A History of London

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to Lucinda Wilde

Roman London

The Romans founded London about 50 AD. Its name is derived from the Celtic word Londinios, which means the place of the bold one. After they invaded Britain in 43 AD the Romans built a bridge across the Thames. They later decided it was an excellent place to build a port. The water was deep enough for ocean-going ships but it was far enough inland to be safe from Germanic raiders. Around 50 AD Roman merchants built a town by the bridge. So London was born.

The early settlement in London did not have stone walls but there may have been a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top.

Then in 61 AD Queen Boudicca led a rebellion against the Romans. Her army marched on London. No attempt was made to defend London.

Boudicca burned London but after her rebellion was crushed it was rebuilt. Rich people built houses of stone or brick with tiled roofs but most people lived in wooden houses.

By the end of the 2nd century, a stone wall was erected around London. The wall was 20 feet high. Outside the wall was a ditch. In the middle of the 3rd century, 20 bastions were added to the walls (a bastion was a semi-circular tower projecting from the wall).

The population of Roman London rose to perhaps 45,000, which seems small to us but it was the largest town in Britain. In the center of Roman London was the forum. This was a square with shops and public buildings arranged around it. The most important building in the forum was the basilica or town hall, which was 500 feet long and 70 feet high.

In Roman London, there were brickworks, potteries, and glassworks. There were also donkey-powered mills for grinding grain into flour and bakeries.

Roman London was also an important port with wooden wharves and jetties. Grain and metal were exported and luxury goods were imported. (Things like wine, olive oil, glass, fine pottery, silk, and ivory).

Rich citizens had baths in their homes but there were several public baths near the city gates. (Romans went to the baths to socialize not just to keep clean). Most people in the town got their water from wells and used cesspools but there were underground drains to remove rainwater.

Roman London also had an amphitheatre, which could hold 8,000 people. Here gladiators fought to the death. Cockfighting was also a popular sport. The last Roman soldier left Britain in 407 AD.

Saxon London

Afterward, London was probably abandoned. There may have been a few people living inside the walls by fishing or farming but London ceased to be a town. But soon it rose again. A new town appeared outside the walls on the site of Covent Garden. It was much smaller than Roman London with perhaps 10,000 inhabitants.

In 597 monks from Rome began the task of converting the Saxons to Christianity. In 604 a bishop was appointed for London.

By the 640s there was a mint in London making silver coins. In the 670s a Royal document called London the place where the ships land’. Early in the 8th century, a writer called London ‘a trading centre for many nations who visit by land and sea’. Saxon London consisted of many wooden huts with thatched roofs.

Slag from metal forges has been found proving there were many blacksmiths at work in the town. Archaeologists have also found large numbers of loom weights (used in weaving wool) Saxon craftsmen also worked with animal bones making things like combs.

The main export from Saxon London was wool, either raw or woven. Imports included wine and luxury foods like grapes and figs. Pottery and millstones were also imported. Slaves were also bought and sold in London.

Disaster struck London in 842 when the Danes looted London. They returned in 851 and this time they burned a large part of the town (an easy task when all buildings were of wood). Then the Danes gave up just raiding and turned to conquest. They conquered northern and Eastern England including London.

King Alfred the Great defeated the Danes in 878 and they split the country between them. The Danes took eastern England including London while Alfred took the South and West. Despite the peace treaty, Alfred’s men took London in 886. Alfred repaired the walls of the old Roman town. Until then Londoners lived outside the Roman walls but during Alfred’s reign, they moved inside the walls for protection. Soon foreign merchants came to live in London. By the 10th century, there were wine merchants from France at Vintners Place and German merchants at Dowgate.

The Danes returned in 994 but this time the Londoners fought them off. A writer said ‘They proceeded to attack the city stoutly and wished to set it on fire but here they suffered more harm and injury than they ever thought any citizen could do them’.

