|A formal gathering at the Tower of London|
During the 19th century, London became the first "world city"; 1) it had a large population distributed over a very large geographical area; this dispersion of the population to suburbs was made possible, as we shall see, by the mechanization of transportation; the railroads were built beginning in the 1830s, the Underground was begun in 1865, and there were horse-drawn trams by the 1880s; 2) the population of a world city comes from the whole world; London attracted the dispossessed and ambitious from the British Isles; it attracted the poor and the politically oppressed from southern and eastern Europe; and it lured immigrants from British possessions throughout the world, particularly India and China; 3) a world city has direct industrial and commercial ties to the entire world. In 1880, the Port of London received 8,000,000 tons of goods (up from 800,000 in about 1800). A contemporary guidebook advised: "Nothing will convey to the stranger a better idea of the vast activity and stupendous wealth of London than a visit to the warehouses, filled to overflowing with interminable stores of every kind of foreign and colonial product." (Willis, World Civilizations, p. 323); 4) a world city is involved in the internal affairs of other nations. London was the capital of Great Britain, the capital of the British Empire, and the capital of the British Commonwealth of Nations. In addition, its naval power made England a necessary participant in world affairs.
Like other capital cities, London was a political and administrative center, and it housed thousands of civil servants who worked for expanding bureaucracies; it also attracted ambitious political figures; it was also the financial center, the hub of the rail and road system, and a large marketplace for goods and services; industry tended to be located in the suburbs; city center housed government buildings and mercantile activities; capital cities were also cultural centers: newspaper and book publishers were there, as were theaters and operas, restaurants and pleasure gardens.
Problems facing 19th century capitals like London: many were centuries old, and their centers were clusters of old streets, churches, and palaces; social structures and traditions were ancient; in-migration had flooded the old central districts and even some suburbs; hence urban development in the 19 century consisted both of the reconstruction of the ancient centers and rapid growth on the periphery;
19th century urban dweller faced common tensions and traumas of urban living, i.e. congestion and crime; but also new problems: long commutes or a sense of isolation and despair.
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London of the 1890s was also the setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle´s "The Return of Sherlock Holmes":
The 1890s are unique for lots of reasons. Technology and culture is one of them. In this period, a lot of new technologies changed the way people lived. Bicycles were the new rage; electric lights were becoming more common; automobiles made their first appearance; the London subway system was growing; trains were faster; telegraphs made world-wide communication easier. We see evidence of a lot of these technological advancements in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes and Watson ride the train all the time. Bicycles play a huge role in a number of stories. And Holmes and Watson also frequently read the newspaper, which changed a lot with the arrival of the telegraph. News was much faster and easier to get in the 1890s.
A lot of things were changing in the 1890s, which led to a lot of excitement and a lot of anxiety. This atmosphere is reflected in the Sherlock Holmes stories, particularly through the role of foreigners. (You can read more about this in the theme section on "Foreignness and the 'Other.'") The British Empire was huge, and growing, in this period. So even though a lot of the action in these stories occurs in London, these stories have a world-wide scope. A lot of the criminals Holmes deals with come from various places in the British Empire – South Africa, India, Australia, etc. London especially was an international hub in this era. Lots of people were anxious about the number of foreign people pouring into London and the crime rates of the city. Holmes, as a sort of ultimate crime-stopper, helped to combat that anxiety.
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These drawings and photographs give you an idea about life in London in the 1890s:
|Ships on the Thames river with the Tower in the background|
|Bank of England in the City of London|
|Riders on Rotten Row in London´s Hyde Park|
|Busy traffic on London Bridge|
Traffic on the Thames with St. Paul´s Cathedral in the background
|The Thames Quay|
|The Tower of London in the 1890s|