The Ancient City: A.D. 47-1066
Although London almost certainly sprung up in the 1st century A.D., myth and legend hint at Celtic roots much deeper in the clay beneath the city. According to medieval legend, London was founded by a Greek, Brutus, to be the "New Troy" and watched over by Gog and Magog, the last survivors of a race of giants. Wicker effigies of the twin giants have been paraded at the head of the annual Lord Mayor's Show for more than 5 centuries, and carvings are on show at the Guildhall year round. Archeological evidence for some prehistoric activity during the Bronze and Iron Ages has been found, dispersed as widely as Uxbridge, Southwark, Beckton, and Carshalton. However, nothing that could be definitively called a "settlement" existed until the Romans arrived around A.D. 47.
According to the 1st-century-A.D. Histories of the Roman senator Tacitus, Londinium was founded as a garrison and trading settlement -- the site on the north bank was probably chosen for twin knolls that served as lookouts, known today as Ludgate Hill and Cornhill. A bloody revolt led by Queen Boudicca (d. A.D. 61) of the Iceni tribe, saw the city sacked a decade later -- a feat that earned her a statue in modern-day Parliament Square. By A.D. 100, however, the rebuilt town had replaced Camulodunum (modern Colchester) as the capital of the Roman province of Britannia.
The Romans built the first London Bridge, just yards from the current version, and by A.D. 200 had constructed a London Wall that would remain the city's boundary for more than a millennium; you can still view parts of it in Trinity Place, by Tower Hill, adjacent to a statue of Emperor Trajan (A.D. 53-117), and at the site of the garrison's fort, now Noble Street, close to the Museum of London. The Wall and its gates also echo in London street names -- not least, London Wall -- and in the names of long-lived City churches, such as All Hallows on the Wall and St. Giles Cripplegate.
The City wards of Aldersgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, and Cripplegate take their names from Roman gates, while the areas of Houndsditch and Shoreditch on the 21st-century map were Roman defenses dug outside the walls. The Roman Temple of Diana was probably below the current St. Paul's Cathedral, the Forum was where Gracechurch Street now meets Lombard Street, remains of the Basilica lie below Leadenhall Market, and the scanty remnants of a Temple of Mithras, discovered in 1954, are on open display on Queen Victoria Street, opposite Sise Lane. (Finds from the Temple also form part of the collection at the Museum of London.) The remains of an Amphitheatre lie below the Guildhall, and you can visit on the same ticket as the Guildhall Art Gallery. Although little of Roman London remains visible, the modern City of London, the "Square Mile," was essentially mapped out by the Romans.
The Imperial invaders were forced to abandon the city around A.D. 450. New arrivals from the continent, the Saxons, formed their own settlement of Lundenwic around the current Covent Garden between A.D. 650 and 850. Little remains of Saxon London save a stone arch at All-Hallows-by-the-Tower and in the street known today as Aldwych -- "old market" in Saxon. Faced with constant Viking attacks, King Alfred (849-99) took his people inside the safety of the Roman walls around 886; and when Edward the Confessor (1003-66) established an abbey and palace at "West minster" in the 1040s, the double-headed shape of the medieval city was complete.
London in the Middle Ages: 1066-1599
Bustling, medieval London would already have been unrecognizable to a Saxon or Roman. Most of the residents, at least prior to King Henry VIII's (1491-1547) break with the Pope in 1534, were Roman Catholic -- and the Church was a powerful player in every part of secular life. (The Oscar-winning 1966 film A Man for All Seasons dramatizes the politics surrounding Henry's Oath of Supremacy, enacted to wrest temporal power from the Church.) The medieval city had more churches than any other in Europe, perhaps 150 packed into the "Square Mile."
In power terms, London was still very much a double-headed beast: The King or Queen ruled England from palaces in Westminster and Greenwich, but money and mercantilism bought a substantial degree of freedom within the confines of a City of London occupying the land enclosed by the ancient Roman wall. Almost everywhere else that today constitutes "London" was village or open countryside -- where Bloomsbury sits was known in the 11th century for its vines and truffle woods, for example. Plague was a regular and devastating visitor; during the Black Death of 1348-50, as much as half of London's population perished.
Much of the city was constructed using wood and thatch, and met a fiery end . However, many of London's greatest stone edifices also date from this period. Following the victory of William the Conqueror (r. 1066-87) at the Battle of Hastings, Romanesque continental architecture was imported to Britain, where it became known as the Norman style. The best example in the city is the 1078 White Tower at the Tower of London. Londoners associate being "sent to the Tower" with prison and a probable sticky end, but William and many later royals also used it as a palace and defensive fortress. It's reputedly Britain's most haunted building.
The most significant Norman interior in London is at the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, next to Smithfield. This was once part of a much larger monastery; indeed, prior to Henry's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536-39, London had many powerful religious orders inside and outside its walls. Many survive only as a distant echo in street or neighborhood names: Blackfriars was a Dominican priory wedged between Ludgate Hill and the river; and the ruins of the Franciscan monastery of Greyfriars occupied the corner of King Edward Street and Newgate Street, opposite St. Paul's Tube station. The site is now a perfumed rose garden on a busy traffic gyratory, and reputedly still haunted by the ghost of Queen Isabella, wife and perhaps murderess of King Edward II (r. 1307-27). Whitefriars Street and Carmelite Street, south of Fleet Street, recall a long-vanished Carmelite Priory. Nearby, mysterious Temple (Round) Church also dates to the Norman period.
