Social Topography


Most modern cities display a fairly high degree of social segregation.  The wealthy live in rich neighborhoods, near other people of wealth; the poor are crowded into depressed neighborhoods with other poor; and people of middling income live in middle class areas.  When a neighborhood has a mixed character it is often because it is undergoing change: either “gentrification” as wealthy residents displace the poor or “decay” as prosperous homeowners flee poorer neighbors.  In modern cities, the average value of a house in a particular neighborhood therefore usually provides a good indicator of the character of the entire neighborhood. 

London housing patterns in the early seventeenth century were very different.  Although some neighborhoods were certainly wealthier on average than others,  most had both both rich and poor residents, often living in close proximity to each other, and in the the western suburbs several of the richest people in England lived within a few hundred feet of common laborers.  Knowing the average value of a house in a seventeenth century London neighborhood may therefore tell us relatively little about its socio-economic characteristics.  To understand what was going on we need to look more closely.

The socially mixed character of London neighborhoods derived partly from another feature of early modern cities: the integration of residential, industrial and commercial activities in the same areas, and often the same buildings. Most manufacturing was still done in workshops within private houses, by tradesmen who sold their goods directly from shops at the front of their houses. Since transportation was also much slower than in modern cities, the industrial work force of apprentices, journeymen and laborers usually lived in close proximity to their employers, and not very far from affluent consumers.  Although certain trades tended to concentrate in particular districts -- silk weaving and shipping in the eastern suburbs; hackney coach drivers nearer Westminster -- many occupations were distributed throughout the metropolis.  Tailors and food vendors, for example, lived almost everywhere in the metropolis. 

Prosperous tradesmen wanted houses on busy streets with lots of foot traffic, since people often did their shopping while out for a walk.  Main streets in the early seventeenth century were therefore mostly lined with houses similar to those shown in an engraving of Cheapside in 1639.  These were typically of three to five stories with a retail shop facing the street on the ground floor, a workshop or kitchen behind, and rooms in which the owner’s family lived on the upper floors. In many cases the second (English first) floor would contain a hall overlooking the street, with perhaps a parlor or family sitting room behind it, while the upper floors contained chambers or bedrooms).(1)  These houses normally had narrow frontages but extended some distance back, rendering the interiors dark and stuffy. The upper stories sometimes projected out over the street so that, as Defoe put it "in some narrow streets the tops of houses almost touched one another at the top".  In addition to the householder's immediate family, these structures typically sheltered servants and apprentices.  Many contained lodging chambers, rented out for as little as a penny a night for short stays, although many lodgers were more or less permanent residents.  Lodging chambers served several clientels: temporary visitors to London; residents who could not afford or did not need private houses; and journeymen who moved about the metropolis in search of work. For the householder, lodging chambers provided an additional source of income, which some people tried to increase by converting basements, garrets and outbuildings, such as stables, coal houses or worksheds, into additional lodging rooms.  Sometimes entire houses were divided into duplexes or carved up into a multitude of small cramped tenements.  In a few cases as many as eight or ten families -- some with their own lodgers -- ended up inhabiting a single house.(2)  The authorities frowned on these practices, since they led to problems associated with poverty and overcrowding, including crime and the spread of infectious diseases. But it was always difficult to stop the proliferation of poor lodgings, except in the very wealthiest City precincts.  

In many areas additional low-income housing was created through a process of infilling behind the main streets, in alleys accessed through dark narrow passages.  Whole neighborhoods grew up in this way, hidden from the sight of those traveling along the main streets. Wenceslaus Hollar's topographical engraving of a section of the western suburbs around 1650 shows this pattern graphically, for example in the rabbit warren of alleys behind the eastern side of St Martin's Lane.  Since none of these poor dwellings have survived it is difficult to know exactly what they were like, but a building survey of this area in the 1630s indicates that most had only one or two rooms and averaged about 400 square feet of floor space on a single floor, although sometimes a loft provided storage space and an extra bedroom.  Many tenements were converted sheds or penthouses (a kind of leanto structure) tacked onto the back of a larger house.  The main building material was wood, including roughly sawn boards for exterior facaces, even if a few were rooved with tiles.  Although presumably of fairly recent construction, a number of temenents were described as "decayed". They rented for an average of four pounds a year, compared to sixteen pounds for houses fronting the street(1). 

The London authorities and the Crown regarded back alleys as "dark corners, out of the eye of government" and associated them with a variety of problems: smells emanating from uncollected garbage and communal latrines; outbreaks of plague and other infectious diseases; the danger of fire; and crime.   But this housing pattern was so deeply entrenched that it proved very hard to change.  

