The Victorian period, 1837-1901, saw the biggest changes to the landscape of Hackney. At the start of the period it was a collection of villages, by the end an inner London suburb. London itself, which spanned 4 miles in the early Georgian period was 18 miles across by 1900.
As the population of London grew, urbanisation continued full throttle. The city and its surrounding areas, such as Shoreditch, became dirty, noisy and overcrowded. The middle class fled the disease and immorality they associated with the poor and the overcrowded city and the result was the birth of the suburbs.
Ironically, in order to reduce the costs of road building although not overcrowded many of the first suburbs were built densely, and had pedestrian access only or were cul-de-sacs, which took advantage of an existing road and forced any further developments to pay for access.
The new railways were the catalyst that enabled city workers to live further afield. Kingsland and Hackney were the first stations to open in the borough, in 1850. The suburban life became available to even more people when trams appeared in the 1870s. Although the railways opened up new housing opportunities for the middle class they also swallowed up great tracts of land, sometimes the land of the old country houses in Hackney, but more often they cut through poorer areas creating slums or demolishing poorer housing altogether. When the North London railway was extended across Kingsland road in the 1860s, six hundred and fifty homes were cleared to make way for it, in an area where housing was already at a shortage.
Although the railway benefited Hackney it also visibly marked its passage from rural to urban. The great iron rail bridge dominated the centre of Hackney village and when the brook that crossed Mare Street was culverted in 1860 it laid the way for the tramways and increased traffic of the late Victorian period. The Great Eastern Railway's line linking Enfield to the city cut along Hackney Downs then ploughed through Stoke Newington Common, creating pockets of poor housing on its way. People were not all blinded by the pursuit of progress however and realised the irreversible effects to the landscape of this change. London Fields was narrowly saved from development and so in 1872 common lands and downs were preserved, in 1893 Hackney marsh was also.
There are other clues to the Victorian way of life in the landscape of Hackney today. The layout of early Victorian terraces with back alleys was to allow the night soilmen access. With the increase in sewage pipes in the later Victorian period this was no longer necessary.
Grand buildings, such as the new Town Hall built in 1866 and the Hackney Empire in 1901, must have reinforced to locals at the time the transition from rural to urban, but are also symbolic of the Victorian's preoccupation with opulence and status. Like the railway, road building schemes of the time were driven by the desire for progress, often at the cost of the surrounding area. The impact of great Eastern Street, which was built in 1872-6, can still be seen in the triangular sites of land left in its wake.
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