London’s history has been a long and turbulent two millennia in which many different settlements and long-established villages slowly grew together to form the immense city around the Roman core that still marks London’s heart today.
The Romans are the real fathers of London, despite there being a settlement of some form or another along the Thames for several thousand of years before their arrival. Amazingly, the Roman wall built around the settlement of Londinium still more or less demarcates the City from neighbouring municipal authorities today.
The Romans first visited in the 1st century BC, traded with the Celts and had a browse around. In AD 43 they returned with an army led by Emperor Claudius and decided to stay, establishing the port of Londinium. They built a wooden bridge across the Thames (near the site of today’s London Bridge) and used the settlement as a base from which to capture other tribal centres, which at the time provided much bigger prizes. The bridge became the focal point for a network of roads fanning out around the region, and for a few years the settlement prospered from trade.
This growth was nipped in the bud around AD 60 when an army led by Boudicca, queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe based in East Anglia, took violent retribution on the Roman soldiers, who had abused her family and seized their land. The Iceni overran Camulodunum (Colchester) – which had become capital of Roman Britannia – and then turned on Londinium, massacring its inhabitants and razing the settlement. Boudicca was eventually defeated (and according to legend is buried under platform 10 of King’s Cross station), and the Romans rebuilt London around Cornhill.
A century later the Romans built the defensive wall around the city, fragments of which survive. The original gates – Aldgate, Ludgate, Newgate and Bishopsgate – are remembered as place names in contemporary London. Excavations in the City suggest that Londinium, a centre for business and trade although not a fully-fledged colonia (settlement), was an imposing metropolis whose massive buildings included a basilica, an amphitheatre, a forum and the governor’s palace.
By the middle of the 3rd century AD Londinium was home to some 30,000 people of various ethnic groups, and there were temples dedicated to a large number of cults. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, this became the official religion of the entire empire, although the remains of the Temple of Mithras survive in the City, a testament to London’s pagan past.
Overstretched and worn down by ever-increasing barbarian invasions, the Roman Empire fell into decline, as did Londinium. When the embattled Emperor Honorius withdrew the last soldiers in 410, the remaining Romans scarpered and the settlement was reduced to a sparsely populated backwater.
What happened to London after the Roman withdrawal is still the subject of much historical debate. While the Dark Ages have become considerably better illuminated in the past two decades with archaeological finds and improved technology, there remain several key unknowns including whether or not the Roman walled city was ever entirely abandoned. Most historians now think that some form of Romano-British continuity survived even as Saxon settlers established themselves throughout the southeast of England.
Lundenwic (or London marketplace) was established due west of Londinium (around Aldwych) as a Saxon trade settlement and by the early 7th century the Saxons were converted from paganism to Christianity. Rome designated Lundenwic as a diocese and the first St Paul’s Cathedral was established at the top of Ludgate Hill.
Saxon settlement was predominantly outside the city walls to the west, towards what is now Aldwych and Charing Cross, but the settlement became the victim of its own success when it attracted the Vikings of Denmark, who raided the city in 842 and burned it to the ground 10 years later. Under the leadership of King Alfred the Great of Wessex, the Saxon population fought back, drove the Danes out in 886 and re-established what soon became Lundunburg as the major centre of trade.
Saxon London grew into a prosperous and well-organised town divided into 20 wards, each with its own alderman, and resident colonies of German merchants and French vintners. But the Danes wouldn’t let it lie, and Viking raids finally broke the weakening Saxon leadership, which was forced to accept the Danish leader Canute as king of England in 1016.
With the death of Canute’s son Harthacanute in 1042, the throne passed to the Saxon Edward the Confessor, who went on to found an abbey and palace at Westminster on what was then an island at the mouth of the River Tyburn (which now flows underground). When Edward moved his court to Westminster, he established divisions that would – geographically, at least – dominate the future of London. The port became the trading and mercantile centre (the area now known as the City), while Westminster became the seat of politics and administration.
