As part of the process of a Guild Apprentice becoming a Guildman, each is required to write an essay on an aspect of the City of London or of the Guild which may be of interest to members. Below is that from Apprentice Nikhil Sood (SPS).

With time England will only be London (James I) –

The causes and consequences of the remarkable growth of the metropolis between 1500-1700

London’s demographic and spatial growth in this period finds its roots and are fundamentally linked to the parallel growth of the city into a European commercial entrepôt in addition to the growth in its status as the social and political capital of the country.   These economic and social developments caused massive expansion; the capital’s population rose from around 120,000 in 1550 to 200,000 in 1600, 375,000 in 1650 and 490,000 in 1700. [1] This consequentially altered the social structure, balance of occupations, social problems, and mechanisms of government and social regulation in London and thus, for the whole country and Continent.   Indeed, this wider picture must never be neglected.   The developments in London are part of a larger process that involved the rest of the British Isles and indeed the whole of Europe.   The symbiotic relationship between London and the provinces was essential to its growth and obviously it was not exclusively Londoners and London that were consequentially affected by the changes.   London was by nature a fusion of different societies and people. Furthermore, throughout any assessment of the growth of the metropolis emphasis must be placed on the divisions within the city; “London in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was not a single amorphous mass ripe for strong magistracy but a collection of functioning if intractable human societies. ” For instance, there was a social and economic contrast between City, West End, and eastern suburbs between different “classes” and between men and women.   Therefore, the causes and consequences of London’s growth cannot and should not be easily explained but an emphasis on the complexity of the situation and the diversity in experiences of London actually aids in understanding why London was such a dynamic city and why it underwent and continued to undergo such dramatic demographic, economic, social, and cultural developments during this period.


A key explanation for the remarkable growth of London lies in its position as the nation’s main port and commercial capital.   In particular, overseas trade played a vital role in stimulating the London economy, which had further consequences for its overall growth and development as a city.   Geographically, London was well placed.   It had the advantage of being close to the northern European markets, it had easy access to the ports of north-east and south-east England, and its situation on the Thames was also useful and helps to explain its commercial predominance.   However, clearly there was a shift in the trading patterns in the capital during this specific period that requires explanation.   At the beginning of the period just over half of the country’s wool and cloth exports passed through London.   By the middle of the sixteenth century around ninety per cent of woollen goods were traded via the capital.  This can partly be explained by a changing European context.   Unstable relations with France and Spain during this period and the emergence of Antwerp as Europe’s commercial centre forced merchants to transfer their business away from the southern and western coastal ports of Southampton, Exeter, and Bristol.   London became Antwerp’s satellite but became strong enough to withstand the disruption to Antwerp’s position caused by the religious and political upheavals in the Netherlands brought about by the centralising policies of Charles V and his son Phillip II of Spain, as well as Philip’s bankruptcy.   Antwerp’s ‘fall’ in 1576 handed more opportunities to London’s merchants to seek new sources and markets around the world.   However, the London economy was also bolstered by developments from within the city itself that were independent of European dynamics.   The domestic manufacturing industry in London was sizeable and during this period London had developed from a city with an indigenous manufacturing capacity that was limited both in range and quality into a centre of manufacture capable of producing most products to an equal standard to Paris or Amsterdam.   The concentration of such a large population of consumers in a relatively small area meant that even under the conditions of hand production there was enormous potential for specialisation in the manufacturing process and also in product differentiation.   All economic developments were also aided by the increasing sophistication of financial institutions in the city.   Trading companies such as the Levant Company and East India Company allowed investors to spread risk.   Similarly, the Royal Exchange was founded in 1565 by Sir Thomas Gresham as a centre of commerce for London’s merchants and gained Royal patronage in 1571.   This caused and further sustained London’s growth.


It must be emphasised that London could not have continued to grow without the huge influx of immigrants and interaction with the provinces.   Immigrants came mainly from all over the country but there was a steady flow of Scots, Welsh and Irish into London as well as substantial Dutch, French and German communities.[2]   Furthermore, immigration took place at all levels of society, from the higher to the lower orders.   This in turn created a capital with a diversity of trades and industries and the manpower to enable them to flourish.   London became the centre of mass consumption which the whole country and many on the Continent wanted to take advantage of.   The London phenomenon was not a parasite within the country but its product.   Contrary to James’ statement about London, a Swiss visitor reported that ‘London is not said to be in England, but rather England to be in London’.   Though its success did undoubtedly cause a decline in commercial activity in some areas of England, in much of the country it enhanced commercial, industrial and agricultural activity.   London’s growth was dependent on changes in provincial life; the fourfold increase in the population was made possible only by the increased agricultural productivity over most of England.[3]   London also needed fuel as well as food to sustain its growth, and thus the coal industry in areas like Tynside and Wearside was greatly stimulated by demand from London.   However, it is also important to stress that London’s relationship with the provinces was often dialectical.   London was not simply the sole dynamo of change in the country but was itself very frequently on the receiving end of new initiatives and experimentation that originated elsewhere.   Indeed, the domestic interaction between London and the provinces within England was as much a cause of London’s growth as oversees trade.   For instance, the provinces drove change by supplying London with their own innovations on foreign products.   While rural landowners developed their advanced tastes in the capital, ‘country folk’ were more than capable of catering to those tastes for themselves by creating “islands of consumerism” around country houses or planting fruit orchards contributing to the nationalisation of London’s commercial standards. [4] Similarly, the exploitation of local skills and resources resulted in centres of specialisation in the localities; for instance, rush mat making in East Anglia.   This in turn served the national market.   Furthermore, the growth of the “middling sort” with a social conscience was not exclusive to London.   Schemes were set-up in the provinces by wealthy patrons and this middling sort to provide educational and employment opportunities.   Activities such as training for fustian making or woad growing could then stimulate the London market.   Thus, the relationship between the provinces and the growth of London was very much linked and their economic developments were correlated.


