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London: A History

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This book is a general overview and attempts to distil, from an immense mountain of information, historical memory and experience. It is an account which tries to explain why London developed in the particular and fascinating way that it did.

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Description

Everyone thinks they know London. Its landmarks have been used in a hundred films; its skyline is instantly recognisable; and the winding course of its river familiar, in great detail, from the satellite imagery used to begin the BBC’s Eastenders. For London is at the centre of the nation’s attention, and has been, on and off, for two thousand years.

Yet familiarity does not necessarily bring enlightenment. The very size of the city has the power to obscure as well as to mesmerise; the unparalleled tangle of experience over such a long period of time becomes impossible to unravel, at least in one telling or from one perspective.

What, then, was London? The answer depends on who you ask, and when. London was a capital city, a port, an economic powerhouse, a magnet for talent. Two hundred and fifty years ago London was the first modern city, with the world’s highest wages and best standard of living, at least for those in settled employment.

Yet it could just as easily be portrayed (and often was) as a sink of depravity, a slum of despair with some of the worst death rates in the world, in which urban expansion and population explosion outstripped the city’s capacity to provide even the basic means of life to ordinary citizens. Was London, as the radical pamphleteer and champion of the virtues of rural England William Cobbett said disparagingly in the 1820s, the ‘Great Wen’ – a pathological swelling on the face of the nation? To those from the furthest corners of the land it could appear from afar to be a seething snakepit of avarice, prostitution, corruption and vice … yet one that could be seductively attractive, full of opportunity for fortune or salvation.

To political commentators, or scheming courtiers, London was the heart of the nation state and of empire; to economists and financiers it was where you had to be to do real business; to lawyers there was nowhere else like it; to lightermen, sailors and watermen who worked the river or sailed the world it was their home port, the city on the most important artery of world trade; to socialites it was the tiny, febrile centre of their universe; to social reformers it was, and seems destined always to be, the den of iniquity, inequality, inequity.

London was wealthy, populous, central to the nation, cosmopolitan yet self-absorbed and inward-looking. When young, enterprising provincials made their way to London – as they did in their thousands – they knew that they would find everything they needed there – financial institutions, the law and all its multifarious (or nefarious) practitioners, a huge potential market, contacts, networks, the court – all in one place – along with coffee-houses, fine restaurants and gentlemen’s clubs, salacious entertainments, fashionable assemblies and a cult of celebrity.

People did get spat out of the vortex. Many who migrated to London became disillusioned, and some went home again. Some who made fortunes chose to retire to a quieter, landed seclusion, but many more, not just in the East End, would have left if only they been able to. But they couldn’t. They came; they saw; and they were conquered. The filth, the squalor, the misery and the poverty: these were as much the real London as the elegant squares of Belgravia and the fine villas of Kensington. The stews of Southwark, the opium dens of Limehouse, the child prostitution of Stepney … a walk and a world away from the heaths of Hampstead and the shops of Regent Street.

In fact, of course, we cannot really talk of one London at all. Properly speaking, the City – the ancient walled city rather than the financiers’ Square Mile of today – is the true London, with its City wards, beadle, sheriffs and lord mayor (with his official home at Mansion House), ancient Guildhall, Customs House, city walls and royal castle. But when we think of London now, we casually and understandably include much else besides, including the separate City of Westminster and the no less ancient ‘Borough’ of Southwark.

What we have, then, is a complex, bedevilling place whose history has been enacted upon so many different fields of play that it is hard to encompass in a single survey.

About the author

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. Born in London, he studied at Cambridge, graduating with a Starred First, before doing postgraduate work at Oxford. From 1980 he taught at the University of Durham, eventually as Professor, before moving to Exeter in 1996. He has lectured extensively abroad, especially in the USA.

A past Council member of the Royal Historical Society, Black is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. In 2000 he received an MBE for services to postage stamp design, and in 2008 received a Samuel Eliot Morison Prize of the Society for Military History.

He is, or has been, on a number of editorial boards, including the Journal of Military HistoryMedia HistoryHistory Today and the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, and was editor of Archives.

His books include War and the World, 1450–2000Maps and HistoryThe British Seaborne EmpireMaps and Politics and The Making of Modern Britain.

  • Author: Jeremy Black
  • Binding: hardback
  • ISBN: 978-1-85936-172-6
  • Pages: 448
  • Illustrations: 290, mostly in colour

1 review for London: A History

  1. Christopher French

    In this excellently produced book, one of our most prolific historians turns his attention to the complex and challenging subject of the history of London from Roman times to the modern day. A number of scholarly, well-written and broad ranging histories of the capital have appeared in recent years and Jeremy Black’s volume can deservedly take its place among these. The author sets out his aim from the outset when he writes that his book is ‘no more than a general overview. It attempts to distil from an immense mountain of information, historical memory and experience, an account which tries to explain why London developed in the particular, fascinating way that it did’. Readers of The Local Historian will be pleased to hear that in achieving his aim so successfully, the author acknowledges that ‘local history flourishes and prospers in London’, thereby adding a host of case studies and locality studies to our ever increasing knowledge of the capital as a whole.

    Adopting a chronological approach, from ‘Roman Capital’ to ‘Into the Future’, the ten main chapters (plus introduction and thoughtful postscript) take the reader through the causes and consequences of London’s growth during the last 2000 years, each chapter focusing on a well-established major period in the country’s history. Two of the main forces given prominence in explaining London’s increasingly dominant position are the continual inflow of migrants attracted by the many opportunities the capital had (and has) to offer, and London’s ever-expanding economic role within the country as a whole. This was particularly the case in the commercial sphere. As a major centre of trade (both internal and external), shipping activity, banking, insurance and finance, London established and maintained a dominant role within the British economy. Its strength created powerful vested interests within the original City of London which in turn exerted considerable political influence in managing to maintain the City’s relative independence, while London as a whole became increasingly influential in the country’s political history. Culturally, too, its dominant position has rarely been challenged and the author provides a wealth of relevant detail to highlight how London’s economic, political and cultural pre-eminence developed over time. The overall impact of this pre-eminence has long been debated both by contemporaries (either appalled or enthused by London’s growth) and by more recent historians of the capital. However, one impact cannot be doubted: the continual physical growth of London in all directions, from the original centres of Westminster, the City and Southwark to the greater London sprawl of today. Such physical growth, accompanied by constant change and the emergence of a city of contrasts means, as the author argues, that ‘of course, we cannot really talk of one London at all’.

    Professor Black analyses the growth and impact of his ‘many’ Londons with insight and clarity, emphasising the importance of viewing its history against a background of both national and international developments. He employs much of the large volume of secondary sources available, while primary source materials range from recent archaeological finds and contemporary manuscripts and illustrations to contemporary and recent works of literature. The book is greatly enhanced by the quality of the large number of illustrations provided throughout the text and the detail of their accompanying captions. The illustration on p.329 of Millwall slums in 1932 dwarfed by a Finnish vessel in Millwall Dock is particularly eye-catching. This comprehensive history of the country’s largest city is a valuable addition to our understanding of a complex subject. It can be recommended as a volume of considerable interest to historians from many different branches of the discipline.

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