‘London Bridge is falling down’…so says the nursery rhyme. This is believed to be derived from an event that took place in the early 11th century. King Olaf of Norway attacked England but he was unable to sail up the Thames past London Bridge. So he ordered his men to erect wood and wicker canopies over their boats. They then approached London Bridge. Londoners on the bridge threw down missiles but they were unable to stop the Vikings. At that time London Bridge was made of wood. Olaf and his men tied ropes to the wooden struts supporting it. They then rowed away and London Bridge collapsed. Some historians question whether this event happened or whether it was just a legend that grew up around King (later Saint) Olaf.

London in the Middle Ages

Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) built a wooden palace at Westminster. Later Parliament met here. Because of this Westminster became the seat of government not the city of London itself. Edward also built Westminster Abbey, which was consecrated a few weeks before his death.

After the battle of Hastings, an advance guard of Normans approached London Bridge from the South but was beaten off. The Norman army then marched in a loop to the west of London to cut it off from the rest of England. William the Conqueror occupied the royal palace at Westminster and then won over the Londoners by making various promises. William was crowned king of England at Westminster on 25 December 1066.

William gave London a charter, a document confirming certain rights. Nevertheless, he built a wooden tower to stand guard over London. It was replaced by a stone tower in 1078-1100. That was the beginning of the Tower of London.

The population of London at this time was perhaps 18,000, which seems very small to us but was very large by the standards of the time. London grew in size through the 12th century and some people began to build houses outside the walls. In 1176 the wooden bridge across the Thames was replaced with a stone one.

A writer described London in the year 1180: ‘London is happy in its clean air, in the Christian religion, in the strength of its fortifications, in its natural situation, in the honor of its citizens. The Cathedral is St Pauls but there are also in London and its suburbs 13 large monasteries, besides 126 parish churches. On the east side lies the tower, very large and strong with 4 gates and turrets at intervals, and runs around the northern side of the city. To the north lie fields and meadows with small rivers flowing through them, by these water mills are driven with a pleasant murmur. To this city come merchants from every nation under heaven rejoicing to bring merchandise in their ships’.

Someone else wrote about London: ‘Among the noble and celebrated cities of the world, that of London, the capital of the Kingdom of England is one of the most renowned, possessing above others, abundant wealth, extensive commerce, great grandeur, and significance.

Medieval London was a lively place. There was a horse market at Smithfield (originally smooth field) where horse racing took place. Smithfield was also the site of public executions, which always attracted large crowds. Londoners also loved dancing in the open spaces that surrounded the town. They liked archery and wrestling and men fought mock battles with wooden swords and shields. In Winter people went ice skating on frozen marshes at Moorfield using skates made of animal bones.

In the 12th or 13th century, London was often spelled Lunden or Lundon. By the time of Chaucer in the late 14th century, it was spelled London.

In the 13th century, the friars came to London. Friars were like monks but instead of living lives separate from the world, they went out to preach. There were different orders of friars each with a different color of their costume. Dominican friars were called black friars because of their black costumes and the place where they lived in London is still called Blackfriars. There were also grey friars (Franciscans), white friars (Carmelites), and crutched friars. The word crutched is a corruption of crouche, the old English word for cross. Their proper name was Friars of the Holy Cross.

The Jews suffered from persecution during the Middle Ages. The first Jews came to England after the Norman Conquest. Jews in London lived in a ghetto in Old Jewry. They were some of the first people since Roman times to live in stone houses. They had to as wooden houses were not safe enough! In 1189 a wave of persecution resulted in the deaths of about 30 Jews. In 1264 rioters killed about 500 Jews in London. Then in 1290, all Jews were expelled from England.

In Medieval London, streets were sometimes named after the trades carried on there. Bakers lived on Bread Street and Poultry was sold on that street. Cows were kept in Milk Street for milking.

In 1381 the Peasants Revolt broke out. On 13 July the rebels marched on London and sympathizers opened the gates to them. The king and his ministers took refuge in the Tower of London while the rebels opened the prisons and looted the house of John of Gaunt, an unpopular noble. On 14 July the king met the rebels at Moorfield and made them various promises, none of which he kept.

