From Rags to Riches: how West London has changed over the centuries


We’re locals to East London but our work often takes us West to the grandeur of Mayfair, Chelsea, Knightsbridge & Belgravia. But these grand buildings were once neighbouring some of the lowest classes.  Between 1886 and 1903, historian Charles Booth begun his ground-breaking study into the lives of ordinary Londoners highlighting the streets in London by their social class.

As architects, understanding the context of the area helps to be sensitive to the changes and work more closely with the planning agents when undertaking house conversions. West London has changed significantly and we’re going to look at the ways in which the area has transformed over centuries; from half naked slum dwellers to the London we know today…


Holborn Court 1859

Holborn Court was comprised of 22 houses, filled to the brim with refuse. Today’s standards would certainly deem it unliveable; the stairs were broken, there were many holes in the floor, the plastering had fallen through, and the roof was barely hanging on. There were lots of places like this in West London, and a huge number of people lived in them together.

Some of the houses consisted of 2 rooms, one directly on top of the other. They would be back to back with no ventilation. Water would come from a common standpipe, and it was impossible to keep houses and people clean. Everybody who lived here had sunken eyes and shrivelled skin.

As the poor were always looking for places to live, the grounds of former farmhouses were taken on by jerry-builders. These buildings would be leased for 21 years or less, so they were not built to last a day longer. They had poor foundations, floors made of dirt, and the walls were just half a brick thick. The yards and streets were unpaved, and there were no drains.


The Slums Of London

There were many slums like Holborn Court across London; Tomlin’s New Town in Paddington; Agar Town, north of Battle Bridge and King’s Cross; and the Potteries, self-built colonies of potters’, brickmakers’ and pig-keepers’ cottages west of Notting Hill.

People who visited certainly didn’t do so because the place was pretty. A bible woman named Mary Bayly called it ‘a village, not picturesque’. She was active among the poor of North Kensington. Describing the Potteries in 1859, in a passage from Household Words, Charles Dickens’s first weekly magazine, she said there were ‘foul ditches, open sewers, defective drains, and not a drop of clean water’. She also said that it smelled ‘offensive’ and that the water was ‘black and fetid.’ That should paint an accurate picture of what life was like in London back then.

Because of the horrors found in the slums, a new London government was established in 1855 to deal with the potteries and Tyndalls buildings. There was a Medical Officer of Health and sanitary inspectors, would be responsible for public health, the London-wide Metropolitan Board of Works was responsible for draining London, and also coming up with improvement schemes. However, the government of the time was focused on making London appear and smell nice rather than housing the poorest residents. The government evicted thousands of people, while the housing associations who should have provided new homes proved unable or unwilling to build. Sites simply lay empty for years.

Even dwellings created for the lower-middle class, with rooms for servants and attics that were built well became dwellings for the poor – with a family on every floor, and later, one in every room.


Suburban Slums

Next to the Potteries of North Kensington you could find one of the most troublesome of the slums. Built in the early 1860s, Notting Dale became known as ‘hell on earth’. In 1896, it was home to more than 4,000 people. The houses were crowded with more than 20 people each, and all of these people would share one single toilet. Here, a shocking 43 children out of every 100 would die before making it to 1 years old.

The local authority did not blame the area, stating that the houses were less of a problem than the people. Their drunkenness was blamed, as well as ‘inherited disease’. They described the population to be made up by “loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves, and prostitutes”.

At the end of the 19th century, Charles Booth, social reformer, wanted to come up with a way to stop the ‘semi criminal’ activities of places like Notting Dale, but could only suggest that they were ‘harried out of existence.’ He wanted to demolish homes and run them out of town. However, Notting Dale would not be demolished until the late 1930s. Even much later in the 1960s, this area of London was still classed as ‘troubled’.


Clearing The Slums

Between the years of 1878 and 1899, slum clearance schemes were put in place and this led to more than 45,000 men, women, and children evicted from their homes. They are the official figures, but the real figures are likely a lot higher. They wanted to evict as many people as they possibly could before the official valuation of a property – empty rooms had better letting potential. Many of the people who were removed would have been intelligent and articulate, literate and skilled. A lot of them would have also been troubled, living half naked and in ill health. Regardless, they all stayed silent, and very little is known today about where they went. They were likely given a few shillings in compensation, and this was enough to pay many of them off. Many suspect that they went ahead and continued life in nearby streets, or moved to slums further afield.

Later on, The Metropolitan Board of Works, and its successor, the London County Council, would provide dwellings for 46,934 persons. It was a gain for the city, but these dwellings were not created for those who had been previously evicted.


West London today

Today, West London has improved significantly with many of the same grand buildings converted to reflect the way in which people live today.  Modern construction techniques and materials allow for larger and brighter rooms, open plan living and large entertaining spaces. It’s a far cry from how West London used to be, but the diversity still exists across the area.  West London is home to the famous ‘Notting Hill Carnival’ annual event that has taken place in London since 1966. Led by members of the British West Indian community, the festival attracts around one million people annually, making it one of the world’s largest street festivals, and a significant event in Black British culture. The diversity is what has attracted many people to live in West London today, amongst the grandeur of the architecture but still with its historic roots ever present on the streets surrounding.

Read more our work in West London

How To Get Planning Permission In London - Ebook

This guide is suitable for anyone requiring consent from the local council to alter a home. It reviews the ins and outs of UK planning and strategies for successfully navigating it, based on our own experience.

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