The most famous date in English history, 1066 marks the real birth of England as a unified nation state. After the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066 a dispute over who would take the English throne spelled disaster for the Saxon kings. Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was anointed successor by Edward on his deathbed, but this enraged William, the duke of Normandy, who believed Edward had promised him the throne. William mounted a massive invasion of England from France and on 14 October defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, before marching on London to claim his prize. William the Conqueror was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey on December 25 1066, ensuring the Norman conquest was complete. He subsequently found himself in control of what was by then the richest and largest city in the kingdom.
William distrusted ‘the fierce populace’ of London and built several strongholds, including the White Tower, the core of the Tower of London. Cleverly, he kept the prosperous merchants on side by confirming the City’s independence in exchange for taxes. Sometime following the Norman conquest, London became the principal town of England, overtaking Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex.
The 45-year reign (1558–1603) of Elizabeth I is still looked upon as one of the most extraordinary periods in English history, and it was just as significant for London. During these four decades English literature reached new and still unbeaten heights; religious tolerance gradually became accepted doctrine, although Catholics and some Protestants still faced persecution. England became a naval superpower, having defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588; and the city established itself as the premier world trade market with the opening of the Royal Exchange in 1566.
London was blooming economically and physically; in the second half of the 16th century the population doubled to 200,000. The first recorded map of London was published in 1558, and John Stow produced A Survey of London, the first history of the city, in 1598.
This was also the golden era of English drama, and the works of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson packed them in at new playhouses such as the Rose (built in 1587) and the Globe (1599). Both of these were built in Southwark, a notoriously ‘naughty place’ at the time, teeming with brothels, bawdy taverns and illicit sports such as bear baiting. Most importantly, they were outside the jurisdiction of the City, which frowned upon and even banned theatre as a waste of time.
When Elizabeth died without an heir in 1603, she was succeeded by her second cousin, who was crowned James I. Although the son of Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, James was slow to improve conditions for England’s Catholics and drew their wrath. He narrowly escaped death when Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605 was uncovered. The discovery of the audacious plan is commemorated on this date each year with bonfires, fireworks and the burning of Guy Fawkes effigies throughout England.
When Charles I came to the throne in 1625 his intransigent personality and total belief in the ‘divine right of kings’ set the monarchy on a collision course with an increasingly confident Parliament at Westminster and a City of London tiring of extortionate taxes. The crunch came when Charles tried to arrest five antagonistic MPs who fled to the City, and in 1642 the country slid into civil war.
The Puritans, extremist Protestants and the City’s expanding merchant class threw their support behind general Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Parliamentarians (the Roundheads), who battled against the Royalist troops (the Cavaliers). London was firmly with the Roundheads, and Charles I was defeated in 1646, although a Second Civil War (1648–49) and a Third Civil War (1649–51) continued to wreak havoc on what had been a stable and prosperous nation.
The outcome of the English Civil War was short-lived. Charles I was beheaded for treason outside Banqueting House in Whitehall on 30 January 1649, famously wearing two shirts on the cold morning of his execution so as not to shiver and appear cowardly.
Cromwell ruled the country as a republic for the next 11 years, during which time Charles I’s son, Charles II, continued fighting for the restoration of the monarchy. During the Commonwealth of England, as the English Republic was known, Cromwell banned theatre, dancing, Christmas and just about anything remotely fun.
After Cromwell’s death, Parliament decided that the royals weren’t so bad after all and restored the exiled Charles II in 1660. Death was deemed too good for Cromwell, whose exhumed body was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. His rotting head was displayed on a spike at Westminster Hall for two decades.
Despite the immense wealth that London experienced during the reign of the Tudors, the capital remained a crowded and filthy place where most of the population lived below the poverty line. A lack of basic sanitation (urine and faeces were routinely poured into the streets from the slop bucket), dirty water and overcrowding had all contributed to recurrent outbreaks of deadly illnesses and fevers. The city had suffered from outbreaks of bubonic plague since the 14th century, but all previous incidences were dwarfed by the Great Plague of 1665.