The next day the king went to mass at Westminster while he was away the rebels broke into the Tower of London and killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and several royal officials who had taken refuge there. They confronted the king on his way back from mass. The mayor of London stabbed the leader of the rebels, fearing he was going to attack the king. Afterward, the king managed to calm the rebels and persuaded them to go home.

The population of London may have reached 50,000 by the middle of the 14th century making it far larger than any other town in England. However, at least a third of the population died when the Black Death struck in 1348-49 but London soon recovered. Its population may have reached 70,000 by the end of the Middle Ages.

London in the 16th century and 17th century

The population of London may have reached 120,000 by the middle of the 16th century and about 250,000 by 1600. In the Middle Ages, the church owned about 1/4 of the land in London. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries it released a great deal of land for new buildings.

Banqueting House was built in 1622. In 1635 the king opened Hyde Park to the public. In 1637 Charles I created Richmond Park for hunting. Also in 1637 Queens House was completed in nearby Greenwich.

Wool was still the main export from London but there were also exports of ’Excellent saffron in small quantities, a great quantity of lead and tin, sheep and rabbit skins without number, with various other sorts of fine peltry (skins), and leather, beer, cheese and other sorts of provisions’. The Royal Exchange where merchants could buy and sell goods opened in 1571.

In the early 17th century rich men continued to build houses west of London. The Earl of Bedford built houses at Covent Garden, on the Strand, and at Long Acre. He also obtained permission to hold a fruit and vegetable market at Covent Garden. Other rich people build houses at Lincoln Inn Fields and St Martins in the Fields.

On the other side of London, the village of Whitechapel was ‘swallowed up’ by the expanding city. The village of Clerkenwell also became a suburb of London. Southwark also grew rapidly.

All this happened despite outbreaks of bubonic plague. It broke out in 1603, 1633, and 1665 but each time the population of London quickly recovered.

Then in 1642 Civil War began between the king and parliament. The royalists made one attempt to capture London in 1643 but their army was met 6 miles west of St Pauls by a much larger parliamentary army. The royalists withdrew. However, the Puritan government of 1646-1660 was hated by many ordinary people, and when Charles II came to London from France in 1660 an estimated 20,000 people gathered in the streets to meet him. All the churches in London rang their bells.

The last outbreak of plague in London was in 1665. But this was the last outbreak. In 1666 came the great fire of London. It began on 2 September in a baker’s house. At first, it did not cause undue alarm. But the wind caused the flames to spread rapidly. People formed chains with leather buckets and worked hand-operated pumps all to no avail. The mayor was advised to use gunpowder to create fire breaks but he was reluctant, fearing the owners of destroyed buildings would sue for compensation. The fire continued to spread until the king took charge. He ordered sailors to make fire breaks. At the same time, the wind dropped.

About 13,200 houses had been destroyed and 70-80,000 people had been made homeless. The king ordered the navy to make tents and canvas available from their stores to help the homeless who camped in open spaces around the city. Temporary markets were set up so the homeless could buy food. but the crowds of homeless soon dispersed. Most of the houses in London were still standing and many of the homeless found accommodation in them or nearby villages. Others built wooden huts on the charred ruins.

To prevent such a disaster from happening again the king commanded that all new houses in London should be of stone and brick, not wood. Citizens were responsible for rebuilding their own houses but a tax was charged on coal brought by ship into London to finance the rebuilding of churches and other public buildings. Work began on rebuilding St Pauls in 1675 but it was not finished till 1711.

In the late 17th century fashionable houses were built at Bloomsbury and on the road to the village of Knightsbridge. Elegant houses in squares and broad straight streets were also built north of St James Palace. Soho also became built up. As well as building attractive suburbs the rich began to live in attractive villages near London such as Hackney, Clapham, Camberwell, and Streatham. In the east, the poor continued to build houses, and Bethnal Green was swallowed up’ by the growing city.

