The why of whys

Why did London’s social structure and spatial form develop in the ways which many historians have observed, and not in others? And why, in particular, did slums proliferate in some areas and attractive neighbourhoods in others? What pressures caused transportation networks to assume certain forms and not others? Why was so little done before the 1880’s towards alleviating atrocious housing conditions? The most popular answers to these questions attribute causative powers to ‘market forces’ or to economic and/or technological necessities.

However, it is not my purpose to critique or evaluate these explanations. Instead, I will offer a view of London’s development which incorporates such explanations within a broader economic, social, political and legal framework, and which, in my view, presents a more accurate picture. In attempting to answer these and other questions, I will argue that the nature and quality of urban living experienced in both its rewarding and problematic forms by the various strata of London’s population and the spatial form of the city, was shaped by the broad fulfilment of five major social and economic forces mediated by the forms of tenure whereby people secured their housing; and further, that the frustration of a sixth pressure constituted the essence of the Housing Crisis of which all London was aware in the 1880’s. These forces arose out of London’s class structure and the struggles between and within classes during this fifty year period, as outlined in Chapter 1.

They and the interactions between them broadly determined the aspirations of the members of each class, their differential abilities to participate in the land and housing markets, and either directly or indirectly defined the structure of these markets. With these parameters set, the autonomous actions of individuals or corporate bodies in the land and housing markets, mediated by the tenure relations, led to the observed social and spatial structure of the city. In sum, I will attempt to show that London’s development was shaped by the acting out of the overall class struggle, in relation to the drive to accumulate capital on the one hand, and to people’s quest for shelter on the other. Though I will deal with the city as a whole, my major focus will be on the residential sector. The following were the six forces: first, the striving on the part of successful merchants, bankers and employers to emulate the lifestyle of the aristocracy; second, the search on the part of members of the middle stratum for an existence within their means which captured the essence of their bosses’ lifestyle; third, the efforts by the capitalist class to improve London’s ‘capital accumulation potential’ by increasing the internal efficiency of the city, especially the anachronistic central area,and by linking it to markets in other parts of the country and the world; fourth, the separation of the capitalist class from the working class; fifth, the impoverishment of the bulk of the working class such that they constituted an abundant, cheap and adaptable labour force; and sixth, the struggle on the part of the ‘labour aristocracy’ to separate themselves from the remainder of the working class and to establish a  place for themselves in capitalist society.


I would stress that these pressures are all interrelated in the complex web of everyday life. They are all aspects of the general struggle by capitalists, on the one hand, to increase the rate of capital accumulation subject to the maintenance of social stability, and for improved working and living conditions by the middle stratum and the working class, on the other hand. These six forces were the major constituents of the whole. They have only been abstracted in order to facilitate a clearer understanding of why London’s social and physical fabric evolved as it did. We may now proceed to examine each in turn. Integration at the Top In the previous chapter, we saw that the rise of the British capitalist class was not predicated upon a corresponding decline inthe economic and political power or the social status of the landed aristocracy. Instead, a process of integration occurred in which capitalists and aristocrats gradually combined to form a single essentially capitalist, dominant class. An important aspect of this coming together is that successful capitalists envied the aristocratic lifestyle and endeavoured to buy their way into these upper circles or, at least, to achieve their own less   opulent versions of it. During the latter part of the 18th century, and especially during the period under consideration here, there was another pressure acting upon merchants, bankers and employers who were still living above their workplaces in the City and its surrounding parishes. As the productive, distributive and exchange functions of London’s economy grew, so did the space which they occupied in these central areas. External economies enticed new banks, offices, factories and warehouses to cluster in areas where these activities had established a foothold. In their wake came thousands of workers casual labourers and paupers who were forced to live close to sources of employment. The combined effect of these pressures on the central area land market was an increase in land values and congestion and a reduction in the space available for residential land uses.

June 12, 2018


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