The shifting population story of the fall and rise of inner London

terrace rooftops BW

The population is a little over 8.6 million and the city is struggling with a housing shortage. This description may sound familiar to Londoners, but it not only reflects the current reality but the situation in 1939.

London reached its previous peak in population just before the Second World War. The numbers dropped in the post war years and only broke the milestone number of 8.61 million people this year, according to estimates by the GLA.

While the numbers are back to pre-war levels the shape of the city has changed. The foreign-born population has grown from single figures to the 37% of Londoners who were born outside the UK today. Data from the GLA shows how the geography of the city population has changed too.

In 1939 far more people lived in central London – 4.4 million lived in inner boroughs while 4.1 lived in outer ones. The most highly populated areas were Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Lambeth, and can be seen as the darker areas on the map.

1939 population

A new London emerged after the war. Much housing had been destroyed in the Blitz and new house building took off in the outer London suburbs pulling the population from the centre. The effects of that trend are seen today. The population of the inner boroughs is down by 1 million while the outer boroughs have swelled by 24% to 5.1 million. The most highly populated areas in 2015 are Barnet, Croydon and Ealing.

1939 2015

But looking at the annual data in detail shows a more complex pattern of how London has changed since 1939 and continues to evolve.   The population hit its low point in 1988 driven largely by the exodus from central boroughs. The lighter areas on the population change map below show where numbers were falling up to 1988.

1939 change pre 88

But the trend begins to reverse as numbers in the capital rise again. Between 1988 and today the population has risen in every area. Tower Hamlets and Newham have seen the strongest growth but central areas like Southwark and Hackney have witnessed larger rates of increase that outlying areas.

1939 change post 88

As the capital grows to record levels it is shifting once again. The biggest rate of growth in the past 12 months is in the City of London, but the numbers are small. After that it is Tower Hamlets where there has been at a 2.3% rise in residents in a year.  And over the next 25 years the GLA projections show that Tower Hamlets will lead the growth in residents, closely followed by Newham as many head east in search of a home in the capital.

1939 projection



Source data

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