In a separate center farther upstream, Westminster Abbey was first used to crown a king in 1066, but is essentially a later Gothic building. The French-Gothic style invaded England in the late 12th century, trading round arches for pointed ones -- an engineering discovery that, along with flying buttresses, freed church architecture from the need for heavy, thick walls. The coming of Gothic allowed ceilings to soar, walls to thin, and windows, vaults, and intricate stone tracery to proliferate. In Britain, it's usually divided into three overlapping periods: Early English (1180-1300), Decorated (1250-1370), and Perpendicular (1350-1550). Westminster Abbey is generally placed among the finest Decorated cathedrals in Britain, although later interior additions, including the fan-vaulted Henry VII Chapel, are classic Perpendicular. Many of the great royal names from medieval England are buried inside the Abbey. The hammerbeam ceiling of nearby Westminster Hall inside the Palace of Westminster is another prize piece of English Gothic. The Jewel Tower is the only other surviving section of the medieval palace. Parts of the Guildhall also date from the Gothic period, as does much of Southwark Cathedral. The years -- and particularly the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation -- were less kind to London's medieval paintings, although the Wilton Diptych (ca. 1399) is one of the stars of the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery.
Elizabethan music has survived much better. The compositions of William Byrd (1540-1623) soundtracked both religious ceremonies and courtly intrigues; his Choral Works provides a good introduction to his devout melodies. The chaotic city streets, however, probably rang more to the tunes of Songs from the Taverne (available on CD from Amazon).
It's impossible to comprehend medieval civic life without understanding the role of the livery companies, which emerged during the 13th and 14th centuries. These powerful trade guilds regulated every aspect of the working lives of skilled laborers; you could only work as a mercer, or a draper, or a fishmonger, or in any other of 70-plus popular trades, with the approval of the appropriate Worshipful Company. Only freemen of a livery company could become Aldermen (council members), and therefore play a role in governing the City from its seat of power, the Guildhall. The Lord Mayor of London -- note, not the same person as the recent innovation of a democratically-elected Mayor -- could be drawn only from among the ranks of the Aldermen, a rule that stands to this day; the Lord Mayor's gilded ceremonial coach is one of the prize exhibits at the Museum of London. Lawyers formed their own kind of company, the Inns of Court, and located themselves equidistantly between the twin power centers of Westminster and London. The oldest of the inns, Lincoln's Inn, dates to at least 1422 -- its Great Hall was erected in 1490. Among its alumni is poet John Donne (1572-1631), whose Complete English Poems address many contemporary issues.
For the poor, medieval life was, to borrow the words of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in Leviathan (1651), "nasty, brutish, and short." It was even worse for criminals or anyone who chose the wrong religion: Smithfield in the early 16th century was used for burning heretics; convicted counterfeiters ("coiners") were occasionally boiled in oil there; and treasonous rebels were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Traitors' heads were impaled on spikes on city gates or on London Bridge.
Written in 1598, John Stow's A Survey of London captured the city as the 17th century beckoned.
Regicide, Plague & Fire: The 1600s
Few centuries in London's history have been as turbulent as the 17th, which saw the people execute a king, die from disease in their tens of thousands, and then lose everything to the most destructive conflagration in European history. Essentially, the 1600s saw the death of old London and the birth of the modern city -- the capital of what had become a fiercely Protestant, anti-Catholic country. It's also the first London century that's well documented, thanks largely to the Diaries of Samuel Pepys (written between 1660 and 1669), who lived near the Tower, and the Diary of John Evelyn, written by a resident of Deptford in southeast London between 1641 and 1697.
The 1600s almost started with a bang when, on the night of November 5, 1605, the Gunpowder Plotters planned to blow Parliament and King James I (1566-1625) sky high. Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) was caught in the act, tortured, and executed -- his treachery is remembered on November 5 each year in Bonfire Night celebrations across Britain. However, the early 17th-century legacy you're most likely to encounter is that of Inigo Jones (1573-1652), the architect who first imported the Renaissance ideas of Italian Andrea Palladio (1508-80) to England. Jones' "Palladian" Banqueting House is all that remains of Whitehall Palace (destroyed in a 17th-century fire, but not the Fire). The market building at Covent Garden and Greenwich's Queen's House were also Jones designs. South of the river, the Globe Theatre was first built by Shakespeare's theatrical company and was a popular stage for performances of the Bard's plays in the early 1600s. The rebuilt Globe Theatre features prominently in 1998 Oscar-winner Shakespeare in Love, a movie conveying the feel of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare's equally mysterious, and equally popular, contemporary Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), who was murdered in a Deptford tavern in 1593, wrote mainly for the nearby (now vanished) Rose Theatre.
The major battles in the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) -- a convoluted, violent power tussle between king and parliament -- happened away from London, but the denouement occurred on January 30, 1649, when King Charles I (r.1625-49) was beheaded outside his palace on Whitehall. His son, King Charles II (1630-85), was restored as monarch in 1660 after a brief republican interlude, but in 1665 fled the city after the Great Plague struck. Around 100,000 died in London's last mass outbreak of bubonic plague, a fifth of the population and more than two-thirds of those who became infected with the bacteria. Streets that had once provided rich pickings for notorious thieves such as Moll Cutpurse (1585-1659) were suddenly empty. Eight thousand Londoners were dying every week at the epidemic's peak in September. Most of the bodies were buried anonymously in mass pits -- one giant pit reputedly lies below Greenwich's National Maritime Museum. As well as diarists Pepys and Evelyn, Daniel Defoe's partly fictionalized A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) summons up the unspeakable horror of those months. There's greater detail in William Bell's classic study, The Great Plague in London (1924).
The city in the 1660s was also a perfect storm of fire hazards: Houses were built from wood, streets were narrow, domestic lighting was provided by the candle, and tradesmen like the smith and the baker used open fires from dusk until dawn. It was a disaster waiting to happen . . . and early in the morning of September 2, 1666, at the end of a dry, hot summer, it happened. The Great Fire of London started in a bakery on Pudding Lane, and by the following day London Bridge had been consumed. Samuel Pepys watched London burn from the steeple of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower. It wasn't until Old St. Paul's collapsed in flames, however, that the authorities started pulling down houses to create firebreaks. By the time the fire ended 3 days later on September 5, almost the whole of London had burned.
