Maneuvering London’s Streets in the Regency Era

Maneuvering London’s streets in the Regency Era was a nightmare and, at points, nearly impossible to traverse. Part of the issue had to do with a population of more than a million people. Even if pedestrians attempted to escape congested foot paths by traveling in a coach or a carriage, inevitably they found that solution no faster. Streets were narrow and often filled with thousands of wagons, carriages, and coaches, all of who were also attempting to hustle and reach their destinations.

James Gillray's Characterization of Print Shop Gawkers and London's Streets

Maneuvering London’s streets is shown in this James Gillray’s characterization where travelers had to avoid print shop gawkers and still navigate London’s slippery streets. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Added to the hustling and bustling traffic was a myriad of other factors that made in impossible when maneuvering London’s streets. For instance, there were the elderly who, of course, with their canes and aging gaits slowed everyone down as they shuffled along. There were also rotund people who allowed no room for the hurried pedestrians to pass. In addition, there was the inevitable street sellers whose carts and stools blocked sidewalks and sometimes roadways.

Besides these difficulties, pedestrians dealt with plenty of other hindrances or problems when maneuvering London’s streets. These problems made it difficult to traverse the streets safely or quickly. Problems that pedestrians faced included avoiding gawkers, unpleasant weather, pavement issues, unending lines of unmoving vehicles, and, of course, keeping pickpockets at bay as they were hard to pick out and often appeared as genteel and law-abiding as their victims.

On narrow pathways and streets busy with traffic, it was inevitably that pedestrians would be trapped by gawkers or admirers examining the latest prints displayed in a print shop’s window. Among such shops was Ackermann’s, the printer for Thomas Rowlandson’s works that was located on the Strand and named “The Repository of Arts.” There was also Miss Hannah Humphrey’s business. She was the publisher and paramour to the great English caricaturist James Gillray, whose cartoons poked fun at George III, the Prince of Wales, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Humphrey’s shop was also located on the Strand, although it eventually moved to St. James’s Street. Any pedestrian in the vicinity of these shops might become victim to the conglomeration of gawkers — numerous bakers with baskets of bread on their shoulders, coal-heavers with their shovels projecting out three feet onto the sidewalk, and coachmen lined up with their horses — all of who kept “you within the sphere of the fine arts!”[1]

Print shops were not the sole problem busy pedestrians faced. Slippery sidewalks caused by rain or snow were another common impedance to traffic, and it affected pedestrians and vehicles alike. One writer noted that “narrow streets and alleys, and their wet slippery foot-ways, will not bear description or invite unnecessary visits.”[2] When visits were necessary and combined with slippery streets calamities often happened. For instance, in January of 1800, the London Chronicle reported so much “rain, snow and hail fell … several accidents happened.”[3] One accident involved a dislocated shoulder and another a broken arm, but these were just two of many incidents reported because of bad weather.

As pedestrians teeter and tottered on slippery passageways, they also found they had to deal with other elements of nature. Dense fog was one, and when it dropped, it cast a “funeral pall” that created mass confusion. This confusion was described by one witness who asserted:

“Pedestrian bore violently down upon pedestrian, and equestrian came in still more forcible contact with equestrian. Cart overturned cart — coach ran against coach — shafts were broken — wheels torn off — … passengers shouted and screamed.”[4]

Snow Hill, Holburn, London. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Supposedly, one of the worse fogs in London occurred in 1813 just after Christmas Day and it brought London to a standstill. It was described as “a thick, heavy, dense, black-looking fog, so compact that you might … liken it to [the thick stew] Scotch burgoo.”[5] One person wrote about the fog when it was at its height:

“Many persons lost themselves completely, even in the most frequented streets. Hackney-coachmen mistook the pavement for the road, and blundered over posts and against the corners of the streets. There were frequent meetings of carriages, and great mischief ensued, Foot passengers, alarmed at the idea of being run down exclaimed, ‘Look a-head!” — “Where are you coming” — “Mind!” “Take care!” Men, women, and children often got knocked down, and the screaming they made … was quite appalling.”[6]

Accidents did not always occur just because of bad weather. To make the situation worse, pavements were often rough and irregular partly due to breaches made by different water companies. There was also a common practice by city inhabitants of “throwing ashes, rubbish, broken glass, and earthen ware, offals, and other offensive things, into the streets [and on sidewalks].”[7] This made passages extremely dangerous to man and beast because streets and sidewalks became slick and icy when the weather turned cold.

One of the worse hindrances that travelers experienced when maneuvering London’s streets was the daily traffic backups. For instance, on some well-traveled but narrow streets, when wagons stopped to deliver or pickup goods at businesses or shops, they not only impeded foot traffic but also created a major nuisance in the vicinity by blocking and backing up street traffic. At other times, pedestrians found themselves victims of columns of unmoving vehicles. In fact, traffic sometimes because so heavy, the columns of wagons, coaches, and carriages had “the pole of one … close to the hind wheels of another.”[8]

Such vehicle blockages caused a myriad of other problems. They affected crossing sweepers who were denied the ability to earn a living as they could not sweep their way across the street. Moreover, the unending line of bumper-to-bumper carriages was not easily resolved. One writer maintained that even after pedestrians patiently waited a quarter of an hour, just when they thought there was room to cross and attempted such a feat, they discovered it utterly impossible to move. In fact, pedestrians found they were lucky to regain and return safely to their original spot on the pavement.

The Rule of Three Pickpockets Against One Victim, Public Domain

Maneuvering London’s streets meant travelers experienced the “Rule of Three.” Three pickpockets against one victim. Public domain.

When not attempting to cross a street, pedestrians found there was another problem maneuvering London’s street and that was guarding against pickpockets. They were adept and often indistinguishable from the sharp-dressed aristocrat. One writer pointed out that the pickpockets wore “good toggery … [as it was] considered a necessary qualification for his calling, without which the Diver could not possibly mix in genteel company, nor approach such in the streets.”[9] Moreover, women pickpockets were as expert as the men pickpockets, and all of them — male or female — robbed “indiscriminately” and they could be found everywhere, even at Madame Tussaud‘s exhibitions.

A pickpocket completed his robbery by zeroing in on a pocketbook in a person’s outer coat pocket. Then he dipped “his hand into the pocket, spreading his fingers to keep open the top, and with the forefinger and thumb [drew it out].”[10] All the while, the pickpocket smiled and was “a step or two cheek-by-jowl with the person to be robbed.”[11] If the pickpocket was good or plain lucky, he could slide a person’s pocketbook out easily. If not, he retrieved it with force. Pickpockets also operated by looking for crowds. This made it less noticeable when they bumped or jostled their victims because hardly a thought was given to a bump. So, perhaps, the wisest advice for those of the Regency Era was this, “although it seems brutish to rebuke a woman who should press against you in a crowd … this [must] … be done,” otherwise, you might end up a pickpocket’s victim.[12]


  • [1] The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Vol. 2, 1823, p. 71.
  • [2] Malcom, James Peller, Londinium Redivivum; or An Antient History and Modern Description of London, 1805, p. 481.
  • [3] The London Chronicle, Vol. 87, 1800, p. 1.
  • [4] The Parterre of Poetry and Historical Romance, Vol. 3, 1835, p. 332.
  • [5] Peter Parley’s Magazine, 1846, p. 5.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] London and Middlesex, Vol. 2, 1814, p. 94.
  • [8] The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, p. 71.
  • [9] Perry William, The London Guide and Stranger’s Safeguard Against the Cheats, Swindlers, and Pickpockets that Abound Within the Bills of Mortality, 1818, p. 23.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 26.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 29.

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