As the plague spread, the panicked population retreated behind closed doors, only venturing out for supplies and to dispose of their dead. Previously crowded streets were deserted, the churches and markets were closed, and an eerie silence descended on the city. To make matters worse, the mayor believed that dogs and cats were the spreaders of the plague and ordered them all killed, thus in one stroke ridding the disease-carrying rats of their natural predators. By the time the winter cold arrested the epidemic, 100,000 people had perished; the corpses were collected and thrown into vast ‘plague pits’, many of which stand empty of buildings to this day.
The plague finally began to wane in late 1665, leaving the city’s population decimated and a general superstition that the deaths had been a punishment from God for London’s moral squalor. Just as Londoners breathed a sigh of relief, another disaster struck. The city had for centuries been prone to fire, as nearly all buildings were constructed from wood, but the mother of all blazes broke out on 2 September 1666 in a bakery in Pudding Lane in the City.
It didn’t seem like much to begin with – the mayor himself dismissed it as ‘something a woman might pisse out’ before going back to bed – but the unusual September heat combined with rising winds created a tinderbox effect, and the fire raged out of control for days, razing some 80% of London. Only eight people died (officially at least), but most of London’s medieval, Tudor and Jacobean architecture was destroyed. The fire was finally stopped at Fetter Lane, on the very edge of London, by blowing up all the buildings in the inferno’s path. It is hard to overstate the scale of the destruction – 89 churches and more than 13,000 houses were razed, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. Many Londoners left for the countryside, or to seek their fortunes in the New World.
One positive aspect of the inferno was that it created a blank canvas upon which master architect Christopher Wren could build his magnificent churches. Wren’s plan for rebuilding the entire city was unfortunately deemed too expensive, and the familiar pattern of streets that had grown up over the centuries since the time of the Romans quickly reappeared (by law, brick and stone designs replaced the old timber-framed, overhanging Tudor houses, to avoid a repeat of 1666; many roads were widened for the same reason). At this time, Charles II moved to St James’s Palace, and the surrounding area was taken over by the gentry, who built the grand squares and town houses of modern-day Mayfair and St James’s in order to be close to the court.
By way of memorialising the blaze – and symbolising the restoration and resurgence of the subsequent years – the Monument, designed by Wren, was erected in 1677 near the site of the fire’s outbreak. At the time it was by far the highest structure in the city, visible from everywhere in the capital.
In 1685 some 1500 Huguenot refugees arrived in London, fleeing persecution in Catholic France. Many turned their hands to the manufacture of luxury goods such as silks and silverware in and around Spitalfields and Clerkenwell, which were already populated with Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants and artisans. London was fast becoming one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places.
The Glorious (ie bloodless) Revolution in 1688 brought the Dutch king William of Orange to the English throne. He relocated from Whitehall Palace to a new palace in Kensington Gardens, and the surrounding area smartened itself up accordingly. In order to raise finances for his war with France – and as a result of the City’s transformation into a centre of finance rather than manufacturing – William III established the Bank of England in 1694.
London’s growth continued unabated, and by 1700 it was Europe’s largest city, with 600,000 people. The influx of foreign workers brought expansion to the east and south, while those who could afford it headed to the more salubrious environs of the north and west. London today is still, more or less, divided along these lines.
The crowning glory of the ‘Great Rebuilding’, Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral, was completed in 1710 – one of the largest cathedrals in Europe and one of the city’s most prominent and visible landmarks to this day.
Victoria’s self-indulgent son Edward, the Prince of Wales, was already 60 by the time he was crowned Edward VII in 1901. London’s belle époque was marked with the introduction of the first motorised buses, which replaced the horse-drawn versions that had plodded their trade since 1829, and a touch of glamour came in the form of luxury hotels such as the Ritz in 1906 and department stores such as Selfridges in 1909. The Olympics were held at White City in 1908.
What became known as the Great War (WWI) broke out in August 1914, and the first German bombs fell from zeppelins near the Guildhall a year later, killing 39 people. Planes were soon dropping bombs on the capital, killing in all some 650 Londoners (half the national total of civilian casualties).
