Class 10 History

City in the Contemporary World: London

Characteristics of City

A place where the main economic activity is agriculture and related works is called village. On the other hand, a place where the main economic activity is other than agriculture is called a city.

When you read about the great river valley civilizations then you read about cities like Mohen-Jo-Daro, Harrappa, etc. Ancient cities developed when food became surplus to support a wide range of non-food producers. Cities were the centers of political power, administrative network, trade and industry, religious institutions and intellectual activity. The cities supported various social groups.

While the definition of city remains the same, characteristics of city has changed over a period of time. The cities of the Indus Valley Civilization were entirely different than those of the Mughal period. The modern cities are much more complex in terms of economic activities and socio-political equations.

The cities which we see today started to evolve around two hundred years ago. The evolution of modern cities has been influenced by industrialization, colonialism and spread of democratic ideas.

Industrialization and Modern City London

Many decades after the beginning of the industrial revolution, most Western countries were largely rural. In the early industrial cities of Britain, most of the people were migrants from rural areas. In 18th century, cotton textiles mills started production in Leeds and Manchester which catalyzed migration of people from rural areas to these cities. In 1851, about three fourths of the population of Manchester was composed of people who had immigrated there in search of livelihood.

London was already a large city. By 1750, one out of every nine person of England and Wales lived in London. It was a big city with a population of about 675,000. Between 1810 and 1880, the population of London multiplied fourfold; increasing from 1 million to about 4 million.

The city of London was a powerful magnet for migrant populations although there was no large factory in London. The London dockyard was among the major employer. Additionally, large numbers of people were employed in clothing and footwear, wood and furniture, metals and engineering, printing and stationary and precision products.

During the First World War (1914 – 1918), manufacturing of motor cars and electrical goods began in London and this marked the beginning of large factories in the city. Over due course of time, about one-third of all jobs in the city were created in these factories.

Marginal Groups

When the city of London grew in size, crime also flourished. Different people had different concerns about crime. The police was concerned over law and order, social workers were concerned about a peaceful society and industrialists were concerned about skilled and disciplined workforce. As per estimates, about 20,000 criminals were living in London in the 1870s. Many people who failed to find gainful employment often resorted to petty crimes. Sometimes, the crime provided a better source of earning than doing some of the low paying jobs in the small factories.

By the end of 18th century and beginning of 19th century, women became part of the workforce. But with improvement in technologies, women were the first to lose jobs. In order to support their family, many women were forced to work as domestic help and to start some petty work like sewing and knitting. Some women also started to rent out their rooms in order to have some additional income.

Many women, who were employed in the factories during war years, lost their jobs and were forced to work within households. Many of them tried to earn by renting their homes or by other activities; like tailoring, washing or matchbox making.

Many poor children were forced into low-paid work, often by their parents. Compulsory Elementary Education Act was passed in 1870 and the factory acts were passed in 1902. These acts ensured that the children could be kept out of industrial work.


The flow of migrants to cities created problems of housing. Housing facilities were not provided by the employers. Private landowners provided cheap but unsafe tenements for the migrant workers. According to a survey done by Charles Booth (a Liverpool ship owner) in 1887, about 1 million Londoners were very poor. This comprised about 20% of the population of London at that time. The life expectancy of the poor was 29 years; compared to 55 years among the gentry and the middle class. Charles Booth concluded that London needed to rebuild at least 400,000 rooms to house its poorest citizens.

The large number of one-room houses occupied by the poor was seen as serious threat to public health. Those rooms were poorly ventilated and there was no arrangement for sanitation. They also posed fire hazard. People living in poor conditions were also potential hotspots for social disorder. To prevent the London poor, workers' mass housing schemes were planned.

Cleaning London

Various steps were taken to clean up the city of London. Steps were taken to decongest localities, to green the open spaces, reduce pollution and landscape the city. Large blocks of apartments were built. Rent control was introduced during the First World War, to reduce the burden on people.

Between the two World Wars, the British state accepted the responsibility for housing the working class. Local authorities built about one million houses. Most of them were single-family cottages.

During this period, the city expanded beyond the range where people could walk to work. This necessitated the development of new forms of mass transport.

Transport in the City

This was the period when the London underground railway was built. The first section of the Underground opened in 1863 between Paddington and Farrington. The train service was expanded by 1880 to carry 40 million passengers a year.

Initial public reaction towards the Underground was negative. Many people were critical of the way many houses were demolished to make way for construction of underground. Many people were not comfortable of the idea of travelling in smoke filled underground railway. But ultimately, the Underground proved to be a huge success.

Social Change in the City

The family became smaller and individualism increased. The institution of marriage tended to break down among the working class. Women of the upper middle classes in Britain faced increasing levels of isolation. The facility of taking the services of domestic help and housemaids further compounded the problem for them because they had plenty of free time but they were not equipped to utilize their free time. Many social reformers felt a need to save the family by pushing the women back into the home.

Most of the political movements of this period were largely participated by male. It took some time before women could actively participate in political movements.

Many changes took place in families by the beginning of the twentieth century. Women also started to work in factories, during the war years. Because of their new-found economic independence women started to have their say in making important decision for the family. The positive aspect of these changes was that the family became the focus of the new market.

Leisure and Consumption

For wealthy British, there had been a tradition of London Season. This sobriquet was given to the summer season during which people enjoy holidays. During the London Season, rich people came out of their mansions in the countryside and flocked to London to stay at costly places. For the elite families, many cultural events were organized in London. There could be ball, flower show, ballet performance, polo, etc. to entertain the well heeled people of the society.

People from the working classes met in pubs. The pub was the centre of exchanging news and views for them. Libraries, art galleries and museums were established in the nineteenth century to provide people with a sense of history and pride in the British achievements. Initially, very few people went to museums but once the entry was made free the footfall at museums increased exponentially. Music halls were popular among the lower classes. By the early twentieth century, cinema became a popular entertainment across all classes. The trend of spending holidays on beaches increased among the working classes.

Politics in the City

A large city population was both a threat and an opportunity from political perspective. This was a period when many mass strikes and protests erupted in the city. Some of them were brutally suppressed by the police. The State authorities worked towards reducing the possibility of rebellion and enhance urban aesthetics.