Ian Stone, historian | Crisis in the Capital? Will London Survive Covid?
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Crisis in the Capital? Will London Survive Covid?

How many people live in London today? Simple question; complicated answer. What, for example, counts as London? Do we use an administrative measure, counting the number of people who live in each of the thirty-two boroughs and the City of London? Or should we imagine London as the geographic area contained within the M25? What of people who spend half their time in London and half outside? For example, the tens of thousands of students enrolled at London’s colleges and universities, or those who have homes in London and elsewhere in the country? Do they count as residents of London? In this age of hypermobility – ten people an hour come to live in London – how long does someone need to spend in the city to become a ‘resident’? Should we count those who live in London for a fixed period of six months, whether a student here to improve their English or an employee of an international company on a professional placement? There is no simple methodology to use and depending on the one which we choose, we will arrive at a very different figure for London’s population.

The question above seems particularly relevant in 2020. Through the gloom of the coronavirus pandemic have emerged prophecies of London’s demise (see hereherehere and elsewhere). Some have even asked whether the capital can survive. The usual argument is that the necessity of home working occasioned by ‘lockdown’ will become permanent through choice, as workers opt for a life without the daily commute and businesses take the opportunity to reduce their costs. I am sceptical myself. People who have spent years studying and working alongside their fellow human beings in schools, colleges and offices will find full-time working from home lonely, boring, and claustrophobic. Enjoying a glass of wine at home while talking to a colleague also enjoying a glass of wine at home on Zoom is a poor substitute for socialising in a pub after work with people one counts as friends. How long before those who rejoiced at saying goodbye to the commute are climbing the walls, pleading to be let out? Not long, I suggest. A commute is not just a matter of getting to and from work, it is time to oneself to chat, read, do the crossword, listen to a podcast, or stare out the window; it is time to decompress. During lockdown, many have found that this time which formerly belonged to them now belongs to their bosses or to their families. It is not time to decompress but to stress, and the home which was their refuge is now the scene of their torment. Well, at least the money saved on season tickets can go towards the therapy bill. Nor should we forget that one’s choice of where to live is not dictated solely by one’s place of employment. London has a lot more to offer than just the office. Plenty of other writers have advanced similar arguments, see, for example, here and here. And, in any case, has not London weathered the storm of pandemics – to say nothing of plagues, fires and the Luftwaffe before? Could a study of changes in London’s population in history help us to put current events into meaningful context?

The first difficulty facing the historian is that set out at the start of this blog. How many people actually lived in the city at any given time in the past? Throughout the Middle Ages and even to the end of the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547), it was at least simpler to define London. London essentially meant the area of the old Roman city, that is the part of London which today we call the City of London. During Henry’s reign, a Londoner could walk across this urban area, from the Tower to Ludgate, in about thirty minutes. One hundred years later, only a minority of Londoners lived in that space. Far greater numbers of people were to be found in the surrounding suburbs of Westminster, Middlesex and Southwark. These suburbs would continue to sprawl over the next hundred years as an average of 8,000 migrants a year laid claim to the name of Londoner. Still fifty years before the first national census in 1801, the population of London was spreading, growing and uncounted. The historian who would take a poll of the early modern population faces a forbidding task. With such high levels of immigration to the early modern city, there is little point counting births and deaths and, in any case, how reliable are these figures? Certainly, there were numerous Londoners whose deaths would have gone unrecorded, particularly in the city’s weekly bills of mortality. Taxation records are only of limited use, too. Many contemporary assessments were levied either on the value of property or on the household, and even when taxes were assessed on individuals, there were so many exemptions and so much evasion that we can only use these totals in an indicative way.