While the young, moneyed set kicked up their heels after the relative hardships of the war, the ‘roaring ’20s’ brought only more hardship for most Londoners, with an economic slump increasing the cost of living.
The population continued to rise, reaching nearly 7.5 million in 1921. The London County Council (LCC) busied itself clearing slums and building new housing estates, while the suburbs encroached ever deeper into the countryside.
Unemployment rose steadily as the world descended into recession. In May 1926 a wage dispute in the coal industry escalated into a nine-day general strike, in which so many workers downed tools that London virtually ground to a halt. The army was called in to maintain order and to keep the city functioning, but the stage was set for more than half a century of industrial strife.
Despite the economic woes, the era brought a wealth of intellectual success. The 1920s were the heyday of the Bloomsbury Group, which counted writer Virginia Woolf and economist John Maynard Keynes in its ranks. The spotlight shifted westwards to Fitzrovia in the following decade, when George Orwell and Dylan Thomas clinked glasses with contemporaries at the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte St.
Cinema, TV and radio arrived, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired its first radio broadcast from the roof of Marconi House on the Strand in 1922, and the first TV programme from Alexandra Palace 14 years later.
The royal family took a knock when Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 to marry a woman who was not only twice divorced but, heaven save us, an American. The same year Oswald Mosley attempted to lead the British Union of Fascists on an anti-Jewish march through the East End but was repelled by a mob of around half a million at the famous Battle of Cable St.
Once the celebrations of Victory in Europe (VE) day had died down, the nation faced the huge toll that the war had taken. The years of austerity had begun, with much rationing of essential items and high-rise residences being built on bomb sites in Pimlico and the East End to solve the capital’s chronic housing problem. Hosting the 1948 Olympics and the Festival of Britain in 1951 boosted morale. The festival recalled the Great Exhibition of a century earlier, with a new complex of arts buildings, the South Bank Centre, built on the site of the festival.
The gloom returned, quite literally, on 6 December 1952 in the form of the Great Smog, the latest disaster to beset the city. A lethal combination of fog, smoke and pollution descended, and some 4000 people died of smog-related illnesses. This led to the 1956 Clean Air Act, which introduced zones to central London where only smokeless fuels could be burned.
Rationing of most goods ended in 1953, the year the current queen, Elizabeth II, was crowned following the death of her much-loved father King George VI the year before.
Immigrants from around the world – particularly the former British colonies – flocked to postwar London, where a dwindling population had led to labour shortages. The city’s character changed forever. However, as the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 attest, despite being officially encouraged to come, new immigrants weren’t always welcomed on the streets.
Some economic prosperity returned in the late 1950s, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told Britons they’d ‘never had it so good’. London was the place to be during the 1960s when the creative energy that had been bottled up in the postwar era was spectacularly uncorked. London became the epicentre of cool in fashion and music, and the streets were awash with colour and vitality. The introduction of the contraceptive pill, legalisation of homosexuality and the popularisation of drugs such as marijuana and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) through the hippy movement created an unprecedented permissive and liberal climate, outraging the conservative older generations and delighting the young. Two seminal events were the Beatles recording at Abbey Rd and the Rolling Stones performing free in front of half a million people in Hyde Park. Carnaby St was the most fashionable place on earth, and pop-culture figures from Twiggy and David Bailey to Marianne Faithfull and Christine Keeler became the icons of the new era.
The party didn’t last long, however, and London returned to the doldrums in the harsh economic climate of the 1970s, a decade marked by unemployment and Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombs. But, ever thriving on adversity, London ensured it was at the centre of the world’s attention when in the mid-1970s a new aesthetic, punk, came vomiting and swearing into sight.
Despite the sexual liberation of the swinging ’60s, London had remained a relatively conservative place, and the generation that had witnessed flower power as kids suddenly took things a step further, horrifying Daily Mail readers with strategically placed safety pins, dyed hair, mohawks and foul language. Punk was born – Vivienne Westwood shocked and awed the city with the wares from her clothing shop, Sex, on King’s Rd, while the Sex Pistols’ alternative national anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’, released during the national celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, was more outrageous than anything the ’60s had come up with.
