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London, growth of

London, growth of. Describing London's growth is hampered by two problems. First, there are no reliable estimates of its population before the middle of the 16th cent. and secondly there is the contentious issue as to what geographical area ‘London’ covered. Before the 19th cent., ‘London’ is sometimes taken to mean the effective jurisdiction of the lord mayor, the city within and without the walls and the so-called ‘liberties’. Others, however, take the limits of the London bills of mortality, as finally determined in 1636, to define the boundaries of the capital. In the 19th cent. the geographical area covered by the London County Council (1889–1965), sometimes called ‘inner London’, is referred to; elsewhere London can include that rapidly growing suburban area known as ‘outer London’ included within the jurisdiction of the short-lived Greater London Council (1965–86). London here refers to the widest definitions.

There is little doubt that London's growth is a historical phenomenon of startling proportions. It was Britain's biggest settlement as early as the 7th cent. It began a phase of rapid growth in the late 10th cent., in 1100 its population may have numbered 25,000, and by 1200 perhaps 40,000. Recent research suggests that the city numbered between 80,000 and 100,000 people by 1300. London's population contracted after the famine of 1315–18 and the Black Death (1348): its population still numbered only about 50,000 in 1500.

Sixteenth-cent. London grew more rapidly than England. The first well-grounded estimates suggest a population of about 75,000 in 1550, 200,000 in 1600, 400,000 in 1650, and over half a million by 1700. The 18th cent. saw an initial slowdown of metropolitan growth but the first census in 1801 revealed the population of London to be about 1,117,000. Before 1800 most of this growth had been fuelled by immigration since more people died in the capital than were born there, but thereafter London's expansion was by natural increase. Its population doubled again by 1851, when it contained 2,685,000 people and by 1901 it comprised a metropolis of some 6,586,000 inhabitants. London's growth peaked at about 8,700,000 on the eve of the Second World War. Since then out-migration to more distant suburban areas has seen the population of ‘Greater London’ fall, and in 1988 it contained just 6,700,000.

London's early growth owed much to its development as a seat of government in the 13th and 14th cents., and to its increasing share of the nation's overseas trade. Disproportionate growth thereafter also occurred because it was a world city, not merely a national capital. The development of its financial institutions in the late 17th cent., its role as a colonial and then imperial capital in the 18th and 19th cents. are vital in explaining its phenomenal expansion.

Jeremy Boulton

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