In the century prior to 1911 London experienced a five-fold increase in its population, from 1.2m to 7.2m.
While at face value the century after 1911 was not nearly as spectacular – an increase of 600,000 inhabitants to 7.8m – this masks dramatic changes to where people lived in the city.
In 1911, over two-thirds of Londoners resided in Inner London. Many of these five million people lived in very densely populated communities and often did so in extreme poverty, particularly in the East End. The most crowded borough, Islington, contained 72,000 people per square mile, four times as many as Hong Kong today.
But even before WWI, London was already seeing its population shift outwards. The rise of suburbia was under way, made possible by the expansion of public transport. This allowed those who had the means to move from the crowded inner city to the leafy and less densely populated environs of Outer London, and commute to work.
This trend continued for much of the 20th century, with the proportion of Londoners living in Outer London doubling from 30% in 1911 to 60% in 2010. One of the consequences of this was a more even distribution of people living in the city’s 32 boroughs. In 1911, for instance, 10 boroughs had population densities of less than 5,000 people per square mile. One hundred years on, not a single borough was that sparsely populated.
Today, the association between crowdedness and poverty in London no longer holds true. The most densely-populated borough in London in 2010, and indeed the most crowded local authority in the country, was the famously well-heeled Kensington and Chelsea: the rich, it seems, are sticking together like never before. Yet even here, the number of people per square mile is lower than it was in the Inner London boroughs of 1911, and half of what it was in Islington; something worth bearing in mind the next time you hear a contemporary Londoner complain about how crowded it is.