While the music and fashion scene was in overdrive, torpor had set into Britain’s body politic, as demonstrated by the brief and unremarkable Labour premiership of James Callaghan (1976–79). He was seen as weak and in thrall to the all-powerful trade unions, who crippled the UK with strikes in the late 1970s, most significantly during the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978–79.
Recovery began – at least for the business community – under the iron fist of Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the Conservative Party, who was elected Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979. Her monetarist policy created a canyon between rich and poor, while her determination to crush socialism and shut down huge swathes of Britain’s outdated manufacturing industry sent unemployment skyrocketing. Her term was marked by rioting and unrest, most famously in Brixton in 1981 and Tottenham in 1985. Hugely popular abroad and largely reviled in her own country by anyone with a social conscience, Thatcher was nonetheless one of the most notable prime ministers of recent times.
The Greater London Council (GLC), under the leadership of ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, proved to be a thorn in Thatcher’s side and fought a spirited campaign to bring down the price of public transport. Thatcher responded in 1986 by abolishing the GLC, leaving London as the only European capital without a local government. The GLC wouldn’t resurface for another 14 years, during which many of London’s problems from transport to housing became entrenched.
While poorer Londoners suffered under Thatcher’s assault on socialism, things had rarely looked better for the wealthy. Riding on a wave of confidence partly engendered by the deregulation of the Stock Exchange in 1986, London underwent explosive economic growth. New property developers proved to be only marginally more discriminating than the Luftwaffe, though some outstanding modern structures, including the Lloyd’s of London building, went up amid all the other rubbish.
Like previous booms, the one of the late 1980s proved unsustainable. As unemployment started to rise and people found themselves living in houses worth much less than what they had paid for them, Thatcher introduced a flat-rate poll tax. Protests around the country culminated in a 1990 march on Trafalgar Sq that ended in a fully-fledged riot. Thatcher’s subsequent forced resignation brought to an end a divisive era in modern British history, and her roundly derided successor, her former Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Major, employed a far more collective form of government, something that was anathema to Thatcher.
In 1992, to the horror of most Londoners, the Conservatives were elected for a fourth successive term in government, even though the inspiring leadership of Thatcher was gone. The economy went into a tailspin shortly after, and Britain was forced to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), a humiliation from which it was impossible for the government to recover. To add to the government’s troubles, the IRA detonated two huge bombs, one in the City in 1992 and another in the Docklands four years later, killing several people and damaging millions of pounds’ worth of property.
Invigorated by its sheer desperation to return to power, the Labour Party, having elected the thoroughly telegenic Tony Blair to lead it, managed to ditch some of the more socialist-sounding clauses in its party credo and reinvent itself as New Labour, finally leading to a huge landslide win in the May 1997 general election. The Conservatives were atomised throughout the country, and the Blair era had begun.
Most importantly for London, Labour recognised the legitimate demand the city had for local government, and created the London Assembly and the post of mayor. Despite this laudable attempt to give Londoners back the much-needed representation stolen by Thatcher, Blair quickly discredited himself by attempting to rig the Labour mayoral selection process against New Labour’s then bête noire Ken Livingstone, former leader of the GLC. Londoners were incensed at Blair’s attempts to parachute his close ally Frank Dobson into the position, and when Livingstone stood as an independent candidate he stormed the contest. However, Livingstone never became the thorn in Blair’s side that many predicted. His hugely successful congestion charge has done wonders for the city’s traffic flow, and following a quiet readmission to the Labour Party, is looked upon as one of the party’s most significant weapons.
London became the focal point for popular scepticism about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. On 15 February 2003, it saw one of the largest demonstrations in its entire history when more than 750,000 people from all over the UK marched through the city to a mass rally in Hyde Park.
