A guide to Victorian London

A guide around the most remarkable Victorian landmarks in London.


During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) London expanded in extraordinary fashion. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution and the very first railways. Read on for a guide around the most remarkable Victorian landmarks.

Shoreditch & Whitechapel

By 1801 there were almost a million people living in the capital, the largest population in Europe at the time. As the city grew, overcrowding became a huge problem, with entire neighbourhoods filled with slum housing. Tiny rooms would serve as homes for entire families, sometimes with the luxury of a curtained off bed. There’d be vermin, fleas and general filth, the water available would be similarly unclean, sourced from a tank that would often be filled with rubbish and dead animals. It was not a great time to be short of money. The worst slums were located in Bermondsey, Clerkenwell, Notting Hill, St. Giles and East London, where we begin our foray into Victorian London.

Shoreditch is today London’s most fashionable area with underground nightclubs, cool bars and buzzy restaurants. Redchurch Street is its main hub, home to hip clothes shops and galleries. Parallel to here is Old Nichol Street, once where the city’s worst slums were; today the very same buildings house desirable flats.

In 1888 terror struck when five prostitutes were murdered in neighbouring Whitechapel. Jack the Ripper has never been identified, but his method of disembowelling the victims suggests he was in the medical profession. If you wish to see the places where the bodies were found there are many Jack the Ripper tours to partake in, otherwise visit the Ten Bells pub on Commercial Street, where the women were known to drink.

From Commercial Street turn onto Brushfield Street where you’ll see Old Spitalfields Market, a former fruit and veg market which now houses stalls selling vintage clothing and jewellery. Its distinctive glass and iron roof was added in 1875 to shelter from the harsh weather. Keep walking on the same road till you get to Liverpool Street station, which opened in 1874 and is on the site of what used to be Bedlam, the infamous psychiatric hospital were people would visit purely to poke fun at the patients.
\n\nClerkenwell & Holborn

Hop on the Metropolitan, Circle or Hammersmith & City line at Liverpool Street and alight at Farringdon. Just off Farringdon Road you’ll find Smithfield Market, a wholesale meat market that opened in 1868. Once the railways facilitated the transport of meat it became necessary to find somewhere to store it, hence this grand construction made of iron, stone and glass.

The main court of England and Wales, the Old Bailey, is a few minutes’ walk away just off Newgate Street. The notorious Newgate prison once stood here, where the most famous (and dangerous) criminals were incarcerated. As horrific as it sounds today, watching executions was a popular pastime in the 19th century, and public hangings – even burnings – took place here after Tyburn was no longer in use. The last public execution was in 1868, after which they simply moved them indoors. The prison was demolished in 1902.

Take a walk up Farringdon Road and you’ll be on the streets immortalised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, particularly Saffron Hill. One of the poorest neighbourhoods in the capital, it was frequented by prostitutes, thieves and beggars, crime rates were high and roads were called things like Pissing Alley to best describe them (now Passing Alley, off St. John Street). Today it’s a far more salubrious area, with trendy restaurants and bars dotted around.

If you head back towards Holborn you can visit Dickens’ former home near Chancery Lane, now converted into a museum. Although he only lived here for two years there is a remarkable selection of memorabilia on display.

Walk all the way down Chancery Lane to the Strand, where the Royal Courts of Justice are. The architect, George Edmund Street, felt so pressured by Queen Victoria’s commission that it was the main cause of his death before the building was completed. Opened by the Queen in 1882, this stunning neo-gothic Grade I building is open to the public. It has over a thousand rooms and aside from trials it hosts fashion shows and weddings.

The Strand and Westminster

The Strand is a hop and a skip away from the Victoria Embankment, built to aid the flow of the Thames when the sewage system was being overhauled. One of the circumstances that prompted this was the Great Stink of 1858, when an unusually hot summer combined with the polluted water of the river resulted in a stench so unbearable the Houses of Parliament had to be evacuated. Originally a medieval building, the Houses of Parliament were destroyed by a fire in 1834, and subsequently rebuilt three years later in the gothic style so popular of the 19th century; now it’s Grade I listed and a UNESCO Heritage site. Next door is the iconic Big Ben, or the Elizabeth Tower to give it its proper name (Big Ben is the name of the bell itself). You’re able to visit the inside of both.
\n\nKing’s Cross

Let’s take a detour to King’s Cross (catch the Circle line from Embankment tube), as this once downtrodden area is undergoing a huge regeneration project. The awe-inspiring Kings Cross St. Pancras station is a splendid example of neo-gothic architecture designed by Sir. Gilbert Scott in 1865. It is widely regarded as his best work, as well as a world class railway station. Next door is the Great Northern Hotel, another masterpiece of Victorian design by Lewis Cubitt. Step inside and you’ll see some of Cubitt’s trademark high ceilings and curved staircases. Both landmarks have had recent multimillion renovations. The Grain Store, a warehouse which dates back to 1851 and as the name suggests was used to store grain, now houses a branch of Central Saint Martins university and two highly acclaimed restaurants.

West End

What better place to end a tour of Victorian London than in the West End, which by the 19th century had become London’s entertainment centre, with Soho as the epicentre of carnal pleasures since the sex industry migrated here from Bankside. Although much of Soho nowadays is filled with post production houses, restaurants, bars and shops, Walker’s Court is still a mini-Red Light district, home to peep shows and strip joints.

Walk up Charing Cross Road and take a right onto Sutton Row; Soho Square will be directly in front of you. While this provides some much needed greenery to local workers who rush here when the sun is out, the area used to be home to aristocrats, who chose to move away in the 1800s when the West End became the night time haunt of many. On Regent Street the Café Royal, now a luxury hotel, was favoured by Oscar Wilde, who drank a little too much absinthe here on occasion. Others would patronise music halls such as the Empire on Leicester Square, nowadays a cinema. But not everything has changed; you can still pop into Rules restaurant, open since 1798, and the White Hart pub on Drury Lane which also operated throughout the 1800s.

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