Welcome to London History

Welcome to London History, a website dedicated to advancing knowledge about the history of London, from prehistoric times to present day. London History is a wiki, so you can edit the website and contribute to it, as well as reading pages written by other users. We welcome you to add to the website and increase the knowledgebase available to other users.

It is hoped that as more and more people collaborate, little by little we can compile more information about the history of London than has ever appeared in any single book or publication and produce a truly extensive and informative resource which is useful to everyone including school children, students, Londoners and history professors.


London is over 2000 years old and in that time she has seen tens of millions of lives unfold, each life, a story in its own right. To document a man's life in enough detail to do it justice would be an extroadinary achievement. To document the life of a city such as London, in great detail must surely be nigh on impossible. However if enough people join in, we can certainly document more of London's history than has ever appeared in a book and keep it all in one place and fully searchable.

A brief history of London

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 century A.D.

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 (St. Albans).

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 Street Station.

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, water).

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 aristocratic associations.

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 conflagration.

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 effected.

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 Cathedral dome.

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 1807.

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 suburbs.

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 architecture.

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 1939.

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 last

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.

For a complete guide to modern London visit London Online.

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