The place if one isn't tired of life

London - London - A History of London
March 5, 1999

What makes London a great city, says Simon Thurley, are its immigrants.

As the century turns, Londoners are once again appreciative of and proud of their city. Despite forecasts of economic stagnation and the City's long-term social and infrastructure problems, London is recognised and celebrated from within and from without as a world city - probably the city of the millennium. This resurgence of pride is commemorated in two new histories of the capital that aim to illustrate comprehensively the course of London's progress from Roman Londinium to the city it is today. Neither is a short read, both are based on extensive research and are littered with accurate endnotes. Inevitably there are large areas of overlap but despite this these are, at heart, two different histories taking a different approach to their subject, each with different strengths and weaknesses. They should both be on the shelf of any lover of London.

The historian is forced to divide the history of London into two parts. That which took place before adequate documentation existed and which is now largely an archaeological story, and that which took place afterwards. The dividing line is somewhere in the 11th century. Francis Sheppard is happier at dealing with London's archaeological history than Stephen Inwood and makes a better job of it. He should do, having been the editor of The Survey of London for nearly 30 years. Sheppard gives due weight to the crucial geographical factors that have so fundamentally influenced the siting and development of London. Inwood by contrast leaves us in the dark about the physical layout of the London Basin and the reasoning behind the Roman foundation of the city. The first 50 or so pages of Sheppard's book are an excellent and intelligent introduction to London's early history.

After this the two books stake out their differing approaches. Inwood gives a brilliant insight into London, the place: the physical entity with its problems and successes. He answers the questions one really wants to know. What, for instance, did the poor of the East End wear in the 19th century? He also gives us the anecdotes we want to hear. I adore the story of the lord mayor of London, Thomas Blundworth, cheerfully noting, at the start of the Great Fire in 1666: "A woman might piss it out" - surely as Inwood notes, one of history's most unfortunate judgements. But more seriously, Inwood correctly gives weight to the role of London as the centre of national power and places the court and the seat of government centrally in his history. Although London lacked its own government, the actions of the crown fundamentally shaped its development and failure to realise this is hugely to underestimate the degree of central control on London's growth.

Sheppard, on the other hand, shows us London, the concept. He places it on the global map. We are constantly reminded of its place within the kingdom, in Europe and the world. It is sobering to remember that by 1901 London's population was larger than those of Paris, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg combined. He uses specially commissioned historic maps to illustrate his themes, once again showing his strong grip on the geography of the capital. Compare Sheppard's clear and concise map of the 19th-century railways with Inwood's confusing and fuzzy map. In fact Macmillan has not served Inwood well: his maps are well chosen but poorly reproduced.

Both writers recognise that governmental mechanisms for the metropolis have consistently failed to keep pace with the growth and developing sophistication of London. Since Roman times no single authority has ever governed the capital - even in the period between the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1888 and abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, when there were bodies with extensive pan-London powers. A French visitor to London in 1765 believed that: "The people of London are haughty and ungovernable". This may be so, but Londoners' ungovernability, if it was that, has been a major factor in London's success. London is an amazing tribute to laissez faire and the free market that first brought power stations, town planning, the docks and much more into existence without central control. Both authors wrote as the bill for a new Greater London Assembly was being drafted and both recognise the importance of the imminent mayor for London. Candidates for the post should certainly read these books and think on them.

Yet they will not find, at least without some digging, the answer to the crucial question, why is London still a world city? What is the basis of its ongoing economic, social and political success? Both writers correctly focus on London's position as the greatest trading city the world has known. London was founded on trade, moulded by trade and despite the closing of the docks and the ending of the empire, continues to rely on trade for its power and prosperity. As Inwood points out: "The foundation of London's pre-eminence was its banking system"; and today it is in its financial markets that London trades most and best. Many cities have coveted London's crown as the financial capital of the world and it is worth considering why it has kept it. Again, both authors provide us with some answers: London is the free-market capital of the world, because it has been built on commercial risk-taking and on its ability to tolerate, evolve and assimilate. Both books portray London as a city of migrants, a city of opportunity, a meritocratic metropolis for immigrants from all over the world. In the mid-18th century, migration to London was running at 9,000 people a year, by the late 19th century at 320,000 people a year. All these people with their talents, ideas, energy, hopes and ambitions were assimilated into the life of the city - and still are today.

But if London were only a trading centre, it would not be a fulfilling place for eight million people to live in. Both writers devote sections to the pursuit of entertainment and leisure by Londoners. London is, of course, an exciting city to live in. In 1890 H. Llewelyn Smith travelled to London drawn by "all that makes the difference between the Mile End Fair on a Saturday night and a dark and muddy country lane, with no glimmer of gas and nothing to do". The bright lights that drew Smith 100 years ago have not yet dimmed.

For Londoners, the Blitz exercises a fascination, especially for those of my generation who did not live through it. My home borough, Stepney, was one of the worst-hit parts of the East End. After 26 nights of consecutive bombing in 1940, 40 per cent of the houses had been destroyed and, across London, 11,000 people had been killed. I found Sheppard's description gripping and wanted to believe that Londers faced this most terrible of ordeals with unique courage. Yet Inwood reminds us that "the resilience of Londoners in 1940-41 was not unbelievable, and it was certainly not unique". The citizens of Berlin and Tokyo showed equal steadfastness in the face of greater destruction. The Blitz spirit of Londoners was not peculiarly British; it was the human spirit under fire.

Sadly the period after the second world war is poorly served by both books. While Sheppard descends into quoting series of statistics sent to him by the information sections of various government departments, Inwood allows his strong political views to come through descending at the end into political correctness and personal value judgements. He accuses the last Tory government of being eager to spend money on "ostentatious and socially valueless constructions to celebrate the millennium", rather than concentrating on London's real problems. Yet despite the disappointing finishes, I enormously enjoyed both books. Buy them both, and next time you have a few days to spare, read the combined 1,553 pages that tell the story of the world's most fascinating and exciting city.

On the other hand, if you do not have days to spare and 1,500 pages daunt you, try Roger Hudson's anthology of London writing produced for the Folio Society. Here you will enjoy many happy hours of impressions of London from Tacitus to Samuel Pepys and Jeffrey Barnard. The book has some beautiful illustrations, which are all properly and fully identified at the end - a rarity in such publications - although the index is thinner than I would have liked. The book ends with a piece by Simon Jenkins that sums up London's success and its future.

He writes:"The migrations that gave London Lombard Street, Old Jewry and China Town will bring Vietnam and Macedonia and Armenia to Wapping and Shadwell and Hoxton. Only when such colonies fail to materialise should London worry. A city composed only of goers, never comers, is a city that has lost its magnetic drive."

Simon Thurley is director, Museum of London.

London: A History

Author - Francis Sheppard
ISBN - 0 19 822922 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 442

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