The Rise of Cities

Life in the eighteenth-century city would have provoked a dazzling mixture of sensations: terror and exhilaration, menace and bliss, awe and pity..

City at night, as depicted by Hogarth, 1738
The chaos and bustle of a city at night, as depicted by Hogarth, 1738

Listen to a reading of Francis Place's diary entry for 25 July 1827

Diary description of London's Charing Cross, 1827
Diary description of London's Charing Cross, 1827

Population Growth

The population of Britain grew rapidly during this period, from around five million people in 1700 to nearly nine million by 1801. Many people left the countryside in order to seek out new job opportunities in nearby towns and cities. Others arrived from further afield: from rural areas in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, for example, and from across large areas of continental Europe.

A busy urban street, 1825
A busy urban street, 1825

 

London's Billingsgate fish market
London's Billingsgate fish market

By today’s standards, most eighteenth-century towns possessed remarkably young populations. Young people were drawn to urban areas by the offer of regular and full-time employment, and by the entertainments that were on offer there: the theatres, inns and pleasure gardens, for example, and the shops displaying the latest fashions. 

Fashionable entertainments at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, 1823
Fashionable entertainments at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, illustrated by George Cruikshank, 1823

London in particular was flooded with thousands of young people every year, many of whom worked as apprentices to the capital’s thousands of tradesmen. Other new arrivals gained employment as domestic servants to the dozens of aristocratic families that began spending much of their time in elegantly built townhouses. 

Though death rates remained relatively high, by the end of the eighteenth century London’s population had reached nearly one million people, fed by a ceaseless flow of newcomers. By 1800 almost one in ten of the entire British population lived in the capital city. Elsewhere, thousands of people moved to the rapidly growing industrial cities of northern England, such as Manchester and Leeds, in order to work in the new factories and textile mills that sprang up there from the 1750s onwards.

Street Life

Cities streets echoed with the din of horse-drawn traffic clattering on cobblestones and the hubbub of people engaged in daily trade. Scores of hackney coaches cantered here and there while hundreds of carts transported goods back and forth. Sedan chairs weaved their way up narrow streets as they conveyed wealthy passengers to their places of business, while thousands of pedestrians hurried to and fro.

City traffic, 1822
City traffic, 1822

Eighteenth-century city life was frequently confusing and chaotic. The network of narrow allies and lanes, that had remained largely unchanged in many towns since medieval times, proved increasingly inconvenient to horse-drawn vehicles, and like today many cities were prone to traffic congestion. In 1749, for example, hundreds of people were stuck in a traffic jam on London Bridge that took nearly three hours to clear.

Crowds and people

Rises in population added to the sense of confusion in many British cities. Crowds swarmed in every thoroughfare. Scores of street sellers ‘cried’ goods from place to place, advertising the wealth of goods and services on offer. Milkmaids, orange sellers, fishwives and piemen, for example, all walked the streets offering their various wares for sale, while knife grinders and the menders of broken chairs and furniture could be found on street corners.

City street sellers, offering boxes, gingerbread and apples, 1804
City street sellers, offering boxes, gingerbread and apples, 1804

 

City street sellers offering baskets, knife grinding and brushes, 1804
City street sellers offering baskets, knife grinding and brushes, 1804

People crowded around the windows of print shops displaying the latest satirical cartoons or waited outside lottery offices for results to be drawn. Others gathered to watch politicians make speeches at election time or to watch a bare-knuckle boxing match. House fires, accidents, fights and public executions, amongst an array of other urban spectacles, all drew huge audiences whenever they occurred, and added to the sense of excitement that was part of daily city life.                 

Conditions

Many eighteenth-century towns were grimy, over-crowded and generally insanitary places to be. London in particular suffered badly from dirt and pollution; so much so that candles were sometimes required at midday in busy shops owing to the smoggy conditions outside.  Many travellers noted the ‘smell’ of London as they approached from far away, and letters received from the capital city were often said to have a ‘sooty’ odour.

Listen to Jacques-Henri Meister's views on London Fogs

Alongside the stinking rivers and choking pollution of cities, open sewers ran through the centre of numerous streets. Gutters carried away human waste, the offal from butchers’ stalls and the tonnes of horse manure that were left daily on the streets. The roads of most towns and cities were unpleasantly dusty in the hot summer months and many became virtually impassable in the winter, owing to their muddy and flooded condition.

Street Improvements

Towards the end of the century small steps were made to improve these conditions in cities. Several ‘paving acts’ were passed in London during the 1760s, for example, that resulted in the more efficient drainage and mending of roads, in order to keep local trade flowing. Regular street cleaning was implemented to ensure a clear passageway for traffic while hazardous shop signs overhanging streets were ordered to be removed.

An Act for the Better Paving, Cleansing and Lighting the town of Cambridge, 1794
An Act for the Better Paving, Cleansing and Lighting the town of Cambridge, 1794

Listen to a proposal for better lighting in London

Extract from, 'An Essay on the present state of our publick roads', 1772
Extract from, 'An Essay on the present state of our publick roads', 1772

Street lighting was also improved. From the middle of the eighteenth century oil lamps were more commonly used in many towns, paid for by householders out of local rates. By 1800 many visitors to London were mesmerized by the bright city lights they encountered there, which became the envy of most European cities.

German traveller's diary description of the wonders of London's street lights, 1795
German traveller's diary description of the wonders of London's street lights, 1795

Listen to Karl Philip Moritz's account of a road journey from Greenwich to London

Towns and city authorities also alleviated the huge problems of traffic congestion by laying out new roads and avenues. Towards the end of the century huge areas of decrepit housing were gradually cleared in order to make way for new turnpike toll roads, built to accommodate the ever-increasing levels of horse-drawn traffic.