A brief history of London
London is over 2000 years old . The name London possibly
derived - though there is much dispute on the subject -
from the Celtic Llyn (pronounced lun), a pool or lake
(the river at an earlier period expanded into a
considerable lake. The part immediately below London
Bridge is still "the Pool"), and din or dun, a hill,
fort, or place of strength.
The "hill" may have been that on which St. Paul's now
stands, or Cornhill, or that crowned by the Tower; but
recent research casts doubt on the theory that there was
a large settlement here in pre-Roman days, and assigns
the origin of London to the Roman Conquest in the first
Under the Romans Londinium arose, a splendid city, one
of the nine colonies of Britain, but inferior in
importance at first to Eboracum (York) and Verulamium
Great military roads radiated from the city to various
parts of Britain, and distances were measured from a
landmark stone called lapis milliaris in the Forum of
Agricola, in the heart of the Roman town (Leadenhall
Market covers part of the site of the Forum). The stone,
known as the London Stone was set into a the wall in St.
Swithin's Church and remained there until the church was
bombed in the Second World War. The London Stone
remarkably survived the bombing and now sits in a glass
case behind an ornate metal grille opposite Cannon
The direction taken by the old [[London Wall]], dating
from the first century A.D., is well known, and can be
traced by the modern names of streets. Considerable
sections, composed chiefly of Kentish ragstone and large
Roman bricks, may be seen throughout parts of the city.
In fact for many years contractors for sewers and other
underground works found it necessary to stipulate that
they shall be allowed to charge extra if they have to
cut through or remove any portion of it. Outside the
wall, a wide ditch, portions of which can still be
traced, provided a further defence.
At the eastern end of the wall, by the riverside, was a
strong fort, succeeded later by the White Tower. There
the wall followed a line slightly westward of the
Minories to Aldgate; then it curved to the northwest,
between Bevis Marks and Houndsditch ("the ditch beyond
the wall") to Bishopsgate, where it followed the line
still known as "London Wall" to Cripplegate.
It next took a southern course to Aldersgate, and behind
St. Botolph's Church, to Newgate; thence to Ludgate and
along Pilgrim Street to the Fleet river (which then
flowed in the valley now known as Farringdon Street). It
skirted this stream to its junction with the Thames,
where another strong fort was erected.
This line corresponds roughly with the present
boundaries of the City of London, with the exception of
the "liberties," or wards, still known as "without,"
added at a later time.
There were three Gates, Aldgate (Ale-gate or All-gate,
i.e., open to all), Aldersgate and Ludgate (Lydgeat, a
postern); and afterwards a postern (Postern Row marks
the spot) on Tower Hill. The City Corporation erected
tablets marking the sites of the gates.
On the northern side was an outwork or barbican (the
modern site of the Barbican Estate preserves its
memory). Later, other gates were added, the names of
which are still preserved in Billingsgate, Bishopsgate,
Moorgate, Cripplegate (from the Anglo-Saxon crepel-gate,
a covered way), New-gate and Dow-gate (Celtic dwr,
Under the Saxons London became the metropolis of the
kingdom of Essex. Bede, writing in the early part of the
eighth century, refers to London as the "mart of many
nations resorting to it by sea and land." The city was
constituted the capital of England by Alfred the Great,
York and Winchester having previously enjoyed that
dignity in succession - the former under the Romans, the
latter under the Saxons. In 994, the first bridge across
the Thames was built.
The White Tower, in the Tower of London, was erected by
William I in 1078, on the site of the Roman fort already
noticed. The same king granted a charter to the city
(see p. 21) confirming the burghers in the rights
enjoyed by them under Edward the Confessor. William
Rufus in 1097 founded Westminster Hall. King John
granted the citizens several charters, and in Magna
Charta it was expressly stipulated that London should
have all its ancient privileges and customs as well by
land as by water.
Wat Tyler's Rebellion took place in 1381, with the
picturesque part played by the Lord Mayor of that time.
Reference must also be made to Jack Cade's Rebellion
(1450), immortalized in Shakespeare's Henry VI: "Now is
Mortimer lord of this city!" cried the insurgent leader,
when he struck his sword on the London Stone.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so rapid had
become the increase of London, that both Elizabeth and
James I. issued proclamations against any further
extension of the city.
In the Strand, between London and Westminster, were many
splendid residences of the nobility, with fine gardens
reaching to the Thames. The names of most of the streets
in the Strand - such as Essex, Norfolk, Burleigh,
Buckingham and Northumberland - still preserve these
The reign of Mary witnessed the burning of heretics at
Smithfield and that of Elizabeth the patriotic rally of
the citizens in defence of the country against the
Armada. During the Civil War, London sided with the
Parliament, and the fateful January 30th, 1649, saw the
execution of Charles I. at Whitehall.
In 1665 London was desolated by the Great Plague, which
carried off nearly a fifth of the inhabitants; and in
the following year the Great Fire occurred, destroying
more than 13,000 houses, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Royal
Exchange, 86 churches and most of the guild halls. The
damage was estimated at £10,730,500. Pepys wrote:
"It has been computed that the rents of the houses lost
by this Fire in the City comes to £600,000 per annum."
According to popular legend the fire began at Pudding
Lane and ended at Pye Corner. The lofty Monument near
London Bridge marks the spot where the fire broke out.
