London went through great social and physical change during the first half of the 19th century. Architectural critic James Elmes had an upbeat view of the process; perhaps more upbeat than the circumstances justified: ‘Among the glories of this age, the historian will have to record the conversion of dirty alleys, dingy courts and squalid dens of misery […] into stately streets […] to palaces and mansions, to elegant private dwellings.’ Elmes was writing at the very beginning of a period of vast metropolitan construction and upheaval, so can be forgiven his optimism, but it is notable that in his enthusiasm for new buildings and wider streets he has very little to say about what should happen to the poor who actually lived in the city at the time.
The population of London doubled between 1800 and 1850. The available living space did not. While the rich tended to move to the developing residential suburbs on the outskirts of the city, much of the housing for the poor was demolished to make way for new commercial premises and the developing railway lines. These public works were always referred to as 'improvements', but they produced few immediate improvements except for property developers. The poor and labouring classes had to move to a few districts ringing the historic City of London (Whitechapel, Clerkenwell, and Holborn in the West End), which gradually became overcrowded, dirty and – because of demand – expensive. The whole process tended to produce more ‘dirty alleys, dingy courts and squalid dens of misery’ than it was intended to destroy.