These patterns resulted in very heterogeneous populations living within compact areas.  A high rate of geographic mobility and the migration into London of people from other parts of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland -- and in some cases foreign countries -- added further elements diversity.  Biographical information about most residents of the early modern metropolis is scarce or non-existent, making it impossible to compile statistical information on the social characteristics of different neighborhoods.  But some impression can be gained from certain kinds of records, such as information about witnesses in court cases.  

There were, to be sure, some broad contrasts in wealth and social character between different parts of the metropolis, even in the early seventeenth century.  In many parts of the City, especially along major thoroughfares like Cheapside, high property values and rents inibited the building of mean tenements in back alleys, so that poor residents were relatively few.  In the eastern suburbs, by contrast, wealthy residents were scarce or non-existent.  The western suburbs seem to have been the most heterogeneous, with residents ranging from the kingdom's richest noblemen, through ordinary tradesmen, down to laborers and paupers.  These differences appear to have resulted in significant variations in patterns of marriage, reproduction, health and household structure, which one recent study has begun to document.    

Crown Regulation and New Patterns

As the Crown began attempting to restrain the growth of London by restricting the construction of new houses, it took an especially aggressive stance toward small tenements behind main streets.  But the demand for this kind of cheap housing was so intense that infilling continued, almost literally right up to the Court’s doorstep.  Along the Strand great noblemen lived in palatial houses literally a stone’s throw away from alleys crowded with the families of laborers and journeymen, while during the first third of the seventeenth century the number of poor tenements just north of the Strand proliferated. Charles I appointed a Commission for Buildings whose members included several Privy Councilors and the King's architect, Inigo Jones, charging it with enforcement of his proclamations.  Several builders were prosecuted in Star Chamber and heavily fined and a number of houses pulled down.  But in 1632 the Earl of Bedford, who owned a forty-acre parcel of land north of the Strand, purchased a license from the King to develop his property as a residential district for "people of quality".  Covent Garden, as this neighborhood became known, set a new pattern for fashionable London neighborhoods.  The houses were built of brick, in conformity to strict regulations, along straight streets, while at the center of the new estate stood an open piazza or public square.  The Crown strenuously attempted to prevent householders from constructing tenements served by narrow alleys in these new areas, in one case vetoing a proposal for what would now be called middle income housing just north of Covent Garden piazza.  Although it was not entirely successful -- by the 1660s a small street running just north of the Piazza, built to service coachouses of fashionable residents, had filled with small tenements -- for the most part the new neighborhoods remained more open and spacious than older areas of Westminster and the City, with fewer poor residents.

The outbreak of Civil War in 1642 interrupted development but shortly after the Restoration construction resumed in places like Leicester Square, just to the west of St Martin's Lane, and St James Square.  Thereafter London's West End continued to expand along the northern and southern sides of St James Park, with elegant brick townhouses lining relatively broad streets interspersed with open squares. By now the advantages of living in more exclusive and less congested neighborhoods had become clear to the landed families who frequented London in ever greater numbers during the winter season.  Although prosperous tradesmen and professionals continued to inhabit the West End, servicing the needs of their wealthy leisured neighors, the laboring poor were generally excluded. A detail from John Rocque's 1749 map shows the extent of development by the middle of the eighteenth century.

By the Restoration brick had become the building material for newly built housing even in the case of relatively poor tenements.  In 1665 the Fire of London wiped out the densest concentration of old timber framed housing in the metropolis, allowing a systematic rebuilding.  After some discussion the Crown and the City authorities agreed not to alter the ancient street pattern but instead issued regulations specifying four different types of brick houses residents were allowed to build on existing lots.  Except for a few pockets around the fringes of the City, built up before 1660 and spared by the fire, London now became the city of classically proportioned brick buildings that it largely remained until the twentieth century. A few late seventeenth century terraces, like the one at right, still survive to give some impression of what the London of the late seventeenth century must have looked like. The size and quality of housing remained mixed, however, as numerous small tenements continued to be built, especially to the east and south of the City.  A broad distinction developed between the prosperous and fashionable West End and the much less affluent East End, with its laboring families and poor lodgings. Even in the eighteenth century, however, this distinction should not be exaggerated: there were plenty of paupers in West End parishes like St Martins in the Field, while City merchants and others occasionally built large houses in the eastern suburbs.

1.  Malcom Smuts, "The Court and Its Neighborhood: Royal Policy and Urban Growth in the Early Stuart West End", Journal of British Studies 30 (1991): 117-149.

2.  John Schofield, The Building of London from the Conquest to the Great Fire (Stroud, 1993) provides a history of housing forms. 

3.  See William Baer, "Housing for the lesser Sort in Stuart London: Findings from Certificates, and Returns of Divided Houses" in The London Journal 33 (2008): 61-88 at p. 80.

Enjoy this post? Share it with others.