Two years later a far smaller crowd on Trafalgar Sq reacted jubilantly to the announcement on 6 July 2005 by the International Olympic Committee that London would be the first triple Olympic city in history, being awarded the 2012 games – which had been widely tipped to go to Paris. However, London’s buoyant mood was shattered the very next morning when terrorists detonated a series of explosions on the city’s public transport network killing 52 innocent people. Triumph turned to terror, followed quickly by anger and then defiance.
Despite at one time being the most popular leader in modern British history, by the end of Tony Blair’s period in office he was deeply resented and mistrusted by Londoners. Still, Blair was able to choose his departure date from No 10 himself and there was never a serious rebellion against him in the Labour Party despite the mess of Iraq.
Successive medieval kings were happy to let the City of London keep its independence as long as its merchants continued to finance their wars and building projects. When Richard I (known as ‘the Lionheart’) needed funds for his crusade to the Holy Lands, he recognised the City as a self-governing commune, and the appreciative merchants duly coughed up. The City’s first mayor, Henry Fitz Aylwin, was elected sometime around 1190. A city built on money and commerce, London would always guard its independence furiously, as Richard’s successor, King John, learned the hard way. In 1215 John was forced to cede to the powerful barons, and to curb his excessive demands for pay-offs from the City. Among those pressing him to seal the Magna Carta of 1215 (which effectively diluted royal power) was the by then powerful mayor of the City of London. The British Library holds two copies of the Magna Carta.
Trade and commerce boomed, and the noblemen, barons and bishops built lavish houses for themselves along the prime real estate of the Strand, which connected the City with the Palace of Westminster, the new seat of royal power. The first stone London Bridge was built in 1176, although it was frequently clogged, and most people crossed the river with waterboatmen (who plied their trade until the 18th century). Their touting shouts of ‘Oars? Oars?’ are said to have confused many a country visitor tempted by more carnal services.
Though fire was a constant threat in the cramped and narrow houses and lanes of 14th-century London, disease caused by unsanitary living conditions and impure drinking water from the Thames was the greatest threat to the burgeoning city. In 1348, rats on ships from Europe brought the Black Death, a bubonic plague that wiped out almost two-thirds of the population (of 100,000) over the following decades.
With their numbers subsequently down, there was growing unrest among labourers, for whom violence became a way of life, and rioting was commonplace. In 1381, miscalculating – or just disregarding – the mood of the nation, Richard II tried to impose a poll tax on everyone in the realm. Tens of thousands of peasants, led by the soldier Wat Tyler and the priest Jack Straw, marched in protest on London. The archbishop of Canterbury was dragged from the Tower and beheaded, several ministers were murdered and many buildings were razed before the Peasants’ Revolt ran its course. Tyler died at the end of the mayor’s blade, while Straw and the other ringleaders were executed at Smithfield. However, there was no more mention of poll tax (until Margaret Thatcher, not heeding the lessons of history, tried to introduce one in the 1980s).
London gained wealth and stature under the Houses of Lancaster and York in the 15th century, also the era of the charitable mayor Dick Whittington, immortalised for many children in the fairy tale of his rise to power from poverty. William Caxton set up the first printing press at Westminster in 1476.
The century’s greatest episode of political intrigue occurred in 1483. The 12-year-old Edward V, of the House of York, reigned for only two months before vanishing with his younger brother into the Tower of London, never to be seen again. Whether or not their uncle Richard III – who became the next king – murdered the boys has been the subject of much conjecture over the centuries. (In 1674 workers found a chest containing the skeletons of two children near the White Tower, which were assumed to be the princes’ remains and were reburied in Innocents’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.) Richard III didn’t have long to enjoy the hot seat, however, as he was deposed within a couple of years by Henry Tudor, the first monarch of the dynasty of that name.
While the growth and achievements of the previous century were impressive, they paled in comparison with the Victorian era, which began when the 19-year-old Victoria was crowned in 1838. During the Industrial Revolution, when small ‘cottage’ industries were suddenly overtaken by the advance of the great factories, spurring the creation of the first industrialised society on earth, London became the nerve centre of the largest and richest empire the world has ever known, one that covered a quarter of the earth’s surface area and ruled more than 500 million people.
