Soane’s Life and Times: 1812-1813. Part III: London, city of change

2013 marks a significant date for Sir John Soane’s Museum, as it heralds the 200th anniversary since Sir John and his family took up residence at No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  Over the coming months we are looking forward to celebrating this important milestone in the Museum’s history by exploring aspects of Soane’s life during 1812-13.  A fascinating and glittering period, the year that Soane established his now world famous house museum was also one of political, economic and social turmoil both in Britain and abroad.  We are grateful to Gisela Gledhill, author of Soane’s Life & Times 1812-13 (and edited by Philippa Stockley), to allow us to feature her work in this way.

London, city of change

In 1800 London, Europe’s biggest city, had just under one million inhabitants and measured five miles across from Hyde Park Corner to Wapping and two miles from Sadler’s Wells, Clerkenwell to St George’s Field, Southwark.  There were three bridges across the Thames — London Bridge, Blackfriars and Westminster — plus a wooden bridge at Battersea.

In the first half of the 19th century London grew rapidly, driven by major building projects. The City Corporation promoted schemes to improve access roads, while old houses and narrow streets were demolished for new commercial development that cemented the City’s position as a leading financial centre.

London spread out north and west, adding streets, villages and towns to its built-up area. Bloomsbury was developed from around 1776. This trend gathered momentum in the 1820s, with speculative builder Thomas Cubitt to the fore.  Cubitt leased land from the Grosvenor and Lowndes Estates to develop Belgrave Square, Eaton Square, Chester Square and the surrounding area. He was also instrumental in developing Pimlico, incorporating the Neat House market gardens that had provided fresh fruit and vegetables for London for centuries. The building boom spread west, encompassing the villages of Knightsbridge, Chelsea and beyond, absorbing market gardens and fields.

View of Jenny Whim's Bridge, Pimlico.  Image courtesy of the British Museum

North-west view of ‘Jenny Whim's’ Bridge over the Canal in Pimlico by an unknown artist, 1815.  The Thames can be seen in the distance.  Courtesy of the British Museum


Let the iron bridge bear witness

New river crossings accelerated growth south. In 1809 and 1813 Parliament sanctioned three new bridges. Vauxhall Bridge (linking Pimlico to Vauxhall), started in 1811, was opened in 1816, Waterloo (connecting Strand with Lambeth) opened in 1817 and Southwark Bridge (joining the City and Southwark) in 1819. Vauxhall was the first cast-iron bridge spanning the Thames, but Rowland Burdon, a friend of Soane’s from his Grand Tour, had already used a cast-iron structure in Wearmouth Bridge at Sunderland in 1796. Soane had advised Burdon and helped finance the venture. In recognition, Burdon gave him a silver tureen with a Latin inscription that reads: ‘Without your help I would not have achieved my fame. Let the iron bridge over the Wear bear witness to this.’  

View of the new Vauxhall Bridge across the Thames.  Image courtesy of the British Museum

View of the Vauxhall Iron Bridge by Robert Havall, 1821.  Courtesy of the British Museum

Growth of Trade

Development east was driven by trade. The West India Docks had opened at the northern point of the Isle of Dogs in 1802 for sugar and other commodities. The London Dock Company opened docks at Wapping in 1805 for wine, brandy, tobacco and rice. The East India Docks opened in 1806 at Blackwell Point for the China and East India trade. South of the river, the Surrey and Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe, massively expanded between 1802 and 1815, and catered for Baltic and Scandinavian timber and grain. Pre-existing industry included silk manufacture in Spitalfields, sugar refining in Whitechapel, tanneries, iron foundries, glass works and dye manufacture in Hackney and distilleries in Southwark. Expansion of the docks and shipbuilding led to increased housing development in the east.

View of ships docked at West India Docks.  Image courtesy of the British Museum
View of the West India Docks near Blackwall, published in Ackermann's Microcosm of London, 1810.  Courtesy of the British Museum


In 1812, the architect John Nash, with the support of the Prince Regent, devised a scheme to link the Prince Regent’s residence at Carlton House to a pleasure pavilion in Regent’s Park (which was never built). It transformed the London street scene from Regent’s Park via Portland Place to a new circus at Oxford Street, down a newly laid out street now known as Regent Street to Piccadilly, then down to Lower Regent Street and Carlton House. The scheme also included a street east from Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square and the Strand. Regent Street was completed in 1820.

View of Cumberland Terrace, John Nash's design for London's Regent's Park.  Image courtesy of the British Museum

View of Cumberland Terrace, part of John Nash's design for Regent's Park in central London, 1827.  Courtesy of the British Museum


'The least said the better'

Soane was not a silent observer of the massive building programmes and their quality and impact. He condemned the role played by modern builders and speculators in developing London’s streets and squares and used his Royal Academy lectures to comment. In lecture XI he lamented: ‘Our hopes of better architecture were destroyed by the monotonous houses forming many of the streets and squares which have been built…. I am sorry to have to add that some architects have materially assisted in establishing this revolutionary system in architecture by prostituting the credit of their profession’.  Soane regarded Nash’s Regent Street scheme as a missed opportunity to make London one of the finest cities in Europe, commenting ‘the least said the better’. However, he spoke favourably of West India Docks and of the London Docks which he had helped finance.

Coming next: Part IV: Supplying the City

Posted on 13 September 2013 in Soane's Life and Times: 1812-1813
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