“London a Hundred Years Hence”

Here’s a fascinating bit of short early science fiction, newly online: “London a Hundred Years Hence” from 1857. It’s highly readable, and the author appears to be unknown. Five years before Verne’s science-fiction adventures, and some 50 years or so before breakthrough novels such as Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) and Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), this visionary little account offered a raft of accurate and very optimistic predictions for a future London. The predictions are sometimes astray by a few decades, but are otherwise remarkably accurate, including a sort of telegraphic Internet that facilitates ecommerce.

Oddly “London a Hundred Years Hence” appears to have never been reprinted, despite its concluding call to action. Perhaps this was because the author sought anonymity. Possibly for that reason it has had no attention at all — judging by a Google and Google Books search — from either: i) the historians of science fiction; ii) historians of the English utopian tradition; iii) commentators on the history of predictive futurology; or iv) the London wing of psychogeography.


Anon., The Leisure Hour (London), Volume 6, 10th December 1857.

   I HAD a vision, and a pleasant vision it was too, the other day in my easy chair, while the fire crackled and blazed in the grate, the clock ticked on the mantel-piece, and my dog Rough lay winking at the flickering flame on the rug beneath. Whether it was a waking dream or a sleeping one is a question which is not worth inquiring into, and concerning which, moreover, I am not prepared at the present moment to render any definite information. So the reader will be so good as to let that pass. And now for my narrative.

I thought I was a denizen of the air — not borne aloft on a pair of mighty wings, for I did not want wings — but wafted at will through the regions of space whithersoever I chose. I thought as well, that by some delightful, and to me it seemed perfectly natural, arrangement of affairs, I had leaped the gap of a whole century, and that, securely poised a thousand feet aloft, and endowed with telescopic vision, I looked down, through a glorious vista in the sunny summer clouds, upon the London of the year 1957.

“And pray, Mr. Dreamer, what did you see?”

Why, that is just what I am going to tell you. Not having seen London for a hundred years, as I thought, naturally enough I looked first for St. Paul’s Cathedral. There it stood in its old place just beneath me, the gilded cross and ball, as they shone in the sun’s rays, glittering like a star in the centre of the sombre-looking dome. In its old place I said, but not in its old place either, in one sense — for Ludgate Hill had moved off a hundred paces at least to the westward, and Cheapside had gone fifty yards to the east; northward, the Row and Newgate market, and all that screen of houses between the cathedral and Newgate Street had vanished altogether; and southward, over a clear open space, a grand flight of milk-white marble steps led down to the very marge of the Thames.

The Thames! could that be the Thames? When I looked into its crystal waters I could see the clear sand and white pebbles lying at the bottom, and the shadows of the swift darting fishes, as they shot through the transparent flood, chequering the river’s bed. For the mud, the slime, the poisonous filth of the past century, had all disappeared, and the finny tribes had come back to their old domain; and as I looked, the trout sported and the salmon leaped under the arches of London Bridge, as their progenitors had done in the far feudal days. Then, the river’s bank! instead of shelving shores of mud, I saw solid walls of’ granite, pierced with innumerable arches that led inwards to miles of convenient wharfage, roofed in by an ample triple road-way — part laid down with iron rails, part paved for wheel-carriages, and part a gravelled promenade for the citizens. On both banks, up the stream to Vauxhall and down the stream to Greenwich, this solid rampart engirdled the winding river, broken only by swinging bridges at intervals, communicating with vast clocks, all crowded with merchant vessels from every country on the globe. I saw, further, that most of the area on either side had been gained from the river — that it was spanned by not less than twenty new bridges, and that there was no alternation of flood and ebb tide, only a gentle full. On looking for the reason of this, I found that where the river narrows at Greenwich Reach, just below the Asylum, the water was inclosed by a substantial dyke, maintaining it at a given level, and pierced with a lock opening the passage for vessels at high water. Far beyond this point, on the left shore of the river, I could see extensive works, which I knew were the sewer works where the sewerage of the great city, collected in monster tanks, was manufactured into portable manure, and thence dispensed throughout the agricultural districts.

