London Reborn

Operation_Pied_PiperOn January 6th 2015, or thereabouts, London hits an extraordinary milestone – the population finally catches up with its 1939 peak population – from now on it will be an all-time high. Has any other city in history bounced back from losing two and a quarter million people?

Seventy five years on: same population, but an utterly different city. Here I take a look at how things have changed.

1. How did we get here?

London became the biggest city in Europe in the 18th Century (overtaking Constantinople) and then huge Victorian growth saw it become the biggest city the world had ever seen. By 1939 it was still the second biggest in the world (having been overtaken by New York). But today there are 20-30 cities bigger than London.

Population peaked in 1939 at 8.615 million and immediately began a rapid fall. At first because of the evacuations, the Blitz, and people going off to serve in the war – but the surprising thing is how fast the population continued to fall after the war. By the early 1990’s London had lost a quarter of its population, the equivalent of Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast all leaving town. London lost twice as many people as Detroit did.

What went wrong? Well, mostly it was deliberate. Forty years before the war Ebenezer Howard asked “The people, where will they go?”, and the answer it turned out was mostly not garden cities, it was to London. In huge numbers.

england_and_the_octopusThat was seen as a huge problem – in 1928 Clough Williams-Ellis compared the city’s sprawl to an octopus, devouring rural England. In 1938 Sir Anderson Barlow began his Commission into the redistribution of the Industrial Population, and would say “The continued drift of population to London and the Home Counties constitutes a social, economic and strategic problem which demands immediate attention”.

Out of these concerns came the Abercrombie Plan, New Towns, the Greenbelt, and a ban on office developments – a deliberate policy of constraint and dispersal that reversed the growth of one of the world’s great cities. It has taken London 75 years to recover from these blows and now the GLA estimates that at some point on 6th of January, (probably in one of London’s busy maternity wards), we will be joined by the 8,615,246th Londoner.

In 1939 London was the largest city in a global trading empire of half a billion people. Today it is again the largest city and main commercial centre in a trading block of half a billion people. But while the British empire in 1939 still included a quarter of the world’s population, the EU now has only 7%.

And London dominates the UK population less than it did too – in 1939 18% of the UK’s population lived in London, compared to only 13% today (although it’s influence reaches far wider of course).

2. Who are we?

Country of Birth of London residents

Country of Birth of London residents

In 1939 London was overwhelmingly white. Only 2.65% of us had been born abroad (nearly half of those in Ireland, although even then the next biggest nationality was Polish). Today, around 37% of us were born abroad – London’s rebirth quite simply would never have happened without immigration, although the biggest source of growth now is births.

We’re healthier too – in 1939 there was no NHS, London still choked on smog, and even before war broke out the average life expectancy was only 62 years – it’s no wonder that pensions seemed more affordable then.

London's population by age

London’s population by age

Today Londoners can expect to live to 82, and while London remains a very young city overall, the population pyramid (right) shows we now have fewer teenagers, but more pensioners and also more adult men – in 1939 there was still a “missing generation” from the First World War.

In 1939 statutory education only went up to age 14, so while we still use many old Victorian primary schools, most of London’s 500 or so secondary schools had yet to be built in 1939. We need a similar wave of new schools now with 133,000 more places needed in just the next four years.

Before the war barely 2% of people went to university (almost all of them men). In London today it is 43% (and more women than men). London’s rebirth has been built on a high-skill, high-wage economy – the GLA forecasts that 90% of all net new jobs will need a degree.

The number of people working in London hasn’t changed that much, but the industries we work in have. In 1939 around one in three people worked in Manufacturing – London was still a major industrial city. A quarter of million people worked in clothes-making alone. Almost as many worked in paper making as had “professional” jobs.

Now 90% of these manufacturing jobs have gone – a million old jobs replaced by a million new jobs in services. Most people now work in industries that scarcely existing in 1939. A quarter of a million now work in hotels and restaurants – in 1939 tourism barely existed whereas today London is the world’s biggest tourist destination, with nearly 19 million international visitors expected this year.