For all these difficulties, however, historians have worked hard to calculate (or perhaps better ‘guesstimate’?) the population of the city throughout history. The best studies bring together different types of evidence and accept that any figures should be treated as very approximate totals. The historian Jeremy Boulton has suggested that between the years 1500 and 1550, the number of people living in London increased from 50,000 to 75,000. That would mean that halfway through the Tudor age, the city was probably home to fewer people than it had been in 1348, in which year the Black Death reached the city and over the course of the next two decades killed one-half of all those living in London. If there were 75,000 souls living in London in 1550, then the city’s population was roughly the same as contemporary Lyon, Genoa, Rouen, Milan, Palermo and Seville, and it was certainly much smaller than Naples, Venice, Paris and Antwerp. By 1600, London’s population had increased threefold and the city was now home to some 200,000 people, making it the third biggest city in Europe, smaller only than Paris and Naples. By this time, the Elizabethan government, in an attempt to contain the city’s growth, was issuing furious but futile injunctions to prohibit building on land which surrounded the city. John Stow, the famous antiquarian and observer of the contemporary city, could only lament time and again the relentless expansion of the city’s urban footprint.

A small proportion of those who had come to London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) were Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in France, Germany and the Low Countries. Indeed, the oldest Dutch-language Protestant church is to be found not in Amsterdam or Antwerp, but in London on the site of the former priory of the Austin Friars, just off Old Broad Street. But most of those who migrated to London came from elsewhere in Britain. For ambitious young men, there were the opportunities afforded in the burgeoning bureaucracy of the nation state and in the city’s Inns of Court. But by far the majority of migrants were young women who came to work in domestic service and young men who came in even greater numbers to begin apprenticeships. Steve Rappaport’s study of the mid-sixteenth-century city showed that 1250 of the 1400 young men who began an apprenticeship each year in London had been born outside the city. Notwithstanding the city’s higher mortality rates and the other difficulties of starting a new life far from one’s home, the attraction of living in London was clear. London was easily the biggest consumer market and centre of production in the country and there were opportunities for anyone who could complete an apprenticeship in almost any trade. It had been, since the time of Chaucer, the cultural capital of England, too, and in Elizabeth’s reign it even began to attract little-known playwrights and actors.

A great number of the people in the early modern city were young, male and literate. Yet migrants were not deterred by the concomitant political and religious radicalism, lack of marriageable women or high crime rates. Still they poured into the city, and those that succeeded often poured their wealth back out. Studies of bequests made by Londoners in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have shown that fully one-third of all great London donors bequeathed outwith the city – breaking down the boundaries between London and the country which continued to feed it so many people. By 1660, perhaps 450,000 people lived in London, and for the first time a majority of citizens lived in the newly-urban districts in Middlesex, Westminster and Southwark. The suburbs offered not just cheaper housing, but also freedom from the sometimes-suffocating embrace of the city’s companies. But artisans were not the only arrivals. To the west of the city, aristocrats laid out squares on their estates and the leisured classes began to build and acquire town houses on sites such as Covent Garden and Bloomsbury Square. To be sure, many quite humble Londoners lived in and among these developments too: Soho and the parish of St Giles were by any measure poor areas. But by far the majority of the poorer migrants were crowded into the land to the east and the south of the city, in places like Wapping, Shadwell, Whitechapel, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. By 1800, if not before, the east-west/poor-rich divide in London was firmly established.

At some point between 1650 and 1700 London overtook Paris to become the biggest city in Europe, in terms of population at least. By 1700 there were perhaps 550,000 people living in London compared with just over half a million in the French capital. No other city in Europe was anything like as big. Overcrowded, squalid, unhygienic – and yet still it exerted a magnetic pull on the people of the new nation of Britain. With an increase in international trade, the development of a single national market, the beginnings of an agricultural revolution and political changes, London’s economy was much more diverse than it had been one hundred years previously when perhaps one-third of adult males in London were employed in the production and distribution of cloth. The records of an assessment for a poll tax in the 1690s list 721 different occupations which were practised in the City of London alone. Demand for new luxuries, such as sugar, coffee, tobacco and newspapers created opportunities for many in London. Shops opened which stocked books, clocks, pictures, joinery, glassware and much more. Two fine examples of early eighteenth-century shops are visible today at 56-58 Artillery Lane in Spitalfields, where silk retailers would have been able to display their wares.