Officially, just eight souls had died, although modern scholars consider a figure in the hundreds more likely. The height of The Monument (61.5m/202 ft.) matches its distance from the spot on Pudding Lane where the fire began. The small Golden Boy of Pye Corner, mounted on the angle of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane close to Smithfield Market, marks the spot where the Great Fire ended -- although it took many decades before the notion that the Fire was part of either a Dutch or a Catholic plot burned itself out. Liz Gogerly's Great Fire of London (2002), aimed at reading-age children, is a succinct description of the disaster.
Much of the reconstruction was overseen by England's most renowned architect, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). An astronomer and mathematician by training, Wren rebuilt 51 churches after the Fire, many of which survive. St. Stephen's Walbrook and St. Mary-le-Bow, on Cheapside, are considered his most important ecclesiastical designs. According to tradition, a true "Cockney" is someone born within earshot of the latter. Wren's most famous work, the apogee of his English baroque style, is St. Paul's Cathedral, begun in 1675. The designs for the Royal Observatory, the Royal Naval College, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, and the revamp of Hampton Court Palace, were also entrusted to Wren, as was London's only surviving City gate, Temple Bar. Once erected in Fleet Street to mark the City's westernmost reach, it now guards the entrance to Paternoster Square, facing St. Paul's. The 1600s also saw the beginnings of urban expansion into Westminster -- Bloomsbury Square and St. James's Square were among the first instances -- and Rotten Row in Hyde Park became Britain's first artificially illuminated street.
Regular Londoners were perhaps more likely to have enjoyed Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the City's oldest inns and another building rebuilt immediately after the Great Fire, or the West End's first theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The theatre originally dates to 1663, but is now on its fourth building. Nell Gwynne (1650-87), the King's mistress, was a regular and much-admired actor in the theatre's topical "Restoration comedies," and is interred at nearby St. Martin-in-the-Fields, designed by Wren acolyte James Gibbs (1682-1754). With its courtyard and balconies, Southwark's George Inn is another authentic relic of the 17th century.
France's 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes caused one of the waves of mass immigration that have punctuated London's history. Thousands of French Protestants, the Huguenots, fled for the city to escape persecution. Many set up as silk weavers just outside the walls, in "Spital Fields." Fournier Street was built by and populated with weavers, and survives largely intact; Dennis Severs' House imaginatively re-creates an East End Huguenot home. The Huguenots brought with them the custom of serving fried fish with fried potatoes; a couple of centuries later that dish had morphed into that classic "British" staple, "fish and chips."
The Georgian City: 1714-1830
When Queen Anne (r. 1702-14) died without an heir, the British -- having suffered almost a century of turbulence at the top -- demanded a secure Protestant succession. Parliament turned to Germany's House of Hanover, who duly produced four King Georges (I-IV) in a row between 1714 and 1830 -- a period that's become known, for obvious reasons, as the Georgian Era. It wasn't all plain sailing for the Georges, particularly for "insane" George III (r. 1760-1820, but power ceded to a Prince Regent from 1811), as BAFTA-winning movie The Madness of King George (1994) dramatizes quite faithfully.
The Georgians' greatest bequest to London was what is now called the West End. The great squares of Mayfair and Marylebone were laid down in Georgian times: Hanover, Cavendish, Grosvenor, and Berkeley Squares all date from this period. Lambeth-born architect John Nash (1752-1835) built the sweeping thoroughfare of Regent Street, to connect Regent's Park to Carlton House Terrace, overlooking St. James's Park which he also landscaped. The typical white stucco fronts of grand West End terraces owe their look to Nash; he was a prolific and influential builder. He also designed Marble Arch -- which occupies the site of a former public gallows at Tyburn, last used to hang highwayman John Austin in 1783 -- and remodeled Buckingham Palace. George IV (r. 1820-30) was the first British monarch to call "Buck House" home. In contrast, British prime ministers were calling Number 10 Downing St. home from 1735.
Nash wasn't the only great Georgian architect. Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) was heavily influenced by the baroque idiom of Wren, and like Wren was a prominent church builder. His six churches are known for their daring towers; the finest examples are Christ Church, Spitalfields, and St. George's, Bloomsbury. Hawksmoor's churches have reentered popular culture thanks largely to Peter Ackroyd's 1985 novel, Hawksmoor, and Alan Moore's graphic novel, From Hell. Both speculate that the churches' designs and locations owe something to Satanism and/or Freemasonry. Later Georgian architects were more restrained and neoclassical in their practice. John Soane (1753-1837) designed the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which in 2011 celebrated its 200th anniversary. Soane was also a wonderfully eclectic hoarder -- his house and collection are preserved as one of London's best museums, the Sir John Soane's Museum.
That the Georgians succeeded in leaving such a handsome legacy is a wonder in itself. Theirs was a city-society largely without shape or order; streets in Georgian "inner London" were labyrinthine, dark, dangerous, and chaotic. Dissolute rakes would burn their inheritances in no-holds-barred parties at Hellfire Clubs, brothels, gambling dens, or molly houses (gay taverns with beds for rent). Coffee houses, which had arrived in London in the 1650s, had become hotbeds of sedition. Raucous fairs, such as the annual Bartholomew Fair in Smithfield, and cockfights were popular forms of urban entertainment. Several Acts of Parliament couldn't stop the Gin Craze soaking every social stratum in alcohol between the 1720s and 1750s. Painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) documented and satirized Georgian vice in a remarkable series of paintings and engravings, among them A Rake's Progress (1733) and Gin Lane (1751). The former is part of the collection at the Sir John Soane's Museum; Tate Britain and the Museum of St. Bartholomew's Hospital also house Hogarth works. Two historical studies in particular cover this subject well: Hallie Rubenhold's The Covent Garden Ladies (2005) paints a compelling picture of Georgian London's sexual underworld, while Dan Cruickshank's Secret History of Georgian London (2009) also explores the libertine mores of the times.
