Situated on the River Thames in the south-east of England, London is the capital of Great Britain. The City of London dates back to Roman times, and the wider metropolis is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Tower of London; Kew Gardens; Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster (the home of the UK parliament) and St Margaret’s Church; and Greenwich, where the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian mark GMT at 0° longitude. Other famous historical landmarks include Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge, along with numerous museums such as the British Museum, National Gallery and British Library.
The nineteenth century saw London become the capital of the British Empire and the world’s largest and most important city in terms of politics, finance and trade. It remained unrivalled until the latter part of the century saw the emergence of Paris and New York as contenders.
19th century London was immortalised in the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the Crystal Palace. Exhibitors and visitors came from across the world. However, despite the vast wealth which London acquired during this time, millions of people lived in abject poverty – slums, particularly in the East End, were overcrowded, unsafe, unsanitary and death-traps for many.
Charles Dickens immortalised this unseen side of London in his novels, the inverse to all the pomp and show of the Great Exhibition. A major issue was the lack of proper sewage systems in the city – waste was pumped straight into the river. This resulted in The Great Stink of 1858 and the deaths of thousands caused by the epidemics which ravaged the city.
Queen Victoria reigned for much of the 19th century (1837-1901) but London was governed by a confused system of local governments for each of the many boroughs. In 1855 the Metropolitan Board of Works – London’s first city governing body – was formed, dealing with the infrastructure problems faced by such a large urban area. The first issue tackled was sewage and, in a major engineering project, a system designed by Joseph Bazalgette was put in place that is still operational today. In 1888, the Metropolitan Board of Works was replaced by the elected London County Council.
Along with the sewer system, the railway network transformed London. The first line to be built in the city was the short London and Greenwich Railway, followed by major railway stations linking the capital to the rest of the country. From 1863, work began on the London Underground, the first of its kind in the world. The increased mobility of city dwellers meant that many of the wealthier inhabitants could now afford to move to suburbs and commute to the centre, leaving the poor in the crowded inner city, exacerbating the class divide and ‘underworld’ of Dickensian literature. Waves of immigrants also arrived during this period, including a large number of Irish settlers fleeing the Great Famine (1845-49), as well as Jewish, Chinese and South Asian communities.
The nineteenth century also saw the physical face of London develop into that which we recognise today: Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square and the Royal Albert Hall were all constructed then.