New docks in East London were built to facilitate the booming trade with the colonies, and railways began to fan out from the capital. The world’s first underground railway opened between Paddington and Farringdon Rd in 1863 and was such a success that other lines quickly followed. Many of London’s most famous buildings and landmarks were also built at this time: the Clock Tower (popularly known as ‘Big Ben’), Royal Albert Hall (1871) and the magnificent Tower Bridge (1894).
The city, however, heaved under the burden of its vast size, and in 1858 London found itself in the grip of the ‘Great Stink’, when the population explosion so overtook the city’s sanitation facilities that raw sewage seeped in through the floorboards of wealthy merchants’ houses. Leading engineer Joseph Bazalgette tackled the problem by creating in the late 1850s an underground network of sewers, which would be copied around the world. London had truly become the first modern metropolis.
Though the Victorian age is chiefly seen as one of great imperial power founded on industry, trade and commerce, intellectual achievement in the arts and sciences was enormous. The greatest chronicler of the times was Charles Dickens, whose Oliver Twist (1837) and other works explored the themes of poverty, hopelessness and squalor among the working classes. In 1859 Charles Darwin published the immensely controversial On the Origin of Species here, in which he outlined his still-contentious theory of evolution.
This was also the era of some of Britain’s most capable and progressive prime ministers, most notably William Gladstone (four terms between 1868 and 1894) and Benjamin Disraeli (who served in 1868 and again from 1874 to 1880).
Waves of immigrants, from Chinese to Eastern European, arrived in London during the 19th century, when the population exploded from one million to six million people. This breakneck expansion was not beneficial to all – inner-city slums housed the poor in atrocious conditions of disease and overcrowding, while the affluent expanded out to leafy suburbs, where new and comfortable housing was built. The suburbs of London are still predominantly made up of Victorian terrace housing.
Queen Victoria lived to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, but died four years later aged 81 and was laid to rest in Windsor. Her reign is seen as the climax of Britain’s world supremacy, when London was the de facto capital of the world.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler during the 1930s eventually proved misguided as the Führer’s lust for expansion could not ultimately be sated. When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Britain declared war, having signed a mutual-assistance pact with the Poles a few days beforehand. WWII (1939–45), Europe’s darkest hour, had begun.
The first year of the war was one of anxious waiting for London; although more than 600,000 women and children had been evacuated to the countryside, no bombs fell to disturb the blackout. On 7 September 1940 this ‘phoney war’ came to a swift and brutal end when the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, dropped hundreds of bombs on the East End, killing 430 people.
The Blitz (from the German ‘blitzkrieg’ for ‘lightning war’) lasted for 57 nights, and then continued intermittently until May 1941. The Underground was turned into a giant bomb shelter, although one bomb rolled down the escalator at Bank station and exploded on the platform, killing more than 100 people. Londoners responded with legendary resilience and stoicism. The royal family – still immensely popular and enormously respected – were also to play their role, refusing to leave London during the bombing. Begged to allow her children to leave the capital, Queen Elizabeth (the present monarch’s late mother) apparently replied, ‘the children could not possibly go without me, I wouldn’t leave without the King, and the King won’t leave under any circumstances’. The king’s younger brother, the Duke of Kent, was killed in active service in 1942, while Buckingham Palace took a direct hit during a bombing raid, famously prompting the Queen to announce that ‘now we can look the East End in the face’. Winston Churchill, prime minister from 1940, orchestrated much of the nation’s war strategy from the Cabinet War Rooms deep below Whitehall, and it was from here that he made his stirring wartime speeches.
The city’s spirit was tested again in January 1944, when Germany launched pilotless V-1 bombers (known as doodlebugs) over the city. By the time Nazi Germany capitulated in May 1945, up to a third of the East End and the City had been flattened, 32,000 Londoners had been killed and a further 50,000 had been seriously wounded. The scale of the destruction can only really be felt by taking a walk around the City – where postwar buildings (many of them monstrous) have been erected, this is where German bombs hit.