And still the city was not satiated. From the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, industrialisation began to draw ever greater numbers of people towards cities all over Britain. According to the census taken in 1801, the number of people living in London had almost doubled in one hundred years. In that year, over 900,000 souls were squashed into the city. If this growth had been unprecedented, it was nothing compared with what would follow in the next century. The British Empire can be understood as the first manifestation of globalisation and the opportunities it offered for international trade and finance drew yet more migrants to London. The coming of the railways meant that the growing population could disperse and consequently London’s footprint expanded rapidly to allow for yet more people to live within what was now a metropolis. Public health improvements, for instance the construction of a sewerage network or the establishment of a programme of mass vaccinations meant that for the first time in history, the birth rate in London was greater than the death rate. The city no longer needed its annual tribute of migrants to support its population. By the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, London’s population had risen six-fold over the course of her lifetime: the city was at that time home to six million people, meaning that about one in five people who lived in England and Wales called London home. If the modern city feels crowded to visitors from elsewhere in the country, how must it have felt then? But still they came to what was the biggest, and indeed the richest, city the world had ever seen. Since then, the number of inhabitants has grown by perhaps another three million – and its pull has been and is genuinely international. Today, London is one of only a handful of global cities and while it is no longer close to being the largest city in the world in terms of its population, it remains one of the most attractive cities in the world to live, work and play.

Of course, measuring a city’s population is just one way of assessing its wealth, influence, importance and attractiveness. Many poorer Londoners, historically and today, who have been squashed into poor and overcrowded accommodation would doubtless have cause to complain about the ever-increasing size of the city’s population. There are many cities in the world today which are much smaller than London, but in which one could arguably enjoy a much better quality of life – however one chooses to measure that. Until very recently, London was never famous for its music or its food, and its nightlife still feels less vibrant than many other European cities. There can certainly be no doubt that London can be a hard city to love and that any Londoner could easily rattle off a list of things that he or she hates about life in the city. In addition, like any good financial advisor would caution, past performance is no guarantee of future results. As the inhabitants of Liverpool, Detroit or Naples can attest, a city’s historic greatness is no guarantee of its future vitality. There will be long-term consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak and we should not assume that the millions of Londoners who now live in the city will continue to call it home, or that those who leave will be replaced.

But one thing is clear from a historical study. The growth in London’s population considered here has not been a steady upward progression. In 1563 over 20,000 Londoners, perhaps one-in-five of the population, and in 1603, another 31,000 inhabitants of the city, that is one in every six or seven Londoners were killed by plague. The last and most famous visitation of the plague, in 1665, was responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people, that is between a quarter and a fifth of the city’s population. One year later, of course, 80 per cent of the city’s area was destroyed by fire, leaving tens of thousands of Londoners homeless and causing damage worth over £10,000,000 in contemporary money. Some public health improvements of the nineteenth century only came as a consequence of the deaths of thousands of Londoners from cholera, and the construction of the railways brought tens of thousands to London, but also rendered tens of thousands of others homeless. Over 100,000 Londoners died on active service in the Great War, and almost 120,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged beyond repair in the Blitz of the Second World War. In the second half of the twentieth century, London’s population fell noticeably as politicians tried, with only limited success, to rebalance the national economy away from London and as many Londoners decided that even a life in Harlow or Basildon was preferable to living on one of the many ghastly housing estates which were created by vainglorious architects who wanted to recreate society on their terms through their architecture, but who chose, of course, to live anywhere but on their hideous creations.

Thinking about London’s population historically in this way is a useful exercise. It is clear that London has faced far greater challenges than Covid and that on each occasion throughout its history it has overcome these challenges to come back stronger than ever before. Within a generation of the twin disasters of genuinely-rampant plague and wholesale destruction by fire, London had become the most populous city in Europe. As Christopher Wren had inscribed on the pediment above the south transept at his beautiful cathedral, London’s motto might easily be resurgam. For all the slight dips in population and prosperity, the city’s population and wealth have risen with the certainty of Big Ben’s reassuring toll: occasionally checked but soon restored. You’d be a brave man to bet that it would be different this time.

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