One of the holdings of the Museum of London is a terracotta wine-jug bearing the words, "Londini ad fanum Isidis" ("At London at the shrine of Isis"), and dating from the first century AD. This was unearthed south of the Thames, in Southwark. On the other side of the river, the bridle path was "strondway" by the eleventh century, and before long it had "several large mansions" with gates opening on to it. Once the rough track was paved, the Strand was well on its way to becoming "perhaps the finest street in Europe" (Disraeli's estimation of it, qtd. in Weinreb et al. 883). By Disraeli's time, of course, a single address along there, such as 142 Strand, could hold enough material for a whole book. With a past as long and as crowded as this, London must have presented a huge challenge to the editors of this encyclopaedia.

London Encyclopaedia

The bookjacket of the latest edition of The London Encyclopaedia. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, the original editors, rose magnificently to the challenge. They covered enormous topics like Police, Population and Transport; whole boroughs like Southwark and Greenwich with all their rich histories; individual streets, squares, and buildings of many kinds, from the seats of royalty, government and justice to cathedrals, churches, schools, hospitals, banks, clubs, colleges, museums, galleries and theatres; open-air or only partially-enclosed spaces like squares, markets, parks and cemeteries; and public monuments and statues, from giant groups like the Quadriga on Constitution Arch right down to a little stone bust of Edward VII by an unknown sculptor, practically hidden under a second-floor window in Knightsbridge. Moreover, they described, identified and commented on all this in a relaxed, pleasant style, neither dry not racy but with touches of humour that spoke of a real affection for the place.

Wisely, for the new edition, Julia and John Keay have left as much as possible of this unchanged: "about 70 per cent of the original text has scarcely been touched" (xv). Yet a great many developments have occurred since the previous updating of the early 1990s. There are new entries on recent structures, projects and milestones of one kind or another, such as the Millennium Dome (1999) and the Millennium Bridge (2000). Sadly, there is also one for the July 7 bombings: CRIME: 7 JULY 2005. Some changes have had to be made to existing entries as well, for example, to record the unveiling of the restored Albert Memorial in 1998; the historic move of Trinity College of Music from Mandeville Place to the old Royal Naval College at Greenwich in 2001 (marked at the time by a festive river procession complete with live music); and the 2003 pedestrianisation of the North Terrace of Trafalgar Square. Work on the former Conservative Club in St James's Street is among the many recent restorations noted. There are new illustrations too, including a splendid photograph of the London Eye, opened in March 2000, and an even more splendid, wide-angle shot of one of the two new Hungerford footbridges of 2002.

Cabmen's shelter

Cabmen's shelter at Russell Square, WC1. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

The longer entries on wider topics have also been revised. Good examples here are those on transport generally, and London Transport (the organisational body) in particular. Again, most of the original history of water, road, rail and air services remains, with much to offer readers with a special interest in the Victorian period. The "Cabs and Taxis" section, for example, has an explanation for the little green huts still standing in a few squares and big streets in London. These were introduced by Victorian philanthropists to provide non-alcoholic refreshments for the cabbies. One contemporary illustration here shows the exterior of the St John's Wood shelter, while another depicts some cabbies enjoying their meals inside such a place. The near-disappearance of these quaint structures makes such details and illustrations all the more valuable. As for new information, this includes the successful reintroduction of trams in Croydon, while such additions are largely offset by the omission of unnecessarily specific details about helicopter movements — this sort of tweaking has kept the encyclopaedia from running much over its original length. Humour is supplied in this area by the brand new entry on London Transport Lost Property Office, which informs us that items forgotten on the system include a park bench, a sack of sultanas, a 14-foot boat and, perhaps inevitably, a kitchen sink.

A few quibbles remain, but they are only quibbles. For example, G. F. Watts himself later replaced his mural over the chancel arch at St James the Less with a Venetian glass mosaic, so it is not right to call it a mural now. Holly Village in Highgate does not comprise "eight picturesque and fanciful cottages" (410): strictly speaking, there are four detached houses and four pairs of adjoining cottages, twelve dwellings in all. No one has noticed, either, that Sir Thomas Brock's statue of John Everett Millais has been moved from the forecourt of Tate Britain to the rear, although this happened in 2000. Even statues move sometimes! Still, the double-column ten-page list of public statues remains an invaluable and highly dependable resource. Many of the great figures of the past are out there in the streets, squares and parks of London, and the encyclopaedia tells us where they can be found, who sculpted them and when, and even, sometimes, odd details about their reception or effect. After Chantrey's bronze of Pitt the Younger had been erected in Hanover Square, for example, the Whigs lassoed it and tried to pull it down. Chantrey's secretary was completely unfazed. "The cramps are leaded and they may pull till doomsday" (873), he said smugly. Personal opinions are voiced too, with a Punch cartoon supporting the view that Matthew and James Wyatt's 40-tonne statue of the Duke of Wellington, formerly at Hyde Park Corner, is ugly. This statue's fate is recorded here; it ended up in Aldershot.

By any standards, this is the ultimate guide to London, more than just a worthy successor to Henry Wheatley and Peter Cunningham's London Past and Present (1891), Charles Dickens Jr's Dictionary of London (1879), and before that to a line of books that goes all the way back to John Stow's Survey of London (1598). It is the very best kind of reference book, not only informative, comprehensive and reliable, but entertaining as well, and therefore memorable. It could even be read, with profit and enjoyment, from cover to cover. A desert island beckons. . . . but only if rescue is assured, because after finishing it, one would surely long to see all that one had missed or not fully appreciated before. In short, a capital production!


The London Encyclopaedia, edited by Ben Weinreb, Christopher Hibbert, Julia Keay and John Keay. 3rd edition. London: Macmillan, 2008. 1101 + xvi pp. Hardback, 50.00. ISBN 978-1-4050-4924-5.

Last modified 12 March 2009