LONDON IN THE 17TH CENTURY
By Tim Lambert
The Growth of London
The population of London was about 250,000 by 1600 and during the 17th century London continued to grow. Banqueting House was built in 1622. In 1635 the king opened Hyde Park to the public. In 1637 Charles I created Richmond Park for hunting. Also in 1637 Queens House was completed in nearby Greenwich.
Wool was still the main export from London but there were also exports of 'Excellent saffron in small quantities, a great quantity of lead and tin, sheep and rabbit skins without number, with various other sorts of fine peltry (skins) and leather, beer, cheese and other sorts of provisions'. The Royal Exchange where merchants could buy and sell goods opened in 1571.
In the early 17th century rich men continued to build houses west of London. The Earl of Bedford built houses at Covent Garden, on the Strand and at Long Acre. He also obtained permission to hold a fruit and vegetable market at Covent Garden. Other rich people build houses at Lincoln Inn Fields and at St Martins in the Fields.
On the other side of London hovels were built. The village of Whitechapel was 'swallowed up' by the expanding city. The village of Clerkenwell also became a suburb of London. Southwark also grew rapidly. All this happened despite outbreaks of bubonic plague. It broke out in 1603, 1633 and 1665 but each time the population of London quickly recovered.
In 1642 civil war began between king and parliament. The royalists made one attempt to capture London in 1643 but their army was met 6 miles west of St Pauls by a much larger parliamentary army. The royalists withdrew. However the Puritan government of 1646-1660 was hated by many ordinary people and when Charles II came to London from France in 1660 an estimated 20,000 people gathered in the streets to meet him. All the churches in London rang their bells.
The Fire of London
The last outbreak of plague in London was in 1665. But this was the last outbreak. In 1666 came the great fire of London. It began on 2 September in a baker's house. At first, it did not cause undue alarm. But the wind caused the flames to spread rapidly. People formed chains with leather buckets and worked hand operated pumps all to no avail. The mayor was advised to use gunpowder to create fire breaks but he was reluctant, fearing the owners of destroyed buildings would sue for compensation. The fire continued to spread until the king took charge. He ordered sailors to make fire breaks. At the same time, the wind dropped.
About 13,200 houses had been destroyed and 70-80,000 people had been made homeless. The king ordered the navy to make tents and canvas available from their stores to help the homeless who camped on open spaces around the city. Temporary markets were set up so the homeless could buy food. but the crowds of homeless soon dispersed. Most of the houses in London were still standing and many of the homeless found accommodation in them or in nearby villages. Others built wooden huts on the charred ruins.
To prevent such a disaster happening again the king commanded that all new houses in London should be of stone and brick not wood. Citizens were responsible for rebuilding their own houses but a tax was charged on coal brought by ship into London to finance the rebuilding of churches and other public buildings. Work began on rebuilding St Pauls in 1675 but it was not finished till 1711.
In the late 17th century fashionable houses were built at Bloomsbury and on the road to the village of Knightsbridge. Elegant houses in squares and broad straight streets were also built north of St James Palace. Soho also became built up. As well as building attractive suburbs the rich began to live in attractive villages near London such as Hackney, Clapham, Camberwell and Streatham. In the east, the poor continued to build houses and Bethnal Green was 'swallowed up' by the growing city.
French Protestants fleeing religious persecution arrived in London. Many of them were silk weavers who lived in Spitalfields which also became a suburb of London.
In the 17th century wealthy Londoners obtained piped water for the first time. It was brought by canal from the countryside then was carried by hollow tree trunks under the streets. You had to pay to have your house connected. After 1685 oil lamps lighted the streets. Hackney carriages became common in the streets of London.
In 1694 the Bank of England was formed. It moved to Threadneedle Street in 1734.
Billingsgate was a general market until 1699 when an Act of Parliament made it a fish market.
London in the Middle Ages
London in the 19th century
Life in the 17th Century
Last revised 2019