And the great city itself — how portentously great it had become, and what a wonderfully changed face it wore! I looked for Highgate Hill; and though not yet in the centre of London, in fulfilment of that fateful prophecy which every one knows, it was the centre of a new London of its own, and joined in a bond of brotherhood with Hampstead, the two being bound together by long ranks and rows of spacious streets, squares and crescents, alternating with pleasant promenades and flower gardens. Hampstead Heath, transformed to a people’s park, yet retained its native wildness — its patches of furze, its groves of noble trees, and precipitous surface; but gravelled walks had taken place of the rough sandy tracks; beautiful sheets of water represented the stagnant ponds; and that rough marshy ground beneath the outlook towards Harrow was cleared and, levelled for the athletic sports of the populace.

Not less had the city spread in other directions. Like the stone-crop on a garden-wall, the brick-crop, ever spreading and spreading, had crept on and on: Kew and Hammersmith were London; Lewisham and Blackheath were London; Woolwich and Blackwall were London; a circuit of a hundred and fifty miles would hardly have inclosed the wide domain of brick. And yet of brick in its bare ugliness, sooth to say, I could see but little. It seemed that some good genius had inspired the Londoners with the notion, than which nothing can be truer, that ugliness, besides being a bore, is a positive evil; for barefaced brick had been put to shame and compelled to wear a decent coat of stucco or paint, to hide his nakedness from view. All London was gay and lively with pleasant colours; the old street fronts, where they had not been replaced by new, had yet mounted new tints; the dingy brown black of the brick had vanished, and white, green, and pleasant greys laughed instead of frowned in their place.

I knew by this agreeable aspect of affairs that that old phthisicky nuisance the Fog had had long ago his orders to decamp, and had decamped accordingly. He had packed up to go, I found, when they began embanking the river; he couldn’t stand that sort of thing long — it was clean against all precedent — and when that thorough drainage was done, which had to be done to render the embankment complete, he curled himself up under a puff’ of westerly wind and rolled off into the German Ocean, never to return.

Still, I thought, the departure of Mr. Fog could never make London look so bright and clean as I saw it looking. So, swooping down some five hundred feet or so, and looking a little nearer, I discovered that London had no longer not only any fog, but also not any smoke. “Ha, ha!” said I to myself, “that accounts for it.” Fact was — for I seemed to know all facts the moment I wanted to know them — fact was, that some common-sense person, not by any means a common person though, had discovered, about the year nineteen hundred, that the production of smoke, for which London had so long been famed, was not only a nuisance most destructive in its effects, but a mighty unprofitable business to the producer. He succeeded (being a rather pertinacious fellow, or he couldn’t have done it) in showing the citizens that in making smoke to choke one another, they wasted fuel and paid dearly for what was no luxury. He succeeded, too, in showing them how to burn their fuel instead of wasting it in the form of smoke, and like sensible people they took to doing it with a right good will. Some objectors there were, as usual, lovers of good old times, who determined to go smoking on in the old way; but then, the thing once shown to be practicable, the Parliament wisely took it in hand, and by a summary law compelled the recusants to conform.

Fog and smoke gone from London, I thought I would see how the poor folks benefited by the change, in their miserable quarters. I bent to look at Spitalfields. Whew! Spitalfields was gone, with all its conglomerate of dilapidation and trumpery; and in place of the old, dark, tortuous, and fetid slums of tumble-down tenements, I saw wide roomy thoroughfares and tall white substantial houses, noble to look at and capital to live in. I knew, by the long wide windows to let in light, that the silk-weavers were there still, and in fact I heard the rattle of their looms; and I heard, too, what I had never heard before in that place, blithe merry voices singing gaily at their labour, and the delightful prattle of healthy children frolicking in their play. Whether the old houses had tumbled down from age and decrepitude I did not care to know; here were the new ones, clean, spacious, and healthy, each containing a score of families and more, and each family enjoying as much as it chose its own convenient seclusion among the rest.

I turned from Spitalfields to old Bermondsey, and there the same transformation had taken place. Thence I glanced over to St. Giles’s, and thence again to Agar Town, and thence to far Whitechapel and Bethnal Green; all to no purpose – I could not find these old slums of London anywhere, search in what quarter I might. All had been cleared away. On the sites of squalid courts and disease-engendering dens, were wide open spaces dotted with vast edifices towering far above the old-fashioned house roofs, and which I knew were the homes of the industrial classes, pervaded by a spirit of order, cleanliness, sobriety, and brotherly kindness, and the permanent abodes of health and contentment.

