London: A History

June 17, 2010

We are all, at least partly, Londoners. As far back as the 18th century, a surprisingly large proportion of England's population had lived for a while in London.

Contemporaries commented on the number of stagecoaches and post-chaises available to transport passengers to and from the provinces, and observed that the manners and fashions of the capital were soon adopted in distant towns.

Today, the trains from provincial cities carry more passengers to London than alight at any stop on the way. London is not just a political capital, but the economic and cultural centre of Britain. Academics are forever on the way to London for conferences and to the academies and institutes of their respective disciplines. As Jeremy Black remarks, "London's importance is glimpsed as much, if not more so, in Newcastle as in Shoreditch."

To embark on a single-volume history of London must be daunting, for histories of it abound, while the West End, the City and almost every suburb has found its own historians. Gillian Tindall has even written a fascinating book (The House by the Thames) about one London dwelling.

There are different ways of dealing with the formidable task: feeling the pulse of the growth of an organic community over time, exemplified by Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography, whose evocative, almost Dickensian, approach comes close to enabling the reader to smell the spices of the wharves and the roar of the crowd at Tyburn; or by concentrating on a single, if thick, strand, as with Roy Porter's London: A Social History.

Black gives us a panoramic narrative that skilfully combines political, social and cultural history without losing sight of a major theme, namely London's place in English, British and world history - a theme epitomised by two chapter headings, "The centre of all" and "The world city".

The relationship of London to the rest of England and, indeed, latterly of Britain has for centuries been close, for it has been the centre of finance, law and government, but it has ever been controversial. It has been seen as the place of opportunity with a more fluid social order than provincial towns, where the able, talented and hard-working could make Whittingtonian progress, but it has also been seen as William Cobbett's "Great Wen", a malignant swelling on the face of the nation.

London's growth was prodigious, for it had a population of 200,000 in 1600 when Norwich, its nearest English rival, had just 15,000 inhabitants. However, its physical expansion was not from a single nucleus but was, rather, an amalgamation of the City, Westminster and Southwark before a further expansion in all directions.

This explains some of its internal tensions: the centre of royal government existing uneasily with a City with its often radical merchants determined to establish the rights, liberties and independence of urban government; and the values and culture of a West End, home of aristocracy, high society and fashionable life, clashing with those of commercial society.

After the spectacular expansion from the mid-19th century to the present impelled by the railways, the progress via the Underground to "Metroland", and the further suburbs created by motor transport, "What is London?" remains a question that succeeding attempts to find a suitable local government structure for a conurbation of such a size and diversity have found difficult to answer.

Black has produced a book that is a masterpiece of synthesis and organisation. The narrative with its over-arching themes is underpinned by his research, which gives us apposite evidence to justify and illustrate the broad sweep without ever becoming bogged down in a mass of detail. This is achieved not just within the text but by the superb illustrations, themselves accompanied by further information, and by the maps that are an important aid to our understanding of London's development.

The publishers, as well as the author, are to be congratulated on a fine history.

London: A History

By Jeremy Black
Carnegie Publishing, 448pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781859361726
Published 6 November 2009

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