The combination of the growth in population largely through immigration and the commercialising of London was producing a city of greater social variety which in turn became associated with certain areas of London creating stronger local characteristics within the capital. [5] While social and economic values had always varied from centre to periphery, a wider range of topographical variation developed both in the kind and quality of housing and in the people who inhabited it.   More people meant a great demand for housing and buildings and overcrowding was particularly bad in the West End where eventually houses needed to be shared and divided.   However, property developers in the West End were also catering to elite demand from the wealthier and socially ambitious members of English society who wanted town houses in the economic, political, and cultural heart of the city.   If we assume property rent prices vary according to desirability then the city-wide tithe assessment of 1638 indicates a definite scale of desirability that roughly increases according to centrality.   Similarly, demand for housing led to the development of properties in the peripheries of London and an expansion of the city into the suburbs.   The explanations for certain characteristics of localities within London are numerous.   Profession, family size, social-status, social ambition, wealth, and gender all affected settling patterns of Londoners.   However, what is evident is that the growth of London led to a new social topography.   This can be roughly characterised as polarisation between the east and west of London and between central and suburban London.


It is necessary to consider how these juxtaposing localities and societies within London contributed to the social stability in the capital and what they tell us about how the dynamics between social groups and the constitution of the “elite” were altered.   Stability had to rely mainly on cooperation rather than coercion due to the lack of sufficient police force or a standing army in this period.   This was a problem particularly magnified in the face of a rapidly expanding population which made popular grievances more destabilising.   However, the volatile situation created by the growth of London did not always cause instability of the kind experienced by Paris.   Even in 1590s when high rates of immigration, poor harvests, and a number of other social, economic, and political crises could have exacerbated the intrinsic divisions within London society, mass disorder did not occur.   The medieval division between the richer and the poorer continued to exist.   However, arguably the growth of London meant that the “elite” were a much more homogenous and inclusive group.   This was a city in the transformation phase from a semi-feudal society governed by the nobility and an absolute monarch to a capitalist society where the ruling class also included the mercantile businessmen.   What occurred was not a Marxist struggle for hegemony between the nobility and middle-class but rather cooperation between the traditional governing elite and the capitalist entrepreneurs.   The port of London employed about a quarter of the capital’s population by early 18th century through its shipping trade and ancillary trades.   Thus, power and wealth and the city’s ruling elite were very much determined by control and success within trade and commerce and the crown needed to recognise that fact.   However, simultaneously the sovereign was absolute and theoretically their word was final.   During Elizabeth’s reign, she cooperated with this city elite.   For instance, at her coronation she prudently and graciously accepted the fairly audacious gift from the City of London of her depicted as Deborah but focused on ‘good counsel’.   This spirit of cooperation saw her reign through the volatile situation in the 1590s remarkably peacefully.   When the ruler failed to cooperate or compromise, instability tended to ensue.   Charles found this out in 1640-42 provoking the wrath of the capital that ultimately contributed to his demise.   Without the support of local agents of law and peace enforcement government could be virtually paralysed.   Following its economic growth the balance of power in London lay with this city elite.


To a great extent it is a flawed approach to neglect the wider time frame by limiting an assessment of the causes and consequences of London’s growth to this early modern period.   For instance, it is not difficult to see that the growth of London and the Industrial Revolution in Britain are linked in a multitude of ways.   Furthermore, many of the causes of change and consequences of change are interconnected and form a sort of positive feedback system.   Take for example the growth and developments in the agricultural sector that both sustained population growth and therefore economic growth in London but was also stimulated by demand from the capital.   Ultimately, variety must be stressed in an assessment of both the causes and the consequences of the growth of London.   London’s growth was a conglomeration of a number of interacting factors and the consequences were equally diverse.   It was not a city separate from England.   Rather it was an embodiment of the complexities of Early Modern England and all the social, religious, economic, and political changes that it had undergone during this period.


[1] R. Finlay, London 1500-1700: The Making of the Metropolis, pp.172

[2] T. Carlyle, Past and Present, pp.49

[3] Ibid., pp.52

[4] L. Orlin, Material London, pp.92

[5] J. Merritt, Imagining Early Modern London, pp.131


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