I looked for the gin-shops, which used to be the people’s palaces a hundred years ago; and sure enough I found a good many of them in their old places at the corners of the streets; but lo! on a nearer view, they were gin-shops no longer, but reading-rooms, lecture-rooms, and popular institutions for the promotion of knowledge. I saw how this had come to pass. When the old slums were routed out, and had given place to comfortable dwellings, the spirits of the poor rose out of that depression which always begets recklessness, the sanctuary became more frequented, they began, too, to take pleasure in their new abodes, in their surroundings, in their personal appearance — and so onwards and upwards to the cultivation of the heart and intellect. As this feeling grew, the gin-shops declined in popular estimation; as a consequence, they declined in splendour of appearance, and assumed by degrees a rather dingy and draggled aspect. Then, said the working-man to the gin-spinner: “We don’t want you any longer; your day is past, and you may go your way. We want to get knowledge; we don’t want to get drunk; so off with you, my friend.” And so the gin-spinner had to step out, and then incontinently the schoolmaster stepped in, and he hung out his banner on the walls, and his cry was not, “Come and get drunk, to fill my pockets, O swinish multitude;” but, “Men and brethren, come and get instruction, and perish no longer for lack of knowledge.” Thus Wisdom lifted up her voice in the streets, and I could see plainly enough that she had not spoken in vain.

I looked down upon Newgate. That old granite fastness had put on a new face, and throbbed with a new heart. Transformed from a city prison to a national reformatory, it was no longer the receptacle of dark despair and hopeless remorse, but of sorrow for past sin and of true penitence, and earnest hearty endeavours to cease from wrong-doing and lead a new life. Good and faithful men and tender loving women laboured there in the work of social amelioration, to bring the wanderer back to the path of duty, to instruct the ignorant, and to qualify the neglected and helpless to earn industriously an honest living. Crime, I saw, had been vastly diminished. The old predatory generations had died out; and the juvenile reformatories, the ragged schools of the last century, and the industrial homes of a later day, had caught up the new while they were yet young, and by gentle discipline and careful moral training, had won over the majority to the practice of a virtuous life.

What struck me most, among the material changes that had taken place in the huge Babylon, was the aspect and condition of the streets. There was no longer a narrow jostled thoroughfare to be found. The entire Strand, for instance, was a uniform width throughout; and parallel with it a good part of the way on the north side, was another street almost as wide, and devoted exclusively to the heavy traffic of commerce. The old horse omnibusses had all disappeared, and instead of them numberless light carriages ran in tram-roads next the foot-way, drawn by some application of electric power, and stopping at short intervals. Everybody seemed to ride as it suited them, paying their way by a single smallest coin. These tram carriages were on each side of the way, and constantly running in contrary directions; the middle space between them was the horse and carriage route, and from its amplitude, and the absence of all heavy traffic, formed a convenient and spacious drive.

Then the shops — they also had undergone a grand transformation. The system of ruinous competition appeared to have worn itself out. Of placarded puffs, of window-ticketed goods, of promenading wooden banners, I saw nothing. Many private shops still of course remained, but in not a few instances shopkeepers had combined together to co-operate for mutual advantage, instead of competing for mutual destruction; and I beheld vast associative stores, the depositories of the skilled worker in every craft, where all that talent could invent or industry produce was displayed in magnificent abundance beneath one ample roof. One shop of this kind for each single branch of commerce sufficed for a large district, and the decreased expenditure in rent, fittings, and service, reduced the cost of management, and consequently the price of products. But the change had a still better effect: as the producer and the proprietor were never the salesmen of their own wares, falsification and adulteration had been abandoned, from motives of policy at least, if not of honesty, and the buyer might be sure of unsophisticated goods for his money. Some of these shops were vast magazines of wealth, covering wide areas, and perfectly dazzling with the splendour of their contents. The purchaser walked through long galleries, where, ranged in orderly array, glittered and gleamed the gold, the gems, the jewels of every clime. Some were as rich in works of pictorial or fictile art; and some, again, had inexhaustible stores of intellectual wealth. Books on all subjects, and which seemed, from the abundance of their illustrations, to speak as much to the eye as to the mind, abounded in inconceivable stores in these repositories; and every household, however humble, had its family library, and, what was better still, its family of readers. I observed that from each of these district shops innumerable electric wires branched off in all directions, communicating with several houses in the district to which it belonged. Thus, no sooner did a house-keeper stand in need of any article than she could despatch the order instantaneously along the wire, and receive the goods by the very first railway carriage that happened to pass the store. Thus, she saved her time, and she lost no money, because all chaffering and cheapening, and that fencing between buyer and seller, which was once deemed a pleasure, had been long voted a disgraceful, demoralizing nuisance, and was done away with. The electric wires ran along the fronts of the houses near the upper stories, crossing the streets at an elevation at which they were scarcely visible from below; and I noticed that the dwellings of friends, kindred, and intimates were thus banded together, not only throughout the whole vast city, but even far out into the provinces, and, in cases where the parties were wealthy, to the uttermost limits of the realm.

