"Here falling houses thunder on your head, And here a female atheist talks you dead."
- Samuel Johnson (2)
Every visitor to 18th-century London was impressed by the noise and the throngs of people. But the city itself was neither quaint nor clean. Most residents lived in appalling conditions. After the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed more than 85 percent of the city, London was rebuilt in a hasty and haphazard manner. Then rapid surge in population - from 675,000 in 1750 to 900,000 just 50 years later - caused enormous pressure on city planners to get buildings up quickly. Houses and tenements were thrown together in a slapdash manner, with little attention to plans or codes. Buildings were patched up, subdivided, and subdivided again to cram as many people into as little square footage as possible, which left a jumble of narrow, unlit passageways between residences and shops. Walking through one of these stinking, airless alleyways - especially after dark - was terribly risky, since the convoluted pattern of streets provided excellent cover for lurking criminals.
According to Richard B. Schwartz's Daily Life in Johnson's London, "The city had become honeycombed with what were intended to be temporary dwellings but which grew to be permanent ones. The scarce available land was continually subdivided. Courts were built upon. Business establishments were cut up into tenements. Hovels and shacks were commonplace. Many of the poor crowded into deserted houses. A sizeable number of the city's inhabitants both lived and worked below ground level." (3)
Commercial streets were no less hazardous. Many London buildings were made with such shoddy materials - crumbling bricks and knotty timber - that it was not unusual for them to collapse. Heavy, pendulous shop signs projected out from storefronts on large iron bars. The signs, regularly whipped by the wind, could create such force that the entire façade of a building would come crashing down. Often this happened on top of passers-by. The din and danger from these creaking signs led the city to pass many ordinances restricting their use.
Read a 1784 newspaper account of a collapsing building
Read more about Window Taxes & Highway Robbery
Streets & Alleys
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