How has the population of London changed over the centuries? Has it been a case of a relentless rise in the figures? Did the Black Death wipe out a large proportion of the population? Did the Great Fire have an effect? T some of these questions we can give partial answers. But to the main one, we can no definite answer. The lack of records in the early periods, is, of course, a major factor. It is not until the 19th century and the first Census that we can begin to talk with confidence about the “population of London.” For all periods before that we have to guesstimate. Nonetheless, it is often useful to be able to visualise a probably population density for any given period. This article sets out the current “best guess” figures that are available.
Before the census of 1801 all estimates of the population of London are open to question. The following table gives the best available estimates in round figures. The census data for the 19th and 20th centuries have been rounded up to the nearest 1,000. It should be noted that, because of the out break of the Second world War, the 1939 figures are an estimate.
The tables give figures for both the City and “Total London”. The latter term is here meant to cover both the City and the London Hinterland as understood by Londoners and others in the various historical periods. In the early mediaeval period it would have included the City, Southwark and Westminster, for example. In modern times, it covers what we know as Greater London. Separate figures are often quoted for the area administered by the London County Council (LCC). These exclude the City and some of the outer suburbs and can cause confusion. The LCC was a political entity that operated from 1888 to 1965. It made a very real contribution to the development of London and enjoyed wide-ranging powers, but it did not represent “Total London” in a demographic sense.
To give some kind of perspective, the figures for “Total London” are also expressed as a percentage of the total population of England or, after 1801, of England and Wales. The effect of the Black Death in the mid 14th century is a matter of great dispute and no really accurate figures are available. There may or may not have been a catastrophic fall in the populations of London and England between 1300 and 1400. The figure for 1400 given below is a very rough estimate which takes account of the obvious and accepted fall in numbers between 1300 and 1550.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the table is the fact that the City of London, the “Square Mile” was at its most populated at the end of Elozabeth’s reign! Perhaps as many as an astonishing 150,000 person were crammed into that small area. The effects of the Great Plague and the Great Fire do seem to be measurable but not greatly significant. It is not until the rise of “Suburbia” at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that we begin to see significant falls in the resident population of the City. From the first census in 1801, it is a story of steady decline until the Second World war. Following that event, the City’s population just about halved and has remained hovering around 4,000 souls ever since. It is a bleak place indeed on a wet winter’s weekend when the commuters are gone and the streets are occupied only by the odd stray tourist and the pigeons.
TABLE 1: Estimates From Roman To Georgian Times
% of England
?0.5 – 1.0
?0.5 – 1.0
?50,000 – 60,000
TABLE 2: Census Figures For 19th And 20th Centuries