A Brief History of London

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Podcast Transcript

Almost 2000 years ago, after conquering most of the island of Great Britain, Roman forces established a settlement at a strategically narrow point on the Thames River.

Since its establishment, the city has grown dramatically, at one point having secured the title of the largest city in the world. 

Today it is one of the world’s most important cities, is an international hub for finance, and it is the capital of the United Kingdom. 

Learn more about the history of London and how it went from a Roman military outpost to one of the most important cities in the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When you look at the history of many major cities in Europe, Asia, or Africa, you will often find that there were human settlements at the location dating back as far as the bronze age or earlier. 

That does not appear to be the case with London. While there was evidence of a bronze age bridge discovered in London, there hasn’t been anything found to indicate an actual settlement. 

As such, the founding of London is almost universally attributed to the Romans, who established a settlement along a strategic point of the Thames River in the year 47.  

They selected the location of the settlement due to a narrowing of the river, which made it easy to bridge. 

Also of major importance, the Thames was connected to the sea and was affected by tides. In the Roman era, much of the Lower Thames was shallow with marshes, but eventually, the river developed into a deeper tidal canal. More on that in a bit.

Over time, this gave London all the benefits of being a port city while not having to be on the coast. Being further inland gave it a more defensible position.

The Roman settlement was known as Lundinium, from which modern London gets its name.

The location of the original Roman settlement is on the north bank of the Thames in what is called the City of London. 

Here I should probably explain one of the oddest things about London. There is a distinction between Metropolitan London and the City of London. Metropolitan London is what everyone thinks of as London. It is a large sprawling metropolis. 

The ‘City of London’ is the historic core of the city and is quite small. In addition to being the historic core of London, it is today the central business district, one of the ceremonial counties in England, and only has a population of about 8,300 people. It is very confusing, and when I’m referring to London from here on out, I’ll be referring to Metropolitan London or Greater London. 

Lundinium didn’t get off to a great start. Just 13 years after it was founded, it was destroyed by the Celtic Queen Boudica. 

However, in the aftermath of its destruction, it allowed the Romans to rebuild Lundinium as a proper planned Roman city, complete with baths, a forum, and an amphitheater. 

Lundinium quickly grew. By the second century, it had a population of 60,000 people and had become the capital of the Roman province of Brittania. 

In the early third century, the London Wall was built around the city. It was three kilometers long and 20 meters high. There are still small segments of the London Wall which exist today.

Lundinium’s fortunes followed that of the Roman Empire. As Rome’s power began to wane, the city was subject to raids by Saxons and Vikings. This caused the population to plummet. By the time Anglo-Saxon rule began, the city had been largely abandoned. 

The city rebounded a bit after the collapse of Rome but suffered from Viking attacks for several centuries. Its location on the Thames during this period served more as a liability than as an asset. In the 9th century, the city was directly controlled by the Danish. 

The city began to turn around under the reign of King Alfred the Great, who took control from the Danish. Around this time, the city was known as Londonburh. 

Edward the Confessor laid the seed that would eventually make London an important religious and cultural center. He established Westminster Abbey. 

Soon after the establishment of Westminster Abbey and the death of Edward the Confessor, England was conquered by the Normans and William the Conquerer. 

They fortified London to rule the native population. The most significant fortress erected by the Normans was the Tower of London. The Tower of London was actually viewed as a symbol of Norman oppression when it was built, and its use has evolved over the years and I will be devoting a separate episode to it in the future. 

In 1097, William II began construction of Westminster Hall, which later grew into Westminster Palace. Westminster Hall still stands today and is sometimes used by the British Parliament.

In 1176, construction began on the London Bridge. It was the first stone bridge to cross the Thames. Completed in 1209, this was a landmark as previous wooden bridges had burned down. The London Bridge was the only bridge crossing the Thames in London until 1750. 

One of the reasons why no other bridge was built for so long was due to the power of the medieval guild known as the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. They controlled the movement of passengers and goods on the river. If there were more bridges, it meant less work for them. 

In the centuries after the Norman conquest, the population of London kept growing, once again establishing itself as the political and economic center of England. 

By the late 15th century, London had grown to a population of 100,000 people. 

Perhaps the most significant period in the history of London took place in the years 1665 and 1666. 

By this time, London had expanded well beyond its traditional boundary and had achieved a population of about 300,000 people. 

However, in 1665 the city was hit by the Great Plague. It is estimated that 60,000 people, a full fifth of the city, died during the Plague. At its peak in September 1665, 7400 people died in a single week.

Then, a year later, on September 2, 1666, the Great Fire of London swept through the city. An estimated 60% of the city was destroyed, yet surprisingly, only 16 people are believed to have died. 

While the fire was a great tragedy, it also offered a great opportunity.