French Protestants fleeing religious persecution arrived in London. Many of them were silk weavers who lived in Spitalfields which also became a suburb of London.

In the 17th century, wealthy Londoners obtained piped water for the first time. It was brought by canal from the countryside and then was carried by hollow tree trunks under the streets. You had to pay to have your house connected.

After 1685 oil lamps lighted the streets. Hackney carriages became common in the streets of London.

In 1694 the Bank of England was formed. It moved to Threadneedle Street in 1734. Billingsgate was a general market until 1699 when an Act of Parliament made it a fish market.

London in the 18th century

The population of London rose from about 600,000 in 1700 to 950,000 in 1800. The fashionable suburbs spread north along Tottenham Court Road and northwest to the village of Paddington. By 1800 growth had spread to Islington and Chelsea. In the east growth spread to Stepney, Ratcliffe, Limehouse, and Wapping. In the south, the city spread to Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Walworth, and Kennington.

Several hospitals were founded in London in the 18th century including Westminster (1720), Guys (1724), St Georges (1733), London (1740), and Middlesex (1745).

Early in the 18th century, London was severely affected by gin drinking. Gin was cheap and for the poor, it offered a chance to forget their poverty. In the 1740s it was estimated that 1 house in 8 sold gin over the counter. In 1751 gin drinking was curtailed when duty was charged on the drink.

Many new buildings were erected in Georgian London. Buckingham Palace was built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham. It was altered in the 19th century by John Nash (1752-1835) and the first monarch to live there was Queen Victoria in 1837. Marlborough House was built in 1711. The British Museum was founded in 1753. Also in 1753 Mansion House was built as a residence for the Lord Mayor of London. In 1757 the houses on London Bridge were demolished.

In 1761 an Act of Parliament set up a body of men called the Board of Commissioners power to pave and clean the streets of London. The walls of the city were demolished between 1760 and 1766 and new bridges were built in Westminster in 1749 and Blackfriars in 1770.

Somerset House was built between 1776 and 1786 by Sir William Chambers (1724-1796).

On the South Bank were industries like leather tanning (in Bermondsey) and timber yards (in Lambeth). Many craftsmen in London made luxury goods. Silk weavers in Spitalfields, watchmakers in Clerkenwell, coach makers and furniture makers in Long Acre. There were also makers of surgical and navigational instruments and jewelers.

London was also the largest port in the country. By 1700 she was handling 80% of imports into England and 69% of her exports. There was also a large shipbuilding industry in London.

London was also a huge market for the rest of the country’s produce. In 1720 someone wrote that people all over England were employed to ‘furnish something and I may add the best of everything to supply the city of London with provisions. I mean by provisions, grain, meat, fish, butter, cheese, salt, fuel, timber, and cloth, also everything necessary for building’.

London in the 19th century

The population of London grew from 950,000 in 1800 to 6 million in 1900. At the beginning of the 19th century, rich men built estates at Somers Town, Camden Town, Walworth, Agar Town, Bromley, and Pentonville. Growth also spread to Battersea, Clapham, Camberwell, Brixton, Bayswater, and Peckham. By 1850 Deptford was part of London. Growth also spread to Fulham and Kensington.

As late as 1839 Shepherds Bush was called a ‘pleasant village’ but it was soon swallowed up. In the east Hackney, Poplar, and Cubitt Town were built up by 1850. Later in the century growth spread to East and West Ham.

After 1850 growth spread to Acton, Chiswick, Brentford, Richmond, Twickenham, and Ealing. In the North, it reached Willesden and Hampstead. Growth also spread to Hornsey and Tottenham. In the South, it spread to Putney, Wimbledon, Streatham, Dulwich, Catford, Lewisham, and Greenwich and Charlton.