Polite Georgian society, on the other hand, found refined entertainment at one of the many pleasure gardens on London's fringe. For a fee, ladies and gentlemen could eat, drink, stroll, and enjoy orchestral music, masquerades, or fireworks late into the evening. The most celebrated were Vauxhall Gardens and Ranelagh Gardens, in Chelsea. The Georgian London blog (www.georgianlondon.com) is filled with fascinating tales from the 18th-century streets.
Many of the areas we think of today as upscale were in fact Georgian slums, known as "rookeries." Seven Dials, and the area from Covent Garden north through the impoverished Parish of St. Giles, was the most notorious -- a filthy, lawless den of thieves, prostitutes, gin shops, the diseased, the unfortunate, and the forgotten. The city had no police force: Henry Fielding (1707-54), author of Tom Jones and a magistrate, founded the first, tiny, semi-professional force in 1749, the Bow Street Runners.
Most law enforcement was carried out by freelance thieftakers working for a bounty, many of them as corrupt as the criminals they were chasing. Jonathan Wild (1683-1725) was the most notorious thieftaker -- and also head of an organized criminal gang -- who gained citywide celebrity status for repatriating stolen goods that he himself had arranged to steal. His popularity waned when he became involved in the capture and execution of popular "Robin Hood"-style thief Jack Sheppard (1702-24). Wild was eventually rumbled and followed Sheppard to the Tyburn gallows 6 months later; Wild's corpse was donated to medical science and his skeleton is now part of the Hunterian Museum collection, and regularly features in their "talks of the day." The seamy world of Runners and thieftakers is re-created in Andrew Pepper's fictional The Last Days of Newgate (2006).
Almost a century later, the continued lack of a properly trained detective force was a major factor in the shambolic investigation of the Ratcliff Highway Murders of 1811. Itinerant seaman John Williams was arrested on the flimsiest evidence for the slaughter of two Wapping families inside their homes. His suicide in prison was sufficient proof of guilt for local investigators, but their shoddy handling of the case led indirectly to the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, establishing Britain's first professional police force. As P. D. James' investigation The Maul and the Pear Tree (1971) concludes, this development came too late to achieve justice for the victims of 1811. The Ratcliff Highway Murders remained East London's most curious and senseless killings until Jack the Ripper appeared . The name of the road was later shortened to "The Highway" to shake off the stigma.
Perhaps because of this general lawlessness, Georgian Londoners showed boundless enthusiasm for the spectacle of public executions. Although burning at the stake ended in 1789, by 1810 there were around 220 separate offences for which you could be hanged. After the Tyburn gallows were taken down in 1783, hanging usually took place before a huge crowd outside Newgate Prison. (London's Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey stands on the former location of the prison.) London's gallows were busy in the aftermath of the most violent civil disturbances in London's history, the 1780 Gordon Riots. A mob enraged by Parliament's granting political and civil rights to Catholics, and inflamed by "anti-Popery" speeches from Lord George Gordon (1751-93), sacked places of Catholic worship, Catholic homes and businesses, and even Newgate Prison itself. Six days of rioting left 285 Londoners dead.
Wind forward three decades and Spencer Perceval (1762-1812) became the only British prime minister to be assassinated -- he was shot by a lone gunman inside the Palace of Westminster.
Yet among all this crime and chaos, there was a raw creative energy that later, more restrained and moralistic eras lacked. Literary milestones included the publication of Dr. (Samuel) Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 and James Boswell's 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson, which reinvented biography as a genre. Johnson's residence in Gough Square is preserved as the Samuel Johnson's House museum; Johnson drank in the nearby Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese inn and is interred at Westminster Abbey. The shocking autobiography of freed slave Olaudah Equiano (ca. 1745-97), published in London in 1789, was a contributing factor to the ending of the transatlantic slave trade. Daniel Defoe (ca. 1659-1731) wrote Moll Flanders (1722), adopted Londoner Handel (1685-1759) composed Messiah (1741) -- his house on Brook Street, Mayfair is now the Handel House Museum -- and Spitalfields-born Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) published A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), one of the founding tracts of feminism. John Gay's 1728 The Beggar's Opera was proletarian London's response to highbrow Italian opera, and a huge popular hit.
The London poetry scene also thrived, from the satires of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) to the Romantic odes of John Keats (1792-1821). Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes (1820) was favored subject matter for the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters ; he lived in Hampstead for a couple of years, in a residence now preserved as the Keats House. Less easily pigeonholed was Romantic poet, painter, and illustrator William Blake (1757-1827). Blake lived in the city all his life, and wrote the words that later became the hymn Jerusalem (1808), usually interpreted as a protest against the country's (and city's) growing industrialization, as well as his defining poetry collection, Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789). He was a great observer of the people of his city, such as in his doom-laden poem London:
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry I hear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
Peter Ackroyd's Blake (1995) is the definitive modern biography. You can see Blake's sometimes surreal art at Tate Britain.
For many, the Georgian years also mark the high point of British painting, with Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) ranking alongside Blake (largely unrecognized in his own lifetime) and Hogarth as the towering figures of the period. Reynolds, who founded the Royal Academy in 1768, was a firm believer in the painter's duty to celebrate history, and was influenced by Classical art and the paintings of European Old Masters. His sometimes fussy, Baroque compositions grace the National Gallery, Wallace Collection, Kenwood House, and Dulwich Picture Gallery. Reynolds' portrait of Dr. Johnson hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Fashionable, moneyed London society was often the subject matter of Gainsborough's much admired portraiture. He painted celebrated West End tragedienne Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) -- a picture that's now part of the National Gallery collection. His rococo-tinged work also hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and Kenwood House.