Most of the city was rebuilt using roughly the same street plans as before. However, most of the aristocracy left the old part of the city and moved to the newly developed West End. 

There was also a movement to replace the old wooden buildings with buildings made of stone and brick. The Reconstruction of London Act of 1667 forbade the use of wood in anything other than doors and window frames.

In the aftermath of the Great Fire, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace were constructed. 

In the early 18th century, the now United Kingdom saw its fortunes rise rapidly as the country established an empire. The center of the British Empire was located in London. 

Britain was also the center of the industrial revolution during this period, which saw the rise of factories. Factories required workers, which resulted in a rapid rise in the population of the city. 

London became a center for insurance and shipping. Fleet Street in London became the center of publishing in England. 

In 1750, a second bridge across the river was finally built, the Westminster Bridge. 

The rapid growth in population in the 18th century also led to social problems. Crime in the city was very high, and even small infractions could result in hanging. London, at this time, still had no police force.

In 1780, the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots erupted when anti-Catholic laws were loosened. Hundreds of people were killed in the riots, which remain the largest in the history of London to this day. 

Over the centuries, the Thames changed as swamps and marshland were drained, and embankments were built along the river. This resulted in the river being forced into a narrower channel. With the same volume of water going into a smaller width, the result was a scouring of the bottom of the river by the daily tides, making it deeper and, as a result, better able to be navigated by larger ships.

By the end of the 18th century, London had a population of one million people.  As rapid as the rise in population was in the 18th century, it was nothing compared to the 19th century. 

By 1831, the population had reached 1,655,000. In 1851, it hit 2,363,000. In 1891, it was 5,572,012.

By the end of the 19th century, London was, by far, the largest city in the world, with a population of 6.5 million people.  

Along with the massive rise in population in the 19th century was an explosion in poverty. Most people lived in slums. This was the era of Charles Dickens, child labor, and horrible working conditions. 

It was also the era that saw the construction of the new Westminster Palace, the seat of parliament after the old palace was destroyed by fire in 1834. One of London’s most prominent features, the clock tower of Westminster and its bell known as Big Ben, was built in 1859.

The 19th century also saw the construction of the world’s first subway system, the London Underground. That, too, is definitely worth its own episode in the future. 

The 20th century saw continued growth of the city, not just in terms of population, but the continued growth of the area of London. 

It also saw the first real attacks on the city during a time of war in several centuries. 

During the first world war, German zeppelins and bombers attacked England, with London as their primary target.

In a single attack on London on June 13, 1917, a daytime raid of twenty German Gotha bombers dropped 100 bombs that killed 162 civilians, including 18 infants. A total of 2,300 people were killed in air raids during the first world war.

World War Two saw even more attacks on London during a period known as the Blitz. German bombers regularly attacked London between September 1940 and May 1941.  During this period, an estimated 40,000 Londers were killed in bombing attacks. 

On December 30, 1940, one bombing attack resulted in what was called the Second Great Fire of London.

Bombers were eventually replaced by rockets in 1944 and 1945. There were over 2,419 V1 rockets that reached London killing 6,100 people, and an additional 1,358 V2 rockets hit London, killing 2,300 people. 

The population of London reached a peak of 8,615,245 in 1939. The war and the post-war period saw a decline in the population of the city.  Over the next forty years, the number of people living in London dropped by almost 2 million. 

One of the most notable post-war events in London was the Great Smog of 1952. From Friday, December 5 to Tuesday, December 9, 1952, one of the worst cases of modern air pollution descended on London. It resulted from cold temperatures, unique atmospheric conditions, and a heavy continued reliance on coal for domestic heating.

An estimated 4,000 people died during the smog, with an additional 8,000 people dying from complications in the weeks after. 

The post war decline in population bottomed out in the early 1980s and began climbing again thereafter. The population of London is now at its all-time high, with a population in the greater metropolitan area of nine million people.

The post-war period also saw a rise in immigration from people all over the former British Empire, changing London from simply an English city into a more diverse, multicultural global center. 

Today London remains one of the world’s centers for finance and banking. It also is the primate city for the United Kingdom. A primate city is not only the largest in a country but serves as its capital as well as its center of culture and finance. 

London is one of my favorite cities in the world to visit. I’ve stayed in different neighborhoods all over London, and each neighborhood feels like a completely different city.  Nowadays, I usually stay around Kings Cross, just because there are ample options for lodging, and it’s near the St. Pancras station, where the Eurostar train goes to continental Europe.

London still has a very bright future. If you were to list the top five cities in the world by importance to the world economy, London would definitely be on the list. 

It is quite an accomplishment for a Roman outpost built over 2000 years ago on a place where they could build a bridge on a river.