The outpost which would become London first appears in history as a small military storage depot employed by the Romans during their invasion of Britain, which began in A.D. 43. It was ideally located as a trading center with the continent and soon developed into an important port. It had already become the headquarters of the Procurator, the official in charge of the finances of Roman Britain, when Boudica, the Queen of the Iceni, a native British tribe inhabiting East Anglia, burnt it to the ground in A.D. 61 in the course of her bloody revolt against Roman rule. It was rebuilt by the year 100, and first appears as "Londinium" in Tacitus's Annals. It rapidly became both the provincial capital and the administrative, commercial, and financial center of Roman Britain. Its population by the middle of the third century numbered perhaps 30,000 people, a number which grew in fifty years to nearly twice that number. They lived in a city with paved streets, temples, public baths, offices, shops, brick-fields, potteries, glass-works, modest homes and elaborate villas, surrounded by three miles of stone walls (portions of which still remain) which were eight feet thick at their base and up to twenty feet in height.
During the course of the fourth century, however, as the Roman Empire began to collapse, Roman Londinium fell into obscurity as its protective Legions withdrew; history records no trace of it between 457 and 600. During that time, however, it gradually became a Saxon trading town, eventually one of considerable size. In the same century Christianity was introduced to the city (St. Augustine appointed a bishop, and a cathedral was built), but the inhabitants resisted and eventually drove the bishop from the city. It was sacked and burned by the Danes in the ninth century, but was resettled by Alfred in 883, when the Danes were driven out, the city walls were rebuilt, a citizen army was established, and Ethelred, Alfred's son-in-law, was appointed governor. It continued to grow steadily thereafter, though because most of its buildings were constructed of wood, large fires took place with unsettling regularity.
Lunduntown (as it was now called) retained its preeminence after the Norman Conquest, which began in 1066. Though William the Conqueror had himself crowned at Westminster Abbey, he distrusted the Saxon populace of the city, and constructed a number of fortresses within the city walls, including still extant portions of Westminster Hall and the Tower of London. In 1176 work began on a new stone bridge to replace the wooden one which the Romans had built a thousand years before. The new bridge (which, in its turn, acquired the name of Old London Bridge) was completed in 1209, and would be in existence until 1832, remaining the only bridge across the Thames until 1750.
The city became a true capital under Edward III, who placed the royal administrative center at Westminster during his reign in the fourteenth century. London was the only British city in mediaeval times which was comparable in size to the great cities of Europe. Between 1500 and 1800 it grew steadily in size and prominence, though during the middle ages its population never reached the levels it had attained in Roman times. Its population increased, however, from perhaps 50,000 in 1500, to 300,000 in 1700, 750,000 when George II assumed the throne in 1760, and 900,000 in 1800, in spite of living conditions which, over the centuries, were so unhealthy that the rapid increase in population could be sustained, in the face of an enormously high death rate, only by a steady influx of immigrants from other parts of Britain. [The death rate in the city, well into the eighteenth century, was twice the birth rate. The average life span of an Englishman, during the early eighteenth century, was 29 years, and in London the average was considerably lower.] The streets, since medieval times, had always been filthy, filled with mud, excrement, and offal; the water was polluted, rats were omnipresent. The Black Death of 1348-49 killed two-thirds of the inhabitants of the city proper and its surrounding areas (at least 60,000 people), and there were three subsequent serious outbreaks of the bubonic plague between 1603 and 1636, but the city (and the slums) continued to increase in size. The last major outbreak of the plague occurred in 1665; during the summer of that year perhaps 70,000 persons died. There were large-scale outbreaks of cholera in London proper well into the nineteenth century.
The urbanization of London (and of other English cities) continued and intensified during the Industrial Revolution, and on through the nineteenth century. In 1854, Nathaniel Hawthorne, at the time the American consul at Liverpool, recorded this melancholy entry in one of his English notebooks: "The following is a legend inscribed on the inner margin of a curious old box:‹'From Birkenhead into Hillbree/ A squirrel might leap from tree to tree.' I do not know where Hillbree is; but all round Birkenhead a squirrel would scarcely find a single tree to climb upon. All is pavement and brick buildings now." It was this sort of nostalgia for a rapidly disappearing rural past which led William Morris to found the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, and led him, as well, to begin his The Earthly Paradise with the following lines:
Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green. . .
While nigh the thronged wharf Geoffrey Chaucer's pen
Moves over bills of lading. . .
From the middle ages on, and well into the nineteenth century, much of London was violent and squalid. During the eighteenth century, the poor and the unemployed frequently occupied themselves, as Hogarth demonstrated, by drinking themselves into insensibility; one doctor reported that one of every eight Londoners drank themselves to death. In 1742 London had one gin-shop for every seventy-five inhabitants. During the 1740s the English consumed 7 million gallons of gin, as opposed to 1 million gallons during the 1780s, when it was heavily taxed.
London epitomized the process of social stratification which took place in Great Britain. As the city grew in size, the poor became increasingly crowded into the filthy slums in the eastern part of the city while the merchant and the professional classes and the gentry established themselves in the fashionable suburbs in the west. The Gordon Riots of 1780, for example, (which Charles Dickens made the focus of Barnaby Rudge) were ostensibly motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment, but were a manifestation of the deep hostility which the poor felt for the wealthy. Homes were attacked, looted, and burned, Newgate and Fleet Prisons were attacked and their prisoners released, and troops were required to restore order.
By 1750 one tenth of the population of England resided in London, and it was the undisputed cultural, economic, religious, educational, and political center of the nation. Population growth continued unabated through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. By the time Dickens died in 1871 the population of London was well over 3,000,000, and the spread of the prosperous middle classes into suburban areas surrounding the city proper was well underway. Less than a century later, the population of metropolitan London would be over 8,000,000.
London was, of course, also Britain's artistic and literary capital. For centuries, with its publishers, newspapers, journals and weeklies, Coffee-Houses, taverns, and literary salons, the city played an important (and frequently crucial) role in the life, development, and work of virtually every English literary figure of any significance. Hogarth and Rowlandson portrayed it in their work as the great eighteenth-century authors did in theirs.
London lies at the center of the lives of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Many British authors were either born there, as Blake or Lamb were; made their reputations there, as Swift, Pope, Johnson, Boswell, Carlyle, Dickens, and Kipling did; or died there, as Thomson would. But London was a city, too, as Swift, Blake, Dickens, Morris, and Thomson all tell us, of warehouses, docks, factories, prisons, palaces and slums, of beggars, labourers, shopkeepers, and bankers. Of the World-city which was Dickens's London, Hippolyte Taine wrote that
Nothing here is natural: everything is transformed, violently changed, from the earth and man himself, to the very light and air. But the hugeness of this accumulation of man-made things takes off the attention from this deformity and this artifice; in default of a wholesome and noble beauty, there is life, teeming and grandiose.
John Ruskin, in the 1860s, referred to it as "That great foul city of London, — rattling, growling, smoking, stinking — ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork, pouring out poison at every pore. . . ." Earlier, Shelley had written "Hell is a city much like London — A Populous and smoky city" (the famous nineteenth-century London fogs were the result of the air pollution brought about by the burning of coal on an enormous scale). On the other hand, Dr. Johnson once wrote
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
- London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life (1871)
- London Buildings and Monuments illustrated in the Victorian Web
- “The Dust and Din and Steam of Town”: London in Victorian Literature
Content last modified 1987; links last added 17 May 2010