London is richly endowed with neighborhoods which, despite their absorption into the growing metropolis, have still retained their village character. The history of these villages varies greatly. Some, such as Shoreditch and Stepney, originated as agricultural settlements very close to the edge of the City, and soon became incorporated into the urban fabric. Others were at a greater distance from the City and remained free-standing settlements amidst the fields of Middlesex, Surrey, Kent or Essex until well into the 18th century and beyond. They were ultimately converted into suburbs by a number of factors: turnpike roads brought Hampstead and Highgate into the parameters of 18th-century London, while 19th-century railway developments accounted for the absorption of Balham and Enfield. In the 20th century, Underground lines meant that even far-flung centres such as Edgware and Morden became part of Greater London. In addition, London has its share of planned "villages" such as Hampstead Garden Suburb, which followed the opening of the Golders Green Underground station in 1907, and Bedford Park, which was described by John Betjeman as "the most significant suburb built in the last century, probably in the western world".
Tudor and Stuart monarchs sought to contain the spread of London through legislation; James I feared that "soon London will be all England". His attempts and those of successive administrations failed. The population of Middlesex, that most suburban of Home Counties, rose from a mere 70,900 living in hamlets, villages and market towns in 1801, to 792,000 in 1901 and an astonishing 950,000 just four years later. Not until the Green Belt legislation of 1938 and 1947 was London's suburban spread brought to a notable and controversial halt.
Villages such as Harefield are still distinctly recognizable as such, and not too much imagination is needed to identify the village structure of Blackheath, Clapham, Hampstead or Highgate. Traces, often more obscure, of London's historic villages abound elsewhere; beneath the fabric of present-day suburbia the structure of many of London's villages still survives.
London History Atlas (Times Books, London)
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