After 1850 Chinese immigrants started settling in Limehouse. There were also many Irish immigrants in the Docklands. By 1850 London had 20,000 Jews. Their numbers doubled in the 1880s when many refugees arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.

Part of the reason for the growth of London was the railway, which made it possible for people to live away from the city center and travel to work each day. Euston Station was built in 1837 by Philip Hardwick (1792-1870). Kings Cross Station was built in 1852 by Lewis Cubitt (1799-1883). St Pancras was built in 1868 by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878).

However, there were epidemics of cholera in London in 1831, 1848-49, and finally in 1866. In 1859 work began on building a system of sewers for the whole city but it was not complete till 1875. After that death from the disease fell drastically.

In 1807 gas light was used for the first time at Pall Mall and by the 1840s was being used all over London. Electric light was first used in Holborn in 1883. By the 1840s there were horse-drawn buses and from the 1870’s horse-drawn trams. The first underground railway opened in 1863. At first, carriages were pulled by steam trains. The system was electrified in 1890-1905. Meanwhile, the Thames Tunnel was built in 1843.

In 1834 Parliament was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt to a design by Charles Barry. The new parliament included a great clock, which is now known as Big Ben. Originally only the bell that struck the hour was called Big Ben (It was probably named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the Commissioner of Works) but in time people began to call the whole clock tower Big Ben.

John Nash created Trafalgar Square in 1839 and Nelson’s column was erected in 1842. Furthermore, many parks were created in London in the 19th century. Regents Park opened to the public in 1838. Victoria Park opened in 1845. Battersea Park opened in 1858. Another great London landmark the Albert Hall was built in 1871 by Francis Fowke (1823-1865).

New museums were created in Victorian London. The Victoria and Albert Museum opened in 1852. The Science Museum opened in 1857 and the Natural History Museum opened in 1881.

New Scotland Yard was built in 1891 and the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Square was erected in 1892.

Meanwhile, London continued to be a great port. In the 18th century, ships tied up at wharves on the Thames but the river became overcrowded so docks were built. West India Dock (1802), London Dock (1805), East India Dock (1806) St Katherines Dock (1828), Victoria Dock (1855), Millwall Dock (1868) South West India Dock (1870), Albert Dock (1880) and Tilbury Docks (1886).

In the 19th century, London was also a great manufacturing center. Food and drink were important industries. There were flour mills and sauce factories in Lambeth and sugar refineries in Whitehall and St Georges in the East. The first tinned foods were made in Bermondsey. There were also breweries all over London.

Bermondsey and Southwark were famous for their leather industry and for hat making. Bethnal Green was noted for boot and shoemaking. The clothing trade was also important. Chemicals were made in Silvertown and West Ham. Clocks, watches, and jewelry were made in Clerkenwell. There were shipyards in Poplar, Deptford, Millwall, and Blackwall. Other industries in London included furniture making, machine and tool making, and the manufacture of horse-drawn carriages.

Tower Bridge, built in 1894

London in the 20th century

In the early 20th century London continued to grow rapidly. Hendon and Finchley became built up. Growth also spread to Harrow and Wealdstone, Twickenham, Teddington, and Kingston Upon Thames. Wimbledon and Surbiton also became suburbs of London.

Furthermore, in the early 20th century, London County Council began to build estates of council houses on the edge of the city. In 1903 the first ones were built at Tooting. Later estates were built at Norbury, Tottenham, Roehampton, Downham near Catford, and Becontree. Other estates were built at Watling and Morden.

Despite these new council house estates, 75% of houses built in London between 1919 and 1939 were private. The population of London rose from 6 million in 1900 to 8.7 million in 1939.

Westminster Cathedral was built in 1903. The Victoria and Albert Museum moved to its present home in 1909. The Geological Museum opened in 1935. White City Stadium was built in 1908. Wembley Stadium was built in 1923 and Gunnersbury Park opened in 1925. Chiswick Bridge was built in 1933.