John Constable (1776-1837) is most often associated with idyllic rural landscapes, especially around his home on the Suffolk-Essex border, but he also lived and is buried in Hampstead. His works are on show at Tate Britain and the National Gallery -- where perhaps the most loved image in British art, The Hay Wain (1821), hangs. Venetian Canaletto (1697-1768) spent almost a decade in London -- he lived in Soho -- painting and drawing the city. The best place to see his cityscapes is the British Museum.
The Victorian Age: 1830-1901
No period has left such an indelible mark on the psyche and street-plan of the city as the reign of Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901). The profusion of literature and scholarship, journalism, and satire, even the beginnings of urban photography, mark what's known as the Victorian Age -- both the best documented and most distorted period before the 20th century.
The 19th century was an era of grand plans and great riches, but also massive disparities of wealth and grinding poverty. Nurse-statistician Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) summarized England as "the country where luxury has reached its height and poverty its depth." On returning from the Crimean War (1853-56), she opened London's first nursing school at St. Thomas' Hospital, now the site of the Florence Nightingale Museum; the hospital will also soon unveil a statue of London's other great Crimean nurse, Jamaican-born Mary Seacole (1805-81).
Despair was never far below the surface of Victorian London, and it was among the urban poor of London's East End that it suddenly exploded onto the front pages of half the globe. Jack the Ripper murdered and mutilated at least five prostitutes in Whitechapel between August and November 1888. The fact that he was never caught, as much as the horrific nature of his crimes, secured his place in history. Theories accusing everyone from minor royals and masons to mad doctors and painters have proliferated, but in truth, we'll never know who killed those unfortunate women. London Walks runs the best of many walking tours of Ripper locations. Cult graphic novel From Hell (1989) remains true to the brutality of the crimes, while steering clear of what has often been sensationalization, if not outright celebration, of a brutal killer; it was made into a passable 2001 film starring Johnny Depp.
Joseph Merrick (1862-90), the "Elephant Man," was another unfortunate resident of the East End. Rescued from a freak show by a surgeon, he spent the rest of his life in Whitechapel's (now Royal) London Hospital, where the Royal London Hospital Museum displays some items relating to his time there. His remarkable and tragic life was fictionalized in the 1980 David Lynch movie The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt.
Ghastly urban legends thrived in the Victorian city -- notably that of Spring-Heeled Jack, a ghoulish, clawed figure accused in the 1830s of attacking women before leaping away to unnatural heights. Like Jack the Ripper, he was never caught. Unlike the other Jack, he may not even have existed.
Much of this dark side of street life permeates a mountain of great Victorian London writing. Charles Dickens (1812-70) is the most celebrated chronicler of the period's fact and fiction, in novels such as Oliver Twist (1839) and his great satire on London's legal system, Bleak House (1853). He was widely known for championing the poor and for incorporating contemporary events into his serialized publications, often with the intention of lampooning pompous or self-righteous public figures. David Lean directed two classic Dickens film adaptations: Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). The Dickens Museum is a must for fans, especially as 2012 sees celebrations citywide for Dickens' bicentenary. He's buried in Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey, and Peter Ackroyd's Dickens (1990) is the authoritative modern biography.
The chaotic optimism of the Victorian street was grist to the mill for writers as diverse as George Eliot (1819-80) -- whose final novel, Daniel Deronda, was set largely in the Jewish East End -- and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). In Poe's superlative short story The Man of the Crowd (1840), the Victorian street even appears to be the tale's main "character." American Henry James (1843-1916) was a shrewd observer of London society in such novellas as A London Life (1888) and In the Cage (1898). The fears of late Victorian Londoners are captured convincingly by Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent (1907), and even Francis Ford Coppola's stylized-Gothic movie, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992); murder, madness, terrorism, and sex are not new London themes, and were lapped up by a Victorian public reared on "Penny dreadfuls," cheap serial publications filled with lurid fiction.
The poverty described by Henry Mayhew in his London Labour and the London Poor (1851) later influenced the Communist writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx lived in the city between 1849 and 1883 and is buried, like George Eliot, in Highgate Cemetery; his daughter Eleanor committed suicide in the southern suburb of Sydenham in 1898.
Poet Robert Browning (1812-89) was born and lived his early years in Camberwell, and married fellow poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61), in Marylebone; Wilkie Collins (1824-89), author of The Woman in White (1860), was a North Londoner whose fiction had a significant influence on the Sherlock Holmes tales of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). Although entirely fictional, 221b Baker Street probably ranks alongside No. 10 Downing Street as London's most famous address. A plaque inside the Museum of St. Bartholomew's Hospital commemorates the spot where Holmes and Watson first meet, in 1887's A Study in Scarlet.
The Victorian era also spawned Britain's greatest painters, most of whom lived and worked in London. J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) was a native of Covent Garden and a prolific and multitalented artist of the Romantic Movement. His "Impressionistic," mood-laden landscapes and cityscapes were works of ethereal genius, but did not endear him to the strait-laced Royal Academy of Arts. Tate Britain has the world's best collection of Turner's work, and Turners are also hung at the National Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, and National Maritime Museum.
The other great 19th-century painters were members of the so-called Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group endeavored to return art to its "ideal" state before Italian Raphael (1483-1520) picked up a brush, and produced "hyper-real" works rich in symbolism. The major Pre-Raphaelite figures were Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), and J. Everett Millais (1829-96) -- and later figures, such as painter-designer Edward Burne Jones (1833-98) and textile designer William Morris (1834-96), were also very much involved in what became a complex web of personal and professional relationships. Tate Britain has London's best Pre-Raphaelite works, notably Millais' spectacular Ophelia (1852); other fine examples are displayed at the Guildhall Art Gallery. Timothy Hilton's The Pre-Raphaelites (1985) is the best introduction to the Brotherhood's output. Foreign painters such as J. A. M. Whistler (1834-1903) and Claude Monet (1840-1926) also documented London's evolving urban landscape in paint, particularly along the River Thames.
