Case Studies


Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens seems to have had a love-hate relationship with the city.

In his early years he experienced the squalor and hardship that the poor had to endure. London's lively streets formed the backdrop to many of his novels and the social injustices influenced his plots.

He was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire in 1812 and moved with his family to London when he was only 2. His father, a Navy clerk, had financial problems and was sent to a debtor’s prison at Marshalsea.

Aged 12, Charles was sent to work in a boot-blacking factory earning six shillings a week to help keep the family.

He was an avid reader and attended school when the family could afford it.

These early years of poverty influenced his writing. He became a reporter, then short-story novelist.

In 1861 he lived at 3 Hanover Terrace with his daughter Mary and sons Francis and Edward.

The census page (see below) shows Charles Dickens as the Head of the household, Married, Aged 49 with an occupation as Author, Novelist, Essayist & Editor.

The census also shows his daughter, Mary and two sons, Francis and Edward.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens in Census

Queen Victoria

Even Queen Victoria wasn’t above being recorded on the census! In 1841 she’s listed on the London census, living at Buckingham Palace with her beloved husband Prince Albert.

Victoria was a well-liked royal: intelligent and determined, she displayed a strength and aptitude for decision-making that won her great popularity with her subjects, and seemed at odds with her youth and femininity when she first ascended to the throne. She was the first royal to live in Buckingham Palace, moving in 3 weeks after her accession in 1837. By 1841 she had been Queen for four years, and had married Albert the previous spring. They had had their first daughter, the Princess Royal; and their family was to grow considerably with six more children by 1851. They had to renovate the Palace in order to accommodate more nurseries, and a new east wing and ballroom to house the spectacular costume balls and entertainments they held throughout the 1840s.

Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria in Census

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale’s greatest achievement was to raise nursing to the level of a respectable profession for women.

In November 1856, Miss Nightingale took a hotel room in London which became the centre for the campaign for a Royal Commission to investigate the health of the British Army. When Sidney Herbert was appointed chairman, she continued as a driving force behind the scenes.

In 1860, with the public subscriptions of the Nightingale Fund, she established the Nightingale Training School for nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital. The probationer nurses received a year’s training which included some lectures but was mainly practical ward work under the supervision of the ward sister. ‘Miss Nightingale’, as she was always called by the nurses, scrutinised the probationers’ ward diaries and reports.

In 1861, she wrote Notes on Nursing for the Labouring Classes, a book that gave advice to ordinary working class people, especially rural poor cottagers, to teach ‘the art of health, which every mother, girl, mistress, teacher, child’s nurse, every woman ought practically to learn.’

Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale in Census

William Gladstone

London was the backdrop to William Gladstone’s extraordinary political career, which saw him becoming Prime Minister no less than four times.

Born in 1809, he first entered the House of Commons in 1832 as a Conservative MP; but eventually found a more natural home in the Liberal party. On the 1861 London census he appears working as Chancellor of the Exchequer for the Liberals whilst living in St-Martin-in-the-Fields near Charing Cross with daughters Mary and Helen, 7 years before he first became Prime Minister in 1868.

Despite his early opposition to reform, he became a vigorous reformer in later life, and galvanized British politics: extending the vote to the working class, implementing social reforms in Ireland, changing the railway system; the list goes on. A principled man both privately and professionally, he and his wife Catherine famously walked the streets of London at night to try to persuade prostitutes to change their lives.He’s also known for introducing the red budget box to Parliament, his intense mutual dislike of Queen Victoria, and for holding the record for the longest Parliamentary speech ever: he spent a massive four hours and 45 minutes delivering the budget in 1853.

William Gladstone
William Gladstone in Census

James Whistler

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, born in 1834 in Massachusetts, came to London in 1858 after studying art in Paris.

Witty, flamboyant and extravagant, he became a fixture of London society and the contemporary art scene after exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1860. He delighted in the city, finding inspiration both for his gritty etchings of London's dockyards, showing the reality of London's shipping industry, and for his romantic, atmospheric oil paintings of the Thames and its bridges. He moved a great deal around London, and lived in Wapping and Rotherithe while producing his etchings, to better observe the areas.

Throughout the 1860s his output changed dramatically, as he developed a decorative and vivid style which eventually ensured him lasting recognition, although it was poorly received at the time. In fact, Whistler is famous for winning a court case against the critic John Ruskin, who with typical acidity declared Whistler’s Nocturne in Red and Gold little more than “flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public”; after which Whistler was left bankrupt and moved to Venice to be with his then- mistress.

He returned to London in 1880, exhibiting with greater success; and lived in Hampstead with his wife Beatrix until her death in 1896. Here on the 1861 census we can see him living at 15 Hemus Terrace, Chelsea aged 26, with his father William as his lodger. He died at 74 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea in 1903.

James Whistler
James Whistler in Census

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is an almost legendary figure in British engineering. Embodying the energy and ambition of the period, he had a huge capacity for innovation in design, and was at the forefront of the group of engineers who enabled the industrial revolution.

Born in 1806, his father (prominent French engineer and inventor Sir Marc Brunel) always intended that he become part of the family business, sending him to France at the age of 14 to study practical mathematics. Upon his return he began work on his father's Thames Tunnel Project, helping establish the world's first pedestrian tunnel under a river. Brunel became famous for his involvement at all stages of the construction process, (cutting a characteristic figure onsite in muddy trousers and a stovepipe hat in the latter stages of his career) and was severely injured in 1828 when a flood damaged much of the tunnel. He went to Bristol to convalesce; but typically didn't remain idle whilst there, entering and winning a competition to design a bridge across the Avon Gorge. His pioneering design for the Clifton Suspension bridge was completed after his death.

In 1833 he proposed plans for the rail line from Bristol to London and was appointed chief engineer to the Great Western Railway. Always good at imagining the practical realities of design, he wanted passengers to be unaware of the physical struggle of the train, and to this end incorporated bridges, tunnels, viaducts and embankments into lines, so that trains could move through the landscape as smoothly as possible, and passengers enjoy a uniquely luxurious travelling experience.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Paddington Station had to be a flexible space to accommodate the extra influx of people expected in London for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Brunel sat on a committee overseeing the construction of Crystal Palace for the exhibition, and used the same contractors to realize his design for Paddington's elegant arches and spacious roof. Another successful construction was the Royal Albert rail bridge over the Tamar; an attractive design crossing the river at its narrowest point. England's railway system was an immeasurable success. Transforming the possibilities of commerce and trade, it brought prosperity and modernity to the areas it served; and Brunel achieved great fame as its chief engineer.

Given how universally Brunel's designs are revered today, it's surprising to learn that during his own lifetime they were often subject to controversy. He fought for progress and forward-thinking in engineering, and had a long and only temporarily successful battle to try and get broad-gauge track used on all railways, to allow greater speed in train travel. Always seeking new challenges, he turned to shipbuilding, producing ideas for steamships far ahead of their time. The Great Eastern in particular was an unprecedented design: far and away the biggest ship ever created at that point, it featured a screw propeller and a wrought-iron hull. The project was heavily criticized and suffered major financial difficulties. Under great strain, he endured a major heart attack in 1859 whilst onsite. He died 10 days later; having been unable to witness the ship leave on its maiden voyage.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel in Census

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