Extracts from Daniel Defoe’s Account of London

Selected by Pat Rogers
Introduction and Contents

New Buildings since the Great Fire

Editor's Note: the following excerpt contains links to several maps, each of which will open in a separate window. The primary map is John Rocque's Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster, and Borough of Southwark of 1746 (though this map was published two decades after Defoe's Tour, it provides the best detail of those available on this site). Other links are to Faithorne and Newcourt (1658), Ogilby and Morgan (1677), Kip (ca. 1710), Strype (1720), and Moll (1720). Hover over the link to show a tooltip identifying which map is linked.

A Brief Description of the New Buildings Erected in and about the Cities of London and Westminster and Borough of Southwark, Since the Year 1666

This account of new buildings is to be understood,

  1. Of houses re-built after the great fires in London and Southwark, &c.
  2. New foundations, on ground where never any buildings were erected before.

Take, then, the city and its adjacent buildings to stand, as described by Mr. Stow, or by any other author, who wrote before the Fire of London, and the difference between what it was then, and what it is now, may be observed thus:

It is true, that before the Fire of London, the streets were narrow, and publick edifices, as well as private, were more crowded, and built closer to one another; for soon after the Fire, the king, by his proclamation, forbid all persons whatsoever, to go about to re-build for a certain time, viz. till the Parliament (which was soon to sit) might regulate and direct the manner of building, and establish rules for the adjusting every man’s property, and yet might take order for a due inlarging of the streets, and appointing the manner of building, as well for the beauty as the conveniency of the city, and for safety, in case of any future accident; for though I shall not inquire, whether the city was burnt by accident, or by treachery, yet nothing was more certain, than that as the city stood before, it was strangely exposed to the disaster which happened, and the buildings look’d as if they had been form’d to make one general bonefire, whenever any wicked party of incendiaries should think fit.

The streets were not only narrow, and the houses all built of timber, lath and plaister, or, as they were very properly call’d paper work, and one of the finest range of buildings in the Temple, are, to this day, called the Paper Buildings, from that usual expression.

But the manner of the building in those days, one story projecting out beyond another, was such, that in some narrow streets, the houses almost touch’d one another at the top, and it has been known, that men, in case of fire, have escaped on the tops of the houses, by leaping from one side of a street to another; this made it often, and almost always happen, that if a house was on fire, the opposite house was in more danger to be fired by it, according as the wind stood, than the houses next adjoining on either side.

How this has been regulated, how it was before, and how much better it now is, I leave to be judged, by comparing the old unburnt part of the city with the new.

But tho’ by the new buildings after the fire, much ground was given up, and left unbuilt, to inlarge the streets, yet ’tis to be observed, that the old houses stood severally upon more ground, were much larger upon the flat, and in many places, gardens and large yards about them, all which, in the new buildings, are, at least, contracted, and the ground generally built up into other houses, so that notwithstanding all the ground given up for beautifying the streets, yet there are many more houses built than stood before upon the same ground; so that taking the whole city together, there are more inhabitants in the same compass, than there was before. To explain this more fully, I shall give some particular instances, to which I refer, which there are living witnesses able to confirm: For example,

Swithen’s Alleys by the Royal Exchange, were all, before the Fire, taken up with one single merchant’s house, and inhabited by one Mr. Swithin; whereas, upon the same ground where the house stood, stands now about twenty-two or twenty-four houses, which belong to his posterity to this day.

Copt-Hall-Court in Throckmorton-street, was, before the Fire, also a single house, inhabited by a Dutch merchant; also three more courts in the same streets, were single houses, two on the same side of the way, and one on the other.

The several alleys behind St. Christopher’s Church, which are now vulgarly, but erroneously, call’d St. Christopher’s-Churchyard, were, before the Fire, one great house, or, at least, a house and ware-houses belonging to it, in which the famous Mr. Kendrick lived, whose monument now stands in St. Christopher’s Church, and whose dwelling, also, took up almost all the ground, on which now a street of houses is erected, called Prince’s-street, going through into Lothbury, no such street being known before the Fire.

