People's City: 1850s-1940s
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By the 1850s, London was the world’s wealthiest city. But success had come at the expense of its people. Population growth and overcrowding created a divided city, with Londoners living in separate worlds of rich and poor.
As the social divide widened, so concerns deepened. Londoners began to play a greater role in their city through new systems of local government. The massive problems of poverty, housing and health began to be tackled.
By 1939, one in five of the British population lived in the capital. London remained the hub of a global empire, receiving a constant flow of goods and people from around the world. But its power was fading. World War II brought Londoners a terrible reminder that their city’s fortunes could fall as well as rise.
From 1850, London reinforced its role as capital of both nation and empire. Its status as imperial capital was reflected in grand buildings such as St Pancras Station and Tower Bridge. Its streets provided a magnificent setting for royal pageantry and national celebrations.
Lavish variety theatres and popular restaurants reflected the growing wealth and confidence of the people. The dazzling nightlife of London’s West End entertained visitors from around the world. Department stores and cinemas brought American glamour into Londoners’ lives.
After 1900, rising standards of living enabled more people to enjoy the riches of empire. But as London’s identity was increasingly shaped by its imperial role, some became critical of colonial exploitation and the injustices of empire.
London failed to provide clean water, basic sanitation and housing for its growing population. Overcrowding and polluted water brought disease and death. One third of Londoners were trapped in poverty. The deadly River Thames flowed like an open sewer through the heart of the city.
Up to half of those born in the capital’s slums did not survive their first year. But it was not just the poor who died young. Tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera and typhoid also killed the rich. In the 1840s, the high death rate amongst young children brought average life expectancy down to just 37 years.
Throughout the 19th century, reformers and charities worked tirelessly to help the poor. Workers formed unions to fight for better pay and conditions. As pressure for change grew, government took control of sanitation, welfare and housing. Poverty did not disappear but London became a healthier and cleaner city.
London’s lure was irresistible. People were drawn to the capital for its wealth, excitement and life-changing opportunities. Some came to London, the political heart of the Empire, to protest and demonstrate.
London was an outdoor city of the people, with a bustling street life. Its lively working-class culture gave the capital a dynamic energy. Neighbourhoods developed a distinctive character shaped by the communities who lived there.
Women became a force for change in London. The fight for the vote and new work opportunities brought them to the forefront of London life. Working as typists, shop assistants and waitresses, women became more independent and influential.
War cast a shadow over London for the first half of the 20th century. Some Londoners lived through two world wars. Many did not survive the conflicts, others suffered permanent disabilities.
In World War I London lost 60,000 of its young men fighting in the trenches. In World War II more than 80,000 people in London suffered serious injury or death.
The experience of war both united and divided Londoners. In a city of 8 million people a collective spirit was not always evident. As many worked together for the war effort, unease about foreigners and the class divide was never far away.
War was a catalyst for major changes to society, people’s lives and the city landscape. It brought separation, fear and death. Communities were destroyed and home life shattered.
In the 20th century, London moved into the machine age. The nerve centre of nation and empire, it had a network of radio waves and telephone lines that stretched around the globe. As motors replaced horses, electricity and mechanisation energised London and quickened the pace of life.
Greater London doubled in size, spreading further into the surrounding countryside. Londoners moved out from the crowded inner city to newly built homes in the suburbs. New, fast, suburban roads were lined with factories producing cars and electrical goods for the modern home.
Commercial buildings staffed by an army of office workers reshaped life in the capital. London became a city of commuters, with over a million workers travelling every day from the suburbs on the buses, trams and trains.