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Juerg's London

A short history

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Exactly when the first settlers moved to what is now call London is unknown, but it seems likely that it lies far back in pre Christian times. It is also unclear which of all the villages in the modern London area is the oldest, or even how many there where. What is known is that bronze working had developed in the area and that Heathrow was a religious centre of considerable importance with a wooden temple in the classic style.

As to why a city grew in this location it is probably due to the river Thames. If you look at the geography of Britain it can be clearly seen that the Thames forms a massive barrier between the south east and the rest of the country. The lower reaches of the river are tidal, they reached what is nowadays London Bridge or there about. It also seems that in this area the river was shallow. Therefore this was the point closest to the sea at where it was reasonably safe and easy to cross the river. It therefore became a natural focus for all routes from the Southeast of England and the Continent to and from the north.

Close by the ford on the north side there was an ideal location for a defensible hamlet. A small hill with the Fleet and Walbrook rivers to the east and west.

Temple of MithrasRoman Period

When the Roman invaded Britain in 43 AD they landed in Kent, the most direct route to the northern parts of the country were of course via London. Fairly early on in the campaign they built the first bridge over the river and established a settlement on nearby Cornhill. Recently the remains of a foundation pier of this first bridge have been found very close to the current London Bridge, the line of the road to the bridge followed what is now Fish Street Hill. The settlement was militarily unimportant, it's main function was that of a supply depot and trading centre.

In 61 AD Boudicca attacked the town and destroyed it, killing 70,000 Londoners. The city was rebuild and flourished, by the end of the 1st century it was the most important town in the country. In 0125 there was a fire which again destroyed much of the city.

London quickly become the centre for commerce, it was the largest port, and a major junction for many roads. In fact many of the current city's most famous roads date from this time. Among these are Fleet Street and The Strand which lead to Kensington and Hammersmith. Holborn, Oxford Street and the Bayswater Road leads to the Silchester Road, the Edgware Road, Bishopsgate, Whitechapel High Street and many others. In 200 the first wall was built around the city, it was about 3.5 kilometres long, 7 meters high and 3 meters wide. The stone was quarried in the Medway area, and transported by barge, the remains of one was found near Blackfriars bridge.

By 314 Christianity had a foothold in the city, it is recorded that the Bishop of London attended the Council of Arles, which was called by Constantine.

In 410 the Romans left, but the city survived. The next reference to London can be found in 604 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bede described it as "a mart of many people".

Tower of LondonMedieval Times

A little further up river in about 1050 Edward the Confessor started building a residence and church on Thornney Island. The area became knows as Westminster. In this period London was not 1 city but 2, the City and Westminster. One ruled by commerce and the other the Monarch. The revelry between the two was intense. One of the manifestations of this feud was the Tower, it was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 to remind the City who the boss was. Between the two cities there were a number of villages, the site of one is where St Clement Danes stands, and another at Charing Cross.

Most of the buildings were one storey, timber frame, with wattle and daub walls and thatched roofs. Windows had no glass, just shutters. Only the rich had stone houses, with surrounding grounds. By the 14th century the streets were cobbled, the houses 3 to 4 story brightly painted timer frames structures. The higher stories overhung the street, while the ground floor was the work shop and store.

Westminster AbbeyThe city was and still is organised into 25 ward, the last Farringdon Without was added in 1394. Each ward had an elected alderman, who's main duty was to keep the peace. In 1191 the Commune was formed. It was made up of alderman who then elected a mayor. This body was known as the Corporation. In 1193 Henry Fitzailwin was made the first mayor. The Corporation was responsible for taxation.

Another vital element of life was a recognised trade. The lack of one could have dire consequences, including exclusion from citizenship, with it's associated rights to vote or trade without restriction. Originally only by learning and practicing a trade could you become a member of a guild and be able to trade freely. All other were viewed as rivals, if they came from England they were knows as "foreign" while those from abroad were "aliens". Trading restriction continued until the 19th century.

By the 15th century it was possible to buy, inherit or be granted membership of a guild. Soon the guilds had very little to do with the professions they supposedly represented. There are 2 types of guilds, the merchant such as the goldsmiths and the mercers, and the handicraft such as the potters and weavers. The more powerful bought themselves royal charters and become livery companies and the key members liveryman. In 1475 the electoral systems was changed and the liveryman on behalf of the citizens, selected the sheriffs. They also proposed 2 alderman, one of whom the Court of Alderman would appoint the mayor. At no time were ever more than a quarter of the population members of a guild.

