London has spent lavishly in preparation for the XXX Olympiad -- some $15 billion, according to the New York Times. In spite of the hefty price tag, cities around the globe compete for the honor of hosting the Olympics, not only because it means being the center of the world's attention for two-and-a-half weeks, but because it affords the host city a rare chance to reinvent itself. Indeed, after the 2012 games, East London will have a new cable car, the Royal Docks will have significant new developments, and the city's skyline will boast several additional skyscrapers. But this is not the first time that London has grown overnight. The tail end of the 19th century was also a period of rapid urban transformation -- one in which many of the landmarks that now define the city were constructed.
In the throes of the Industrial Revolution, London was where working horses suddenly began to compete with railroads on city streets. "Day was shining radiantly upon the town then, and the bells were going for the morning work," author Charles Dickens wrote a little more than 150 years ago about Coketown*, a fictitious northern English industrial town. "Domestic fires were not yet lighted, and the high chimneys had the sky to themselves. Puffing out their poisonous volumes, they would not be long in hiding it; but, for half an hour, some of the many windows were golden, which showed the Coketown people a sun eternally in eclipse, through a medium of smoked glass."
The London that Dickens captured was chaotic -- one of smog, children running on the street, and venders hawking wares -- but it was also a modernizing city. Historian Alex Werner* says that Dickens must have had a photographic memory, so clearly did he shape his work around the lives he witnessed. Indeed, Werner named his latest book of photographs, Dickens's Victorian London, for the English novelist and social critic. Using the archives of the Museum of London, Werner has gathered some of the oldest photographs of London, taken at a time when the city was "the global capital in the century of empire." Here, Werner's curated photographs show what London looked like the last time it underwent major transformations.
Above, Westminster as seen from Great Smith Street. In the late 1850s, British photographer Roger Fenton snapped several images to record the construction of the new Palace of Westminster. Parliament had met at the palace since the 13th century, but the original structure burned down in 1834, prompting the renovation seen above. This early print shows the new palace, which stands to this day, under construction with the Westminster School and Westminster Abbey in the foreground. Victoria Tower can be seen to the right, in the distance; on the left, construction scaffolding is visible around the Clock Tower.
*Corrections (July 26, 2012): An earlier version of this slide show misspelled Alex Werner's surname. The original version also incorrectly implied that the quote from Charles Dickens's Hard Times describes London; rather, it describes a fictitious northern English industrial town.