Kings-Arms-Yard in Coleman-street, now built into fine large houses, and inhabited by principal merchants, was, before the fire, a stable-yard for horses and an inn, at the sign of the Kings Arms.

I might fill up my account with many such instances, but ’tis enough to explain the thing, viz. That so many great houses were converted into streets and courts, alleys and buildings, that there are, by estimation, almost 4000 houses now standing on the ground which the Fire left desolate, more than stood on the same ground before.

Another increase of buildings in the city, is to be taken from the inhabitants in the unburnt parts following the same example, of pulling down great old buildings, which took up large tracks of ground in some of the well inhabited places, and building on the same ground, not only several houses, but even whole streets of houses, which are since fully inhabited; for example;

Crosby-Square within Bishopsgate, formerly the house of Sir James Langham merchant.

Devonshire-Square and Street, with several back streets and passages into Petticoat-Lane one way, and Hounsditch another way, all built on the ground where the old Earl of Devonshire had a house and garden, and are all fully inhabited.

Bridgwater-Square, and several streets adjoyning all fully inhabited, built on the ground where the Earl of Bridgwater had a large house and garden in Barbican.

Billeter-Square, and several passages adjoyning, built upon the grounds of one great house, in which, before that, one merchant only lived.

All those palaces of the nobility, formerly making a most beautiful range of buildings fronting the Strand, with their gardens reaching to the Thames, where they had their particular water-gates and stairs, one of which remains still, viz. Somerset House, have had the same fate, such as Essex, Norfolk, Salisbury, Worcester, Exceter, Hungerford, and York Houses; in the place of which, are now so many noble streets and beautiful houses, erected, as are, in themselves, equal to a large city, and extend from the Temple to Northumberland-House; Somerset House and the Savoy, only intervening; and the latter of these may be said to be, not a house, but a little town, being parted into innumerable tenements and apartments.

Many other great houses have, by the example of these, been also built into streets, as Hatton-House in Holborn, and the old Earl of Bedford’s great garden, called New Convent Garden; but those I omit, because built before the year 1666; but I may add the Lord Brook’s house in Holborn; the Duke of Bedford’s last remaining house and garden in the Strand, and many others.

These are prodigious enlargements to the city, even upon that which I call inhabited ground, and where infinite numbers of people now live, more than lived upon the same spot of ground before.

But all this is a small matter, compared to the new foundations raised within that time, in those which we justly call the out parts; and not to enter on a particular description of the buildings, I shall only take notice of the places where such enlargements are made; as, first, within the memory of the writer hereof, all those numberless ranges of building, called Spittle Fields [view in 1720 (Strype)], reaching from Spittle-yard, at Northern Fallgate, and from Artillery Lane in Bishopsgate-street, with all the new streets, beginning at Hoxton, and the back of Shoreditch Church, north, and reaching to Brick-Lane, and to the end of Hare-street, on the way to Bethnal Green, east; then sloping away quite to White Chapel Road, south east, containing, as some people say, who pretend to know, by good observation, above three hundred and twenty acres of ground, which are all now close built, and well inhabited with an infinite number of people, I say, all these have been built new from the ground, since the year 1666.

The lanes were deep, dirty, and unfrequented, that part now called Spittlefields-Market, was a field of grass with cows feeding on it, since the year 1670. The Old Artillery Ground (where the Parliament listed their first soldiers against the King) took up all those long streets, leading out of Artillery Lane to Spittle-yard-back-Gate, and so on to the end of Wheeler-street.

Brick-Lane, which is now a long well-pav’d street, was a deep dirty road, frequented by carts fetching bricks that way into White-Chapel from Brick-Kilns in those fields, and had its name on that account; in a word, it is computed, that about two hundred thousand inhabitants dwell now in that part of London, where, within about fifty years past, there was not a house standing.