One result of this extended social intimacy and sympathy was pleasingly apparent. The old walls of separation which had formerly shut out rich from poor and poor from rich, had crumbled beneath it, and were fast falling to decay. I knew that by unmistakeable signs. I saw lords and labourers mingling together in manly sports; the recreation-grounds were numerous; holidays were of weekly occurrence; the artisan bowled out the gentleman at cricket, and the gentleman never thought of his gentility in returning the compliment. The nobles had thrown open their beautiful galleries of art to the people; and the people; imbued with the love of the beautiful and the true in nature and imagination, grew refined and gentle under the influence of art. The public squares and gardens of the city were all thrown open likewise, and, no longer surrounded by iron rails, were free to all alike. And now, the atmosphere being pure and sweet, exquisite flowers grew and flourished in all available spots; their fragrance filled the summer air, and most citizens had their gardens, where the rich blossoms swayed and nodded in the breeze.

I looked into the churches and places of worship, and there I saw that in the house of prayer social distinctions far less prevailed; the gorgeous few, screened off, cushioned and private, had vanished, and with it had vanished the hard narrow plank that was once the poor man’s purgatory. I saw by that, that rich and poor now really met, and worshipped together before the throne of Him who is the Maker of them all, and had ceased to parade the vain and trifling accidents of birth and circumstance in that sacred presence.

I looked into the law courts. I did not see the huge horsehair wigs and the black gowns. I saw a few sage elders quietly discussing questions of right, not by points of law and the authority of precedent, but by the force of reason, equity, and the common-sense rule of justice. I looked into the hospitals, where in former times poor stricken humanity, “Stretched in disease’s shapes abhorred,” had languished in miserable suffering. Here the change was marvellous indeed. Though the population of the almost measureless city could now be hardly less than seven millions, I saw literally no cases of suffering from what could be strictly defined as disease. Smallpox and fever had vanished; gout, rheumatisms, lumbagos, had taken themselves off; asthmas and consumptions were things of the past; cholera was a tradition to be read of in old books, along with black plague and gaol distemper; and the scourge of typhus had been banished from the city along with the foul air, the bad drainage, the exhalations of the marshes, and the fetid odours of the old river’s banks. The cases I saw under treatment were cases mostly of a surgical kind, and were the results of accident. Some few there were of disorders arising from over exercise, excess in youthful frolics, unwise exposure to atmospheric action; but of foul, contagious, endemic diseases, not one. The reason was, that for the past generation or two the sources of disease had, on the one hand, been removed; and, on the other, the medical faculty, having less to do in the cure of such ills, had taken up with the business of prevention, in which they had finally succeeded so well as to reduce the amount of preventable deaths, which a hundred years before had been some thousands per annum, almost to nil; and, you may depend upon it, the public, whose lives they had saved, did not suffer them to go without their reward.

During my airy survey, one thing had struck me all the way along. This was the changed costume of the people. I should hardly have known them for English by their dress; they wore neither hats nor bonnets, judging such things by the shapes of the old days. The black cylinder had disappeared from the heads of the males, and the heads of the females, no longer semi-nude as I had seen them last, were sheltered in light and graceful coverings which I am not man-milliner enough to describe. Fashion seemed to have abandoned her frolics, and given place to propriety and utility in the garments of both sexes. I am sorry, however, that I cannot go into particulars on this interesting subject; but I really cannot — for just at this crisis in my survey, that shaggy dog of mine, Rough, started up from the rug with a tremendous bark at something he heard behind the wainscot, and roused me out of my dream. In a moment the monster Babylon of nineteen hundred and fifty-seven rolled itself up like a scroll, and I saw it no more.

I could not help, however, as I yawned and rubbed my eyes a little, and poked up the fading fire — I could not help, I say, wishing the vision were true. Do not you wish the same, reader? Then lend your aid to attempt its realization.