Where the Georgians often built for show, the Victorians built with a purpose. In the year that Victoria assumed the throne, Euston became London's first mainline railway station: The age of steam had arrived in the capital. As had tourism: Grand hotels such as Claridge's, the Savoy, and Brown's opened in the 1800s. The Great Stink of 1858, when the Thames turned into a stagnant, open sewer, provided confirmation that London's greatest architectural need was for some proper infrastructure. Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91) was the driving force behind rebuilding a sewerage system fit for the world's greatest city -- he also oversaw the remodeling of London's Embankments into thoroughfares. Stephen Halliday's Great Stink of London (1999) is the best account of the life of a Londoner who deserves wider recognition.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 saw the construction of a vast Crystal Palace in Hyde Park as part of a plan to demonstrate the genius of the Victorian mind. The plan clearly worked, because profits from the exhibition funded the construction of the great museums of so-called "Albertopolis," in South Kensington: The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Prince Albert himself, Queen Victoria's husband, did not survive to see their completion -- but the Royal Albert Hall was named in his honor in 1871, and the kitsch Albert Memorial opposite was unveiled a year later. The other great civic building project of the mid-century was enforced by circumstances. A fire in October 1834 had completely destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. The neo-Gothic palace that stands today was designed by Charles Barry (1795-1860) and executed with considerable embellishments from master of Gothic Revival, Augustus Pugin (1812-52), taking almost 30 years to complete.
Most of London's river bridges, in their current form at least, were also built by the Victorians -- including Horace Jones' iconic Tower Bridge (1894), whose unfinished hulk looms over the most recent Sherlock Holmes (2009) movie. Cross River Traffic (2005) by Chris Roberts is full of fascinating lore and legend about London's bridges. The National Gallery moved into its current Trafalgar Square home, designed by William Wilkins (1778-1839), in the first years of Victoria's reign. A more poignant reminder of Victorian values is provided by the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Postman's Park.
Victorian "progress" swept through every sphere of London life. Shopping boomed: Hamleys came to Regent Street in 1881; Harrods to Knightsbridge in 1849. The electric tram, the omnibus, and the London Underground transformed the population's urban mobility. Theatres were packed out for The Mikado (1885) and other "Savoy operas" by W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900). Stage variety entertainment known as music hall was the dominant form of entertainment for the masses. Philanthropy and collecting became a mark of civilization among the well-to-do. The eclectic Horniman Museum, which opened in 1901, owes its existence to the proclivities and interests of tea trader Frederick Horniman (1835-1906). That same year the Whitechapel Art Gallery opened to bring art to the people of that deprived East End borough; the first exhibition included works by the Pre-Raphaelites, Hogarth, and Constable -- and was a smash.
From Edwardians to V.E. Day: 1901-45
When Edward VII (r. 1901-10) took the throne on Victoria's death, heralding the short-lived Edwardian Age, he inherited a city and country on the cusp of massive social change. Londoner Virginia Woolf wrote that the "charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass." That was never truer than in the first five decades of London's 20th century.
Trade unions found fertile ground among London's poorly paid and poorly treated workers: A movement that began with the Bow Matchgirls' Strike of 1888 reached its peak with Britain's General Strike of 1926. Like the newly formed Labour Party, class consciousness was here to stay . . . as was political strife. In the early years of the century, V. I. Lenin (1870-1924) lived in the East End, and was a regular on the Bloomsbury scene, as he plotted Russian Revolution. Anarchists fought the police, one encounter ending tragically in the Siege at Sidney Street (1911); Donald Rumbelow's Houndsditch Murders (1973) explains the event's background and consequences. Locals of many stripes halted an attempt by Fascists to conduct an inflammatory march through the largely Jewish East End, in a confrontation that's become known as the Battle of Cable Street (1936). Ed Glinert's East End Chronicles (2005) recounts these and several other upheavals. Written in situ, Jack London's 1902 People of the Abyss documents the pitiful state of East London at the dawn of the Edwardian Age. Melanie McGrath's Silvertown (2002) paints a personal picture of interwar family life.
Most revolutionary of all was the struggle for women's suffrage, led somewhat disharmoniously by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her daughter Sylvia (1882-1960). London was shocked when one suffragette effectively martyred herself, by stepping into the path of a horse owned by King George V (r. 1910-36) at the 1913 Epsom Derby. The following year, suffragette Mary Richardson slashed Velázquez's Rokeby Venus (ca. 1650) in the National Gallery. By 1928, perseverance had paid off. Women won voting equality with men, and Emmeline was quickly honored with a riverside statue in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Houses of Parliament.
King Edward presided over London's first Olympics (1908). However, although he never lived to see it, the King had inherited a country for which the seeds of catastrophic war had already been sown. Both World War I (1914-18) and World War II (1939-45) saw London bombed from the air, but it was the Blitz of 1940-41 that left the most profound scar on the capital. The East End bore the brunt, particularly the boroughs of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Stepney, and Poplar. This was both strategic -- industry gathered along the East End's River Lea, and Thames docks and warehouses kept the capital in business -- and ideological -- Hitler knew that the East End was London's Jewish heartland. Bombs rained down every night between September 6 and early November, 1940. East Enders largely suffered alone: To keep British morale afloat, the government decreed that their appalling fate should remain concealed from the rest of the country. A particularly devastating raid on the night of December 29, 1940, set off the city's biggest fire since 1666, which destroyed almost everything from Cheapside north to Islington. Juliet Gardiner's 2010 book Blitz is the definitive study.