On the more eastern part, the same increase goes on in proportion, namely, all Goodman’s Fields, the name gives evidence for it, and the many streets between White-Chapel and Rosemary Lane, all built since the year 1678. Well Close, now called Marine Square, was so remote from houses, that it used to be a very dangerous place to go over after it was dark, and many people have been robbed and abused in passing it; a well standing in the middle, just where the Danish church is now built, there the mischief was generally done; beyond this, all the hither or west end of Ratcliff-high-way, from the corner of Gravel-Lane, to the east end of East Smithfield, was a road over the fields; likewise those buildings, now called Virginia-street, and all the streets on the side of Ratcliff-high-way to Gravel-Lane above named.

To come to the north side of the town, and beginning at Shoreditch, west, and Hoxton-Square, and Charles’s-Square adjoyning, and the streets intended for a market-place, those were all open fields, from Anniseed-clear to Hoxton Town, till the year 1689, or thereabouts; Pitfield-street was a bank, parting two pasture grounds, and Ask’s Hospital was another open field: Farther west, the like addition of buildings begins at the foot way, by the Pest-house, and includes the French hospital, Old street two squares, and several streets, extending from Brick-Lane to Mount-Mill, and the road to Islington, and from the road, still west, to Wood’s Close, and to St. John’s, and Clerkenwell, all which streets and squares are built since the year 1688 and 1689, and were before that, and some for a long time after, open fields or gardens, and never built on till after that time.

From hence we go on still west, and beginning at Gray’s-Inn, and going on to those formerly called Red Lyon Fields, and Lamb’s Conduit Fields, we see there a prodigious pile of buildings; it begins at Gray’s-Inn Wall towards Red-Lyon Street, from whence, in a strait line, ’tis built quite to Lamb’s Conduit Fields, north, including a great range of buildings yet unfinish’d, reaching to Bedford Row and the Cockpit, east, and including Red Lyon Square, Ormond Street [view in 1720 (Strype)], and the great new square at the west end of it, and all the streets between that square and King’s Gate in Holbourn, where it goes out; this pile of buildings is very great, the houses so magnificent and large, that abundance of persons of quality, and some of the nobility are found among them, particularly in Ormond Street, is the D------of Powis’s house, built at the expence of France, on account of the former house being burnt, while the Duke D’Aumont, the French Ambassador Extraordinary lived in it; it is now a very noble structure, tho’ not large, built of free-stone, and in the most exact manner, according to the rules of architecture, and is said to be, next the Banquetting House, the most regular building in this part of England.

Here is also a very convenient church, built by the contribution of the gentry inhabitants of these buildings, tho’ not yet made parochial, being called St. George’s Chapel ["the New Church" in Strype (1720)].

Farther west, in the same line, is Southampton great square, called Bloomsbury, with King-street on the east side of it, and all the numberless streets west of the square, to the market place, and through Great-Russel-street by Montague House, quite into the Hampstead road, all which buildings, except the old building of Southampton House and some of the square, has been form’d from the open fields, since the time above-mentioned, and must contain several thousands of houses; here is also a market, and a very handsome church new built.

From hence, let us view the two great parishes of St. Giles’s and St. Martin’s in the Fields, the last so increased, as to be above thirty years ago, formed into three parishes, and the other about now to be divided also.

The increase of the buildings here, is really a kind of prodigy; all the buildings north of Long Acre, up to the Seven Dials, all the streets, from Leicester-Fields and St. Martin’s-Lane, both north and west, to the Hay-Market and Soho, and from the Hay-Market to St. James’s-street inclusive, and to the park wall; then all the buildings on the north side of the street, called Picadilly, and the road to Knight’s-Bridge, and between that and the south side of Tyburn Road, including Soho-Square, Golden-Square, and now Hanover-Square, and that new city on the north side of Tyburn Road, called Cavendish-Square, and all the streets about it.

This last addition, is, by calculation, more in bulk than the cities of Bristol, Exeter and York, if they were all put together; all which places were, within the time mentioned, meer fields of grass, and employ’d only to feed cattle as other fields are.

The many little additions that might be named besides these, tho’ in themselves considerable, yet being too many to give room to here, I omit.

This is enough to give a view of the difference between the present and the past greatness of this mighty city, called London.