In the early 20th century the old London industries (brewing, Sugar refining, flour milling, engineering) continued as new industries grew in the suburbs such as aircraft building, vehicle manufacturing, and making electrical goods.

London suffered badly during the Second World War. When the Blitz began in September 1940 Londoners started sleeping in the underground stations and soon 150,000 people were sleeping there overnight. In the blitz, about 20,000 people were killed and 25,000 were injured. The first blitz ended in May 1941 but in 1944 Germany began firing missiles at London and killed about 3,000 people.

In 1944 a plan for post-war London was published. The authorities felt the city was overcrowded and they planned to create a ring of satellite towns 20-30 miles from London. But the new towns attracted skilled workers away from London. The new towns had modern industries that wanted skilled workers. The unskilled and the old were left behind.

As well as building new towns the council began building flats in London. The first were built in 1948. At first, they were low rise but from 1964 high rise flats, up to 24 storeys high, were built to replace slums. Unfortunately, rehousing slum tenants in high-rise flats broke up communities. Then in 1968 came the Ronan Point disaster when a gas explosion partly destroyed a block of flats killing 4 people.

After that, the policy of demolishing slums changed, and owners were given grants to modernize their houses.

Waterloo Bridge was built in 1945. The Royal Festival Hall was built in 1951. Pollock’s Toy Museum opened in 1956. The Shell Centre was built in 1962. Millbank Tower was built in 1963. One famous London landmark, the Post Office Tower opened to the public in 1966.

Haywards Gallery opened in 1968. The Museum of London opened in 1976. A Museum of Garden History opened in 1979. The London Transport Museum opened in 1980. The Museum of the Moving Image opened in 1988. Somerset House opened to the public in 2000. It includes the Courtauld Gallery and the Gilbert Collection.

In the 1950s London boomed. Car factories were very busy. So were the aircraft factories in north London. The docks were also very busy, employing 30,000 men. But in the 1960s the docks began to suffer from the breakup of the British Empire. The newly independent countries began to trade with countries other than Britain and London’s docks suffered as a result.

Worse in 1973 Britain joined the EEC. Imports from commonwealth countries were limited by quotas or had to pay tariffs. This hurt London docks as most of their trade came from the Commonwealth. Imports from the EEC tended to go to ports like Felixstowe and Dover. The London Docks Authority tried to cut costs by shifting to a containerized dock at Tilbury but many of the old docks were forced to close. The old industries associated with them such as sugar refining and food processing suffered as well.

In the early 1970s when London was still prospering the government tried to reduce congestion by encouraging companies to move out to the provinces. Then in the mid-70s came a recession and companies looked for ways to cut costs. One way was to leave London with its high rents and high labor costs. Engineering and electrical companies now left the capital in droves and unemployment soared.

After 1976 the GLC vigorously opposed the policy of encouraging industry to leave London. The central government made a U-turn. In 1981 the Greater London Enterprise Council was set up to encourage investment in London. But unemployment remained high in the 1980s and 1990s.

One industry did boom, however – tourism, with several million foreign visitors arriving each year.

In the 1950s West Indian immigrants started to arrive in London and by 1955 20,000 were arriving each year. They met with prejudice and hostility, which culminated in the race riots at Notting Hill in 1958. In the early 1960s Asians arrived as well. Many of them took over corner shops. Both Chinese and Indians opened restaurants. Central London Mosque was built in 1977.

Despite immigration, the population of London fell after 1945. However, in the last years of the 20th century, the population began to grow rapidly again.

London in the 21st century

At the beginning of the 21st Century, London continued to grow rapidly. The Greater London Authority was created in 2000. The same year Tate Modern opened in a former power station. Furthermore, the London Eye opened to the public in 2000. In 2012 a new building was opened in London called the Shard. Also in 2012, the Olympics were held in London, confirming its status as one of the world’s greatest cities.

London Eye

In 2016 the number of visitors to London hit a new record of 37.3 million, making it one of the most visited cities in Europe. In 2022 the population of London was 9.3 million.