You can best get a sense of Britain at war at the Imperial War Museum and Churchill War Rooms, and begin to understand the outpouring of relief when the city took to the streets to celebrate "Victory in Europe" (or "V. E. Day") on May 8, 1945. The sacrifice made by thousands of airmen during 1940's aerial Battle of Britain is commemorated by Westminster Abbey's RAF Chapel. Maureen Waller's London 1945 (2004) paints a picture of a resilient but ruined city. London gathers in mourning for all British war dead at Edwin Lutyens' 1919 Cenotaph, on Whitehall, each Remembrance Sunday (the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, November 11), at 11am.
It wasn't just London society that was changing, but also the shape of the city itself. The interwar years saw the mushrooming of London's suburbia: The rail commuter was born particularly -- thanks to the westward expansion of the Metropolitan Railway -- in Middlesex, northwest of the center. The flagship development of this so-called "Metro-land" was E. S. Reid's Harrow Garden Village estate. When it was started in 1929 next to Rayners Lane station, annual traffic through the new station was 30,000 passengers. Within 8 years it was 4 million. "Bard of the 'burbs" John Betjeman (1906-84) made a classic BBC documentary, Metro-land (1973) that's still available on DVD. The London Transport Museum has more information, as does Alan Jackson's London's Metroland (2006).
The city center retained its fashionable allure, however. Selfridges department store was opened by an ambitious American retailer in 1909; Liberty of London moved to its current mock-Tudor HQ in 1924. Oxford Street, Regent Street, and Bond Street were Britain's premier retail lanes, but shopping also became more democratic with the arrival of chain stores such as Woolworth's. People from all walks of life would pause their shopping to take tea in a Lyons Corner House, although the rich might instead patronize the Ritz, which opened in 1906.
In architecture, the undistinguished grandiose style of the Edwardian Age soon gave way to Art Deco. (European-style Art Nouveau largely passed the city by.) Outstanding examples of London Art Deco include the 1931 Daily Express Building, on Fleet Street, then the center of the newspaper world; Claridge's interior; and Michelin House, now Bibendum, in Kensington. Look beyond the wear-and-tear, and architect Charles Holden's 1920s and 1930s Tube stations, particularly along what is now the outer limits of the Piccadilly Line, are icons of "suburban modernism." Londoners generally agree that one of the best views of their city is to be had from crossing Waterloo Bridge -- constructed in its current form during World War II, and therefore built almost entirely by women.
The most intriguing London artist of the era was Walter Sickert (1860-1942), the leading light of the Camden Town Group. His dark portraits painted London's seedier side and owe much to French Post-Impressionism, as well as Sickert's apprenticeship with Whistler. Sickert was also fascinated with the Jack the Ripper case, and has featured around the edges of many of the wilder conspiracy theories about the killer's identity. Crime writer Patricia Cornwell went as far as to accuse Sickert himself of being the Whitechapel murderer -- a claim that's almost unanimously dismissed by experts. You can view Sickert's work in Tate Britain.
As for the depiction of the city in cinema and literature, you can get a feel for life in Edwardian London from family musical Mary Poppins (1964), set in an idealized city of gentleman bankers and Cockney chimney-sweeps; Dick van Dyke's hilarious attempt at a London accent aside, it's very evocative of the first decade of the 20th century. Musical My Fair Lady (1956), based on George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play Pygmalion, takes a more direct poke at the class system. Thomas Burke's short story collection Limehouse Nights, written in 1917, paints a gritty, if sensationalized picture of London's first Chinatown, in what's now Docklands. Interwar London street-life is captured exquisitely by Patrick Hamilton's fictional Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky (1935), and in Virginia Woolf's reportage vignettes written in 1931 and 1932 and collected in The London Scene. Rüdiger Görner's excellent literary travelogue, London Fragments: A Literary Expedition (2007), is especially strong on Woolf's London legacy. George Orwell's semi-autobiographical Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) examines interwar life lower down the social ladder. Finally, the plays of Noël Coward (1889-1973) achieved critical and commercial success between the Wars; the Noël Coward Theatre was renamed after him in 2006.
From the Aftermath of War to the 21st Century: 1945-2012
Britain's postwar story is largely about the gradual loss of global preeminence and the vicissitudes of the economic cycle. Years of near-starvation, under food purchasing restrictions known as rationing, were followed by a pattern of economic boom followed by economic bust that has endured to the present. It was a London politician, Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883-1967) -- Member of Parliament for Limehouse, in Docklands, and P.M. from 1945-51 -- whose crusading Labour government established the welfare state and National Health Service, changing British society forever. Attlee and later prime ministers oversaw Britain's loss of Empire -- and the subsequent movement of large numbers of its population to London, in the process creating one of the world's great multicultural cities.
Architects have had the most visible impact on the city. War had left large areas of London in ruins and many of the ancient buildings standing today -- especially east of St. Paul's Cathedral -- owe their survival to piece-by-piece reconstruction. To fill the huge holes created by Hitler's Luftwaffe, and complete the city's sense of self-renewal, grand architectural projects were encouraged. Perhaps the most controversial were those for buildings in the Modernist or Brutalist styles: London archetypes include the Barbican Estate (1968) -- home to the Barbican Centre arts venue -- and the Southbank complex, built on a site cleared for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Londoners are still divided on the architectural merits of the Southbank Centre's National Theatre, Hayward Gallery, and Royal Festival Hall. When in 1984 Prince Charles criticized a proposed design for the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing as a "monstrous carbuncle," he was expressing precisely these doubts. The Prince got his way at the National, but certainly not everywhere in what is now an architecturally postmodern city. The Square Mile, in particular, has seen its skyline renewed by the likes of Richard Rogers' Lloyds Building (1986) and Richard Seifert's Tower 42 (1980) -- the tallest building in Britain until 1990, whose top floor now hosts champagne bar Vertigo 42.
