Saturday, 8 October 2011

Lost in London - 1: Why is London such a problem?

Back in 2008 I gave a talk to the Family History Group of Thornbury U3A on the theme "Lost in London - Breaking down brick walls in London research". As my health no longer allows me to travel to give talks, I've decided to share my presentation on this blog. I've broken it into four parts for ease of reading. I hope you find it helpful.



Why is London such a problem?

"Hell is a city much like London - A populous and smoky city." Shelley

  • Size. By 1800 London was already the world’s largest city, with a population of 1 million. By the 1851 census, that figure had grown to 2.5 million and was 6.7 million in 1901.
  • Scale. The small market town where I live, Chipping Sodbury, consists of one parish and it is possible to search the whole parish register, if necessary, for one event. But there were over 100 parishes in the square mile of the City of London alone. And some of the parishes in the wider city were truly enormous. By mid century, the population of St Marylebone was over 150,000.
  • Range of repositories. In addition to the major collections in the London Metropolitan Archives, Guildhall Library and Westminster Archives, there are separate record offices in most London boroughs, plus numerous specialist repositories
  • Range of sources. The numbers of different churches, charities, directories, newspapers, books, government reports, etc. covering London make it impossible to search everything.
  • Difficult research period. During the early 19th century there was a decline in the number of children baptised, especially in poor urban areas, and this was prior to the start of General Registration in 1837 and the first useful census in 1841.

Why are Londoners such a problem?

"There are two places in the world where men can most effectively disappear—the city of London and the South Seas." Herman Melville

  • Extreme poverty. In "The Condition of the Working Class in England", published in 1845, Friedrich Engels described the abject condition of the London poor:

      On the occasion of an inquest held Nov. 14th, 1843, by Mr. Carter, coroner for Surrey, upon the body of Ann Galway, aged 45 years, the newspapers related the following particulars concerning the deceased: She had lived at No. 3 White Lion Court, Bermondsey Street, London, with her husband and a nineteen-year-old son in a little room, in which neither a bedstead nor any other furniture was to be seen. She lay dead beside her son upon a heap of feathers which were scattered over her almost naked body, there being neither sheet nor coverlet. The feathers stuck so fast over the whole body that the physician could not examine the corpse until it was cleansed, and then found it starved and scarred from the bites of vermin. Part of the floor of the room was torn up, and the hole used by the family as a privy.

      On Monday, Jan. 15th, 1844, two boys were brought before the police magistrate because, being in a starving condition, they had stolen and immediately devoured a half-cooked calf's foot from a shop. The magistrate felt called upon to investigate the case further, and received the following details from the policeman: The mother of the two boys was the widow of an ex-soldier, afterwards policeman, and had had a very hard time since the death of her husband, to provide for her nine children. She lived at No. 2 Pool's Place, Quaker Court, Spitalfields, in the utmost poverty. When the policeman came to her, he found her with six of her children literally huddled together in a little back room, with no furniture but two old rush-bottomed chairs with the seats gone, a small table with two legs broken, a broken cup, and a small dish. On the hearth was scarcely a spark of fire, and in one corner lay as many old rags as would fill a woman's apron, which served the whole family as a bed. For bed clothing they had only their scanty day clothing. The poor woman told him that she had been forced to sell her bedstead the year before to buy food. Her bedding she had pawned with the victualler for food. In short, everything had gone for food. The magistrate ordered the woman a considerable provision from the poor-box.

  • Extreme mobility. Because so many were leading a hand to mouth existence, with very little money for accommodation, renting rooms by the month, week or even by the night was common. Most poor families gave a different address at the birth registration of each child. It is not uncommon for the address to change in the few weeks between birth and baptism.
  • Fragmented families. The Industrial Revolution led to a huge migration of population from the countryside into the towns. People lost their rural roots and the extended family structures which went with them. Family members were scattered over wide areas of the city and children no longer supported their aged parents.
  • Social breakdown. People were no longer well known to their neighbours, or to the authorities, as is demonstrated in the cases cited by Engels
  • Official anonymity. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was not compulsory until 1875. There was deliberate evasion of the census takers and it was easy to cover up cohabitation, adultery and illegitimacy. One of my husband's ancestors fathered two illegitimate children whilst he was an apprentice. He and his partner were able to pass themselves off as man and wife when baptising those children in a large London parish. Once his apprenticeship ended, they went several parishes away to tie the knot quietly.


  1. Thanks very much for sharing this with us. Now to part 2.

  2. Thank you, Sharon. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.