The other major influence was the church, in the City alone there were 126 churches not counting religious houses.

The city was surrounded by villages. On the south of the river was Southwark, a place of entertainment and refuge of criminals, to the west was the village of Charing and further on Westminster. To the north and east there are farms and hamlets.

Staples InnThere is no actual fixed date for when London become the capitol. In the early period the court always follow the King, but in 1338 the exchequer move permanently to Westminster, followed by the Chancery, and London became the de facto capitol.

Tudor and Stuart Times

In 1600 the population was 200,000. The city was surrounded by farm land which provided the food that the city needed. Most of this land belonged to the church.

Banqueting HouseThe key feature in period was overcrowding. The walled city was full, and suffering the consequences. The streets acted as sewers, the water supply was unsafe, disease was rife, traffic congestion was probably even worse than today, smog was frequent, and air pollution extreme. Simply put the city stank. Efforts were undertaken to improve thinks, such as building a new river to bring in clean water from the area north of London, and piping it to those who would pay, but on the whole the measures were too little and too late.

Queens HouseThe dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 saved the city, suddenly lots of land became available. The city guilds opposed any expansion outside the walls, as they would loose control over the traders and craftsmen outside of their area. In 1580 they managed to get the King to issue a proclamation banning new building within 3 miles of the City gates, but it was never really enforced, the Crown was happy to accept the revenue from the imposed fines.

St. BridesAs a result the wealthy started to move out to the west, building large mansions and houses. The first were in Lincoln's Inn Field, then Covent Garden, Leicester fields, Piccadilly. Meanwhile the Crown built in Whitehall and Greenwich. The most famous architect from this period is Inigo Jones, who is responsible for the Banqueting house and the Queens House. This rapid growth was halted by the civil war and commonwealth.

After the restoration the City suffered a series of major disasters, firstly in 1665 plague and the in 1666 the fire. The population was decimated and most of the city destroyed. This marked the end of the old city and the beginning of the new, the one we know today. The new city was built in such a way as to be far more hygienic and be virtually plague free. The most renowned architect from this period is Wren. He is best known for the 51 churches he rebuilt, 39 of which still survive. In the old city only few of the churches had spires, Wren changed this and gave London it's now characteristic skyline.

Camden lockThe 18 and 19 century

This period marked the end of the walled city. The city continues to grow, in a reasonably organised manor to the west, and chaotically to the east. The rich moved ever further west and immigrants moved into the east and those in between to the newly growing suburbs further out from the centre. The large estates in what we now know as the west end, were replaced with elegant squares, along with areas such as Mayfair and Belgravia. While to the east one wave of immigrants after the other moved in and later moved on to the suburbs, a pattern that continues to this day

As the city grew the pollution in the centre declined, house being replaced by places of work. While the marginal areas deteriorated into the worst possible kind of slums. This lead to more people moving out of the centre to the new suburbs. This trend was accelerate with the advent of the railways. London began to swallow up all the surrounding areas.

Meanwhile the old problems of pollution and it's related health problems continued, Cholera, Thyroid etc outbreaks were regular events. The Thames was an open sewer, the stench became so bad that even the work of Parliament were effected. The city began to clean up it's act and gradually took on the form as we know it today.

Parallel to this move of people out of the city, commerce and industry moved in. During this period the docks grew, taking over vast tracts of land. The port grew to be the biggest in the world. The wharfs and warehouse extending over a mile away from the river on both sides, from Tower Bridge for many miles downstream. Hand in hand with the port the financial institutions of the City also grew and became the worlds most important financial centre.

River, wharfs and CityThe 20 Century

At the start of century London was the most influential centre in the world, the heart of the British Empire, ,financial centre of the world, capitol of the first industrialised nation. It's wealth is unparallel, and lots of is spent on building, parks and the arts.

The defining event of the period is the Second World War and it's associated blitz. By the end of the war 30,000 Londoner civilians had been killed, that is almost half of the total number of civilians killed in the UK. Only 1 in 10 building were undamaged, in the City one-third of the building no longer existed. More than 12,000 tons of high explosives had been dropped, (the most for any other city was 2,000).

London was rebuilt, and it continued to grew. It's political importance declined, but it's cultural influence grew, in particular for the younger, with the swinging sixties.

London is a unique city with it's combination of history, industry, and culture. Its is well worth a visit.

London skyline


Copyright 1998 - 2012 Juerg Mueller. Date last modified: Saturday, 25-Feb-2012 22:14:09 CET