IBMA quarter of a million now work in IT. In 1939 IBM on The Strand (picture, left) sold meat cutters and coffee grinders.

It is this ability for reinvention that has meant one of the biggest financial centres in the world has shrugged off the financial crisis – instead piling on jobs in tech, media and business services.

3. How do we travel?

In 1939, motor omnibuses had already largely replaced horses (and were starting to replace electric trams), but horse-drawn freight drays were still a common sight. The remarkable “multi-storey horse park” in Paddington still housed 500 working horses over three floors.

Hardly anyone had a car – only 2 million private cars in the whole of Britain (25 people per car), compared to 2.6 million cars in London alone now. There was still plenty of traffic though, and rush hour speeds in central London have changed very little. They are very much safer though – in 1939 1,187 people died on London’s roads, compared to only 132 people last year.

There is a perception (borrowed from America), that London’s huge 1930s suburbs grew up around the car, but in fact they were originally as much about the growth of the Underground and the bus.

The 1930s saw the birth of mass commuting as we know it – the number of people travelling into central London for work had doubled in the previous 20 years. Bus use had grown to around 2.2 billion journeys a year, it has nearly got back up to those levels now with 2.1bn journeys a year.

Walking and cycling, however, have fallen dramatically – in 1939 they were one of the main ways many people got around. There are no exact figures, but cycling levels now are an order of magnitude lower than in 1939, despite the recent resurgence.

Tube Map 1939Perhaps the most remarkable change is in use of the Underground. In 1939 the Tube still had first/third class carriages, and even a few steam locos, and the map to the right shows a much smaller network – no Jubilee or Victoria lines, and much of the Central and Northern were still under construction. The London Passenger Transport Board had only just taken over responsibility from the private firms that started the Underground.

The Village of Heathrow in 1938

The Village of Heathrow in 1938

In 1939 there were 500 million journeys a year, but today we are hitting new records with 1.26 billion journeys, and rising.

And aviation? Just 26 years after the invention of the plane, the world’s busiest international airport was… Croydon.

4. Where do we live?

The physical fabric of London has changed in many ways. In 1939 St Paul’s was still the tallest building in London, and had been for more than 200 years – it was a city that Canaletto would still have recognised. Now St Paul’s is only the 41st tallest building in the London, and with those under construction or with planning permission it may soon not even make the top 100.

House prices have grown extraordinarily. While incomes have more than trebled in real terms, homes cost 15 times more in today’s money – in 1939 the average home cost around three years’ salary, now it is more like 16 years salary.

Tenure of London homes

Tenure of London homes

Despite housing being more affordable in the 1930s, most people rented. The growth of the “property-owning democracy” was really only just beginning, and statutory provision of social housing was quite new too. In 75 years private renting in London has more than halved from 58% of households to 26% now, although the pressures of the housing crisis mean we are heading back to the future.

Population ChangeThe map to the left shows how London’s population has decentralised – the boroughs are distorted according to their 1939 population, and coloured to show how much this changed to today. This process had already gone a long way by 1939, but continued further particularly as post-war “slum” clearance replaced very high density inner London Victorian housing with lower density social estates. Londoners are now much more evenly distributed across the city than before.

By the start of the Second World War, London had just witnessed a frenzied decade of housebuilding, creating the shape of suburban London as we know it today. The first map below (click image for a bigger version) shows pre-war areas in blue, and post war areas in red – the shape of London has hardly been allowed to change since 1939, although the redevelopment of docklands stands out.

The second map shows in blue the areas of London that were newly built in 1939 (well over half a million new homes built in the 1930s). In red are the bits that are new now, much of it commercial rather than housing development. Since 1992 when London started to grow again, housebuilding has been barely a quarter of the 1930s rate.

Age of Development

So, London is back to its peak, and while it has changed in so many ways, it faces some of the same challenges. Just like 75 years ago we have extraordinarily fast population growth with commuting patterns and housing pressure spilling way beyond the city’s boundaries.