During the years of social, political and economic turmoil overseen by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- who occupied No. 10 Downing Street between 1979 and 1990 -- even the physical shape of London itself evolved. For the first time in two millennia, the City spread beyond the shackles of the old Roman wall. The rebirth of Docklands in the 1980s as another financial center -- anchored by the Canary Wharf development and serviced by the Docklands Light Railway -- saw London look east rather than west for the first time in centuries. "Fleet Street" -- shorthand for London's newspaper industry -- made a similar pilgrimage east from its historic home on the fringes of the City, just as its heyday was coming to an end. Two contrasting takes on Fleet Street can be found in Michael Frayn's comedic 1967 novel Towards the End of the Morning and Charles Wintour's 1989 history, The Rise and Fall of Fleet Street.
Even more dramatic changes have been seen in the ethnic make-up of the city. The arrival of Caribbean immigrants aboard the SS Empire Windrush in 1948 was just one small, yet symbolic part of a wave of immigration from across the British Commonwealth. The old Jewish (and before that, Huguenot) East End ceded to Banglatown, now centered around a thriving Brick Lane populated with Bangladeshis and their London-born descendants. Areas such as Notting Hill, Brixton, and Hackney became home to sizable West Indian communities. The expulsion of Asians from East Africa in the early 1970s led many to northwest London.
There was of course discrimination and friction -- race riots scarred Notting Hill in 1958 and 1976, and Brixton in 1981 and 1985; the still unprosecuted racist murder of a black teenage Londoner in 1993 was the subject of Paul Greengrass' 1999 movie, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence. However, the mostly harmonious integration of people from countries around the globe is one of London's postwar success stories.
In all walks of life, the experience of living in the city has become a multicultural one. The music of the 1960s, and even the punk and the New Wave (although not the ska or reggae) scenes of the 1970s, were largely white in make-up: The Clash and the Sex Pistols were the most influential London bands of the era. But fast-forward a quarter-century and the "sound of London" is best characterized by the grime-influenced rap of Dizzee Rascal (b. 1985), the R&B tones of Estelle (b. 1980), and the pop/hip-hop fusion of N-Dubz. The flavors of London's fashionable areas betray a distant heritage -- Soho's Chinatown, Shoreditch's "Little Hanoi," and Dalston's slew of Turkish restaurants being just three tasty examples. No one has captured suburban London more succinctly than Hanif Kureishi (b. 1954), in both his screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and debut novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990). Almost 30% of London's population was classified as non-white by the 2001 census statistics.
The postwar art scene in the city was dominated first by the so-called Independent Group -- forerunners to American Pop Art who were based at London's ICA in the mid-1950s -- then the School of London in the orbit of American "adopted Londoner," R. B. Kitaj (1932-2007). The best places to enjoy works by leading Independent Group member Richard Hamilton (b. 1922) and School of London painter Francis Bacon (1909-92) are Tate Modern and Tate Britain. Works by Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) and Lucian Freud (b. 1922), the other leading lights of the School, grace the latter. Freud's portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (2001) -- variously labeled "a travesty" and "psychologically penetrating" when it was unveiled -- is part of the Royal Collection at the Queen's Gallery. Londoners Antony Gormley (b. 1950) and Tracey Emin (b. 1963) are two of the towering figures of British contemporary art; the White Cube gallery in Hoxton is the scene's spiritual home. Chelsea's Saatchi Gallery is the place to head to view British contemporary art.
London's film industry reached its apogee in the decade after the war. The series of features made between the late 1940s and mid-1950s at Ealing Studios in West London were dubbed Ealing Comedies. Movies such as The Ladykillers (1955) and Passport to Pimlico (1949) won awards worldwide, and launched the acting careers of Londoner Alec Guinness (1914-2000) and Peter Sellers (1925-80). London continues to provide the backdrop for the likes of Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love (1998), twee rom-com Notting Hill (1999), bitter assessments of modern Britain such as Naked (2003), and even Harry Potter's "Platform 9 3/4" at King's Cross station -- although the movies actually used the more suitably gothic St. Pancras for filming.
The city is inevitably a favorite subject of feature-length television. Londoners' increased suspicion of politics and politicians is typified by miniseries such as the BBC's House of Cards (DVD, 1990) and State of Play (DVD, 2003). (Alan Moore's dystopian graphic novel -- and 2006 feature film -- V for Vendetta is still more uncompromising on the impact of democracy's disintegration on the streets of London.) Nothing portrays the claustrophobia of modern urban life as vividly as Tony Marchant's Holding On (DVD, 2005). The successful retelling of Sherlock (DVD, 2010) and Whitechapel (2009-10) in modern garb illustrates how London's history refuses to stay in the past. Smash-hit British primetime spy series Spooks (DVD, 2002-) rarely completes an episode without a panning shot of one iconic London sight or another. Luther (DVD, 2010) -- featuring star of The Wire, Hackney-born Idris Elba -- takes a walk on the contemporary city's violent side.
London's postwar literature also spans every genre and style, with an inevitable focus on the experience of urban life. The capital's first prominent postwar "literary movement" was the Angry Young Men, who formed a loose grouping in the aftermath of John Osborne's play about disaffection, Look Back in Anger (1956). Of all the "Angries," Hackney-born Harold Pinter (1930-2008) left the richest written legacy -- for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. Sam Selvon's 1956 Lonely Londoners was the first high-profile fictional exploration of the West Indian immigrant experience. Books in the genre known as psychogeography have been a more recent popular phenomenon. Such contemporary Londoners as Will Self (b. 1961), Peter Ackroyd (b. 1949), and Iain Sinclair (b. 1943) have written about the capital in this vein. Sinclair's London Orbital (2002) and Ackroyd's peerless history, London: The Biography (2000) are notable examples. Essential London-focused reads in the modern "street philosophy" genre include Christopher Ross' Tunnel Visions: Journeys of an Underground Philosopher (2001) and Alain De Botton's A Week at the Airport (2009), which recounts his experiences as Heathrow's writer-in-residence.