The History of London

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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A brief introduction to the complicated evolution of the historic city of London.

Here, Peter Murray explains the development of the capital, from its inception 2,000 years ago with the Roman settlement on the Thames to its role as a major trading city and establishment of seat of British government, and discusses particular challenges it has faced, including the Great Fire of 1666, the onslaught of the Blitz in World War II, and the expansion of the city.  

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The history of London started 2,000 years ago when the Romans settled here on the north bank of the Thames in the area we now know as the city of London, and they chose this site because the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across to the south bank and connect with the roads to Chichester, to Dover and to Canterbury.

They protected the city with walls that stretched from the Fleet River in the West to Tower Hill in the east and it remained the centre of administration for the Romans until they departed at the beginning of the fifth century.

Over the next millennium the area grew into a major trading city commercial wealth attracting the establishment of the Palace of Westminster to the West thus setting up the polarity between state and commerce that exists to this day.

The medieval city of London was contained within the ancient Roman walls it was densely packed with narrow streets and timber houses the disastrous great fire in 1666 destroyed some 80 percent of the city and although King Charles II and others like the Architect Christopher Wren wanted to rebuild with a renaissance plan of wide streets and vistas, the merchants wanted to get back to business as soon as possible, so the city was rebuilt on the old plan. The fire also led to the setting up of the London building act which decreed that all new housing should be built of brick and to a standard design which formed the basis of London streets for the next 200 years.

Georgian London spread westward as developers and estates built planned streets and squares in places like sand James and Mayfair. In the 19th century London's population grew to four million people, the greatest city in the world and the centre of the British Empire, it was a city of fine public buildings grand houses as well as horrific slums where existing suburban settlements grew until they formed a large and untidy metropolis.

In the 20th century London grew by spreading outwards with the growth of the suburbs by the beginning of World War two the population totalled 8.6 million people. The Abercrombie plan for post-war Blitz-damaged London involved decanting citizens to new towns in the Home Counties so the population fell and continued to do so until 1988 when the capital began to grow as a global financial centre and there was an increase in immigration. Today London's population is about 8.6 million people, about the same number it was in 1939 but by 2036 we expect that number to have grown to closer to 11 million people

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