Last time we responded by choking off that growth and imposing 50 years of decline. What do we choose this time? Can we invest and support growth?


Notes: Firstly, to state the obvious, the 6th January is of course just a notional date based on GLA forecasts, we cannot know when it will actually happen (or even exactly what the peak was), but we can be confident it is happening. Secondly London’s boundaries have changed so wherever possible here I have looked at London’s population in 1939 on today’s boundaries. Thirdly, there are limits to the data we have from 1939 – there was no Census in 1941 because of the war. I have used a variety of sources, including in a few cases data from 1931, but also the 1939 National Registration Act data.

Credits and Copyrights: This post includes ONS and Ordnance Survey data, and data from the GLA and (using historical material which is copyright of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth). Heathrow Map from National Library of Scotland, 1939 Tube map © TfL with thanks to the London Transport Museum collection. Image of IBM with kind permission of the IBM Archives.


Update 07/01/05

Thanks for your comments, and all the interest on Twitter, and in the press (even in the Daily Mash!). I thought I’d add a couple of maps which show a different representation of the same data on the shift in population from inner London. It really highlights the degree to which population has spread out more evenly across London. This was a trend that had already progressed a long way by 1939, but is now just starting to reverse a little.

London 3D population density 2015


7 thoughts on “London Reborn

  1. Very interesting article I am just coming across now.
    However what are your arguments for further growth of London? Don’t you think the UK needs some rebalancing with new local initiatives outside greater London?

  2. Fascinating post. One question: your line, ”There are no exact figures, but cycling levels now are an order of magnitude lower than in 1939, despite the recent resurgence” prompted me to look up the definition of ”order of magnitude.” Google tells me ”If two numbers differ by one order of magnitude, one is about ten times larger than the other.”
    So, presuming your apparent exactitude applies here as elsewhere, there were really + or – 10 times as many cyclists in 1939 London as now?
    I love the idea…

    • Yes, that’s how I intended to use the term, although you’re right to question it as people too often use it loosely to mean “a lot more”. Looking at national statistics – in the 1930s 19.1% cycled to work (and 22.5% walked). Compare this to the 2011 Census, which found 2.8% cycled to work. It wasn’t until the 1950s that more people drove to work than cycled!

      However on reflection I suspect I’ve overstated it, as cycling in London was almost certainly much lower than the national average in 1930s (richer, and more public transport), and today is higher than the national average (possibly for the same reasons!).

      I’d love to hear of London-specific stats from the 1930s if anyone can find them. And I’d love even more for London cycling to increase an order of magnitude!


  3. The author does not mention the role that post-independence of the British colonies, and subsequent immigration then and now, played in rebuilding the city’s population. Glenn in the Bronx, NY.

    • Yes, London, like most cities, has always relied on an influx of young people coming to work. The traditional pattern was people come, have kids, and then leave. In the past those people were coming from the rest of the UK, and they still are, but now those people are being joined by arrivals from around the world. It’s hard to imagine London’s population recovery could have happened without this immigration. That said, a lot of the post-colonial immigration came while London’s population was falling.

  4. Fascinating. And some great graphics. I’d like to explore the “little tourism = little employment in hotels” line – surely there were lots and lots of huge hotels then as now, albeit mainly targetted at business people and long-term wealthy residents. Finally, I suspect a good proportion of the UK’s 2 million cars in 1939 were in London and the suburbs

    • Thanks for the comments, both very interesting points. There were certainly major hotels in central London in 1939, and lots of other lodgings, but I don’t think anything like the scale of today. Unfortunately this is an area I’ve not managed to find accurate 1930’s data – can anyone help? And on cars, again I’ve not found good London data for 1939, but yes it does seem likely London had more than its share. Mass car ownership was starting before the war but really took off when petrol rationing ended in 1950. If anyone else comes across reliable 1939/2015 data comparisons, if would be great if you can share them with everyone here.

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