The Tower, Westminster Abbey and Hall, Guildhall, the
Temple Church, portions of the Inns of Court, Whitehall,
Charterhouse, and about a score of city churches, were
almost the only buildings of importance spared by the
Sir Walter Besant well said: -
"If, as some hold, the cause of the long-continued
plague, which lasted, with intervals of rest, from the
middle of the sixteenth century to 1665, was nothing but
the accumulated filth of London, so that the ground on
which it stood was saturated many feet in depth with
poisonous filtrations, the fire of 1666 must be regarded
in the light of a surgical operation, absolutely
essential if life were to be preserved, and as an
operation highly successful in its results. For it
burned, more or less, every house and every building
over an area of 436 acres out of those which made up
London within the walls."
But it cannot be denied that the Fire was a great
disaster. In rebuilding the city many improvements were
Streets were widened and houses of more substantial
materials constructed, but London has never ceased to
regret that the masterly designs of Sir Christopher Wren
and John Evelyn were not carried out in their entirety.
St. Paul's Cathedral and fifty-three parish churches
were rebuilt by Wren in such a way that, when viewed
from such a standpoint as Waterloo Bridge, the lesser
fanes, though differing from each other, all harmonize
and serve to heighten the general effect of the stately
In 1716 it was ordained that every householder should
hang a light before his door from six in the evening
till eleven. Gas was first used as an illuminant in
In 1767 numbers began to replace the old signs as
distinguishing marks for houses.
The year 1780 witnessed the Gordon Riots, when Newgate
and other prisons were fired and many prisoners
released, stirring events that supply a background to
Dickens's Barnaby Rudge.
Most of the City gates and barriers were removed before
the end of the eighteenth century, but the most famous
of them, Temple Bar, stood in its place until 1878,
when, owing to the inconvenience caused to traffic, it
was replaced by the present monument. The old "bar" now
stands at the entrance to the park at Theobalds, about
fourteen miles from London.
To the latter part of the eighteenth century belong some
of the finest of the old buildings in London, such as
Somerset House, the Mansion House, and the Horse Guards.
But the metropolis, as we know it, is very largely a
creation of the Victorian Age, most of the leading
streets having been widened and improved - many of them
actually constructed - and many of the chief public
edifices remodelled, if not built, during that period.
The formation of wide arteries - such as New Oxford
Street and Regent Street, in the early years of the
nineteenth century; of Farringdon Street and Queen
Victoria Street, later on, and of the broad avenue
connecting Oxford Street with Old Street; of the
Shaftesbury and Rosebery Avenues, and of Charing Cross
Road, in more recent times; and during the present
century the construction of Kingsway and the widening of
the Strand and Fleet Street - cleared away many
notoriously unsavoury localities.
On all the principal thoroughfares have risen, during
the present century, stately and imposing shops and
blocks of offices that will vie with any in Europe or
America. Healthful and outlying districts are now made
accessible by cheap trains, "tubes," electric trams, and
motor-buses; while in the central areas are many large
piles of flats for those who prefer town life to the
Street improvements, together with the stringent
sanitary precautions adopted by the various local
authorities, have brought about the satisfactory result
that London is both one of the finest and one of the
healthiest cities in the world.
In spite of its huge size, the metropolis had almost the
lowest death rate among towns in England with a
population of over 200,000, while it is incontestably
far healthier than Paris, New York, or Rome. Only the
smaller capitals, such as Brussels and Amsterdam, can
compare with it as regards the rate of mortality.
The face of a busy city must of necessity undergo
constant change, but since the War an abnormal amount of
rebuilding has taken place, with the result that London
is becoming famous on account of its modern
During the World War I, London was bombed by German
zeppelins causing a great deal of terror and 700 deaths.
After the War extensive building expanded the city
outwards as poeple moved to the suburbs to enjoy more
attractive accommodation. The heart of the capital was
also undergoing considerable change. Regent Street for
example was almost completely rebuilt. Though much
criticized at the time, the modern Regent Street was
undeniably imposing as it still is, and is one of the
finest modern streets in Europe.
Between the two world wars, the population of London
rapidly increased, with an all time high 8.6 million in
During The Blitz in World War II, London was heavily
bombed by the Luftwaffe as a part of The Blitz. Children
were evacuated to the countryside to escape the bombing.
Much of the city, Docklands and East End areas were
severely damaged. Throughout the period the London
Underground became a safe haven to house the homeless
and to escape the bombing raids but nearly 35,000
Londoners were killed, around 50,000 were seriously
injured and tens of thousands were made homeless. Food
rationing was introduced to address the shortage of food
during the war, the shortage being worsened by German
U-boats detroying ships carrying food imports to the UK.
In the postwar period rationing lasted for a number of
years (until 1948 for Bread and jam, 1952 for Tea, 1953
for Sweets, 1953 for Cream, eggs and sugar and 1954 for
Meat, butter, cheese, margarine and cooking fats). Not
surprisingly a thriving black market took hold. Rations
The face of London was again changing during the post
war period as major construction inititatives, mostly
high rise blocks of flats addressed the urgent need for
housing in the capital.
During the golden age of the Swinging Sixties, London's
trendy quarters - most notably Carnaby Street - became
the epicentre of a fashion and cultural revolution that
reverberated around the World.