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History Scroll

The History of London, England

By Tim Lambert
Dedicated to Lucinda




London was founded by the Romans 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 ADthe Romans built a bridge across the Thames. They later decided it was an excellent place to built 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. There was not a stone wall around the early settlement but there may have been a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden pallisade 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 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 centre of the town 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 London there were brickworks, potteries and glassworks. There were also donkey powered mills for grinding grain to flour and bakeries. 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 socialise not just to keep clean). Most people in the town got their water from wells and used cess pools but there were underground drains to remove rainwater. London also had an ampitheatre, which could hold 8,000 people. Here gladiators were made to fight to the death. Cockfighting was also a popular sport.




The last Roman soldier left Britain in 407 AD. 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 640's there was a mint in London making silver coins. In the 670's a Royal document called London 'the place where the ships land'. Early in the 8th century a writer called London (or Lundwic it was called) ' a trading centre for many nations who visit by land and sea'.


The Saxon town of Lundwic consisted of many wooden huts with thatched roofs. Slag from metal forges have 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 of 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 totally 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'.


Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) built a wooden palace at Westminster. Later Parliament met here. Because of this Wesminster 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 were beaten off. The Norman army then marched in a loop to the west of London to cut it off from the rest of the country. William occupied the royal palace at Westminster and the 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 on the east side of London. It was replaced with a white stone tower in 1080.


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 housed outside the walls. In 1176 the wooden bridge across the Thames was replaced with a stone one.


A writer described London about 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 is also in London and its suburbs 13 large monasteries, beside 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:

'Amongst 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".


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 on 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 13th century the friars came to London. Friars were like monks but instead of living lives separate from the world they went out to preached and to help the poor. There were different orders of friars each with a different colour of habit. Dominican friars were called black friars because of their black habits and the place where they lived is still called Blackfriars. There were also grey friars, white friars and crutched friars. (A corruption of cruxed. Crux is Latin for cross and the cruxed friars had a cross stitched onto their habits).


The Jews suffered most from violence. The first Jews came to London in 1096 as refugees from Rouen after a massacre occurred there. 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 1290 all Jews were expelled from England.


In 1381 the peasant 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 and 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. Afterwards 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. 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.




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. Nevertheless the suburbs outside the town continued to grow. In 1550 Southwark became part of the city of London for the first time. In the late 16th century rich men began to build houses along the Strand and by 1600 London was linked to Westminster by a strip of houses.


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 the city. 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 at St Martins in the Fields.


On the other side of London hovels were built. The village of Whitechapel was 'swallowed up' by the expanding city. The village of Clerkenwell also became a suburb of London. Southwark also continued to grow 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.


Civil war between king and parliament began in 1642. 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 bakers house in Pudding Lane. At first it did not cause undue alarm. The Lord Mayor was awoken and said "Pish! A woman might piss it out!". 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 13,2000 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 on 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 in nearby villages. Others built wooden huts on the charred ruins. To prevent such a disaster 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 then was carried by hollow tree trunks under the streets. You had to pay to have your house connected. After 1685 the streets were lit by oil lamps. 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.




The population of London rose from perhaps 600,000 in 1700 to 950,000 in 1800. The fashionable suburbs spread north along Tottenham Court Road and north west 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 this 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 1740's 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.


In 1757 the houses on London Bridge were demolished. In 1761 an Act of Parliament set up a body of men called Board of Commissioners power to pave and clean the street. The walls of the city were demolished between 1760 and 1766 and new bridges were built Westminster in 1749 and Blackfriars in 1770.


On the South Bank were industries like leather tanning (in Bermondsey) and timber yards (in Lambeth). There were also many craftsmen in London who 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 Englands imports and 69% of her exports. There was also a large shipbuilding industry.


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 grew from 950,000 in 1800 to 6 million in 1900. At the beginning of the century rich men built estates at Somerstown, 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 Cubbitts 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 to 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 1880's when many refugees arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.


There were outbreaks of cholera 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 deaths from disease fell drastically.


In 1807 gas light was used for the first time at Pall Mall and by the 1840's was being used all over London. Electric light was first used in Holborn in 1883. By the 1840's 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.


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), Milwall dock (1868) South West India dock (1870), Albert dock (1880) and Tilbury docks (1886).


London was also a great manufacturing centre. 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 shoe making. The clothing trade was also important. Chemicals were made in Silvertown and West Ham. Clocks and watches and jewellery were made in Clerkenwell. There were shipyards in Poplar, Deptford, Milwall and Blackwall. Other industries in London included furniture making, machine and tool making and the manufacture of horse drawn arriages.




In the early 20th century 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, at Downham near Catford and at 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.


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


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 the skilled workers away from London. The new towns had modern industries who wanted skilled workers. The unskilled and the old were left behind.


As well as building new towns the council began building flats. 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.


In the 1950's 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 1960's the docks began to suffer from the break up of the British empire. The newly independent countries began to trade with countries other than Britain and London 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 1970's 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 labour 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. Central government did 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 1950's 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.


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. Today the population of London is 7.2 million.


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