The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Land + People

London is the capital of the United Kingdom and the chief city of the Commonwealth of Nations. Together with Tokyo, the capital of Japan, and New York in the United States, it is one of the three largest cities in the world. In Greater London — the area (roughly) within 15 miles of Charing Cross— about 8,250,000 people live.

London is also interesting because of its history which reaches back to Roman times and is recorded in the names of many of its streets.

London is situated on the river Thames, in what is called the London Basin. The Thames, known to Londoners simply as “the river”, winds its way through London, dividing it into north and south. Fifteen bridges span it, perhaps the best known being Westminster, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Tower and London bridges.;All of them carry heavy traffic from one side of the river to the other.

The oldest part of London is the City.

The City of London covers only about a square mile. The City is administered by the Corporation of the City ofLondon, headed by the Lord Mayor. A new Lord Mayor is elected each year and drives in a procession known as the Lord Mayor’s Show, to the Guildhall.

In the City are the great domedchurchofSt. Paul’s, the Bank of England, sometimes called the “Old Lady of Thread-needle Street”, the Stock Exchange and the Old Bailey, where important criminal trials take place. There too is the church of St. Mary-le-Bow. Anyone born within sound of its bells is said to be a cockney (a true Londoner), but Bow bells have been silent since the church was seriously damaged during World War II.

By the Thames is theTowerofLondon, one of the oldest and most famous buildings inBritain. It has been used as a royal palace, a fortress and a prison for persons ranging from Queens of England to German prisoners of war.

A few remains of the wall which encircledLondonin Roman times can still be seen in the City. The “seven gates toLondon” are the points at which Roman roads pierced the wall, and seven streets are still called after them: Ald- gate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, New­gate and Ludgate.

The City is the business centre ofLondon. During the day it is full of people, but at the end of the day the busi­nessmen, clerks and secretaries go home and the City becomes silent and almost empty.

Before the passing of the London Government Act 1963 the administrativeCountyofLondonwas the part ofLon­donwhich directly surrounded the City and was admin­istered by the London County Council. The administrativeCountyofLondonwas divided into regions called boroughs and the City ofWestminster.

Greater London. AsLondon has grown, it has overflowed in some places into the counties round about. These — Mid­dlesex,Essex,Kent,Surrey and Hertfordshire — are known as the Home Counties. The parts of them that belonged to Greater London were outside the boundaries of the L.C.C. and were run by their own councils.

The London Government Act 1963 completely reshaped local government in the Greater London areas. In place of the L.C.C., borough and urban councils there will be a Greater London Council for the whole area, thirty-two new London Borough Councils plus the City ofLondon. The G.L.C. administers an area seven times larger than the L.C.C. area and containing about one-fifth of the total population ofEnglandandWales.

“Inner London” comprises twelve boroughs formerly included in theCounty ofLondon, and “Outer London” covers the remaining twenty boroughs.

Central London. Today, Charing Cross on the north side of the Thames is taken to be the centre ofLondon. Around it are the buildings which show thatLondon is the centre ofBritain’s government. The Queen lives inBuckinghamPalace for much of the year, but. there are other royal palaces inLondon as well. Even the Houses of Parliament are offi­cially a royal palace, called thePalace ofWestmin­ster.

All the other places which play a part in the business of running Britain are to be found somewhere near Bucking­ham Palace. If you stand beside the Houses of Parliament you can look down the street calledWhitehallflanked by the main government offices. They include the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Treasury, the Admiralty and the War Office. InWhitehallstands the Cenotaph which commemorates the fallen of the two world wars.

OffWhitehallis a narrow, rather dull-looking street calledDowning Street. The Prime Minister lives at No. 10 Downing Street. Lambeth Palace, which is theLondonhome of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is no more than a few minutes away across the river.

Trafalgar Square, known for its fountains, pigeons and the towering Nelson’s Column, is close toCharing Cross. Behind Nelson’s Column is the National Gallery which houses a priceless collection of paintings, including works by nearly all the great masters. To the west isPiccadilly Circus, gay with advertisements and lights. There is a saying that if you wait long enough inPiccadilly Circusyou will see everyone you know go by.

BetweenOxford Streetand Piccadilly is the area known asSoho, a colourful region of narrow streets, markets, shops and restaurants where almost any kind of food can be eaten.Sohois a foreign quarter; a great many foreigners, partic­ularly French people and Italians, live there.

North of Oxford street is the district known asBlooms­bury. It is the centre of books and learning inLondonand its most important building is theBritishMuseum. TheBritishMuseumlibrary contains about 7,000,000 books.

Near theBritishMuseumis a tall, handsome, white building which is the main building of theUniversityofLondon.LondonUniversityhas 19,000 students and is divid­ed into a number of colleges and schools scattered about in different parts ofLondon.

To the south-east ofLondonUniversityand theBritishMuseumis the legal centre ofLondoncontaining the four Inns of Court, which are concerned with training barris­ters.

Fleet Street, where the newspapers ofLondonare printed, runs eastwards from the Inns of Court. It gets its name from a stream called the Fleet which once flowed throughLondonbut has now disappeared beneath streets and build­ings.

The East End is the part ofLondon east of the City. This area ofLondon is poor and crowded. The smells of the River Thames and of the cargoes unloaded from ships hang over theEast End. ThePort ofLondon, of which the docks form a part, has69 miles of waterways and is one of the two or three greatest ports in the world.

Most of the historic buildings ofLondonand its centres of business, pleasure and learning are on the north side of theThames. On the south, orSurrey, side there are boroughs which are generally rather crowded, industrial places.

The South Side has its interesting areas as well as the north. InGreenwich, for example, are the beautiful buildings of theRoyalNavalCollege.Greenwich also possesses a beau­tiful park in which stand the buildings of the Greenwich Observatory. The Old Vic, as the Royal Victoria Hall is generally called, is a famous theatre known for its produc­tions of Shakespeare’s plays. It is on theWaterloo Road.

Most of the outskirts ofLondonconsist of suburbs where live a tremendous number of people who travel intoLondoneve­ry day to their jobs. ThroughoutLondon, people travel by buses or by underground trains. The underground system reaches far into the suburbs.LondonAirport, the chiefair­portofBritainis on the western outskirts ofLondon.

Existing travelling conditions by bus, tube or rail are scandalous, particularly during rush periods whilst the roads are so congested as to bring traffic almost to a halt.

The increase in population, in travellers by public trans­port and by car forecast over the next few years will impose ever greater hardship, discomfort and expense on the work­ing population ofLondon.

The Growth of London.London was first built on two low, gravel-topped hills on the north bank of theThames.

Although the river was just shallow enough to ford, its south side was marshy and enemies found it difficult to launch a surprise attack. So a settlement grew up on these two hills, and in the course of time a wall was built around them and the settlement became the town which the Romans called Londinium.On one of these hills St. Paul’s Cathedral now stands and on the other the Bank of England.

Although Londinium was quite an important Roman town, it wasWinchesterthat was the capital of Anglo-Saxon England. In the 11th century, however, William the Con­queror madeLondonhis capital and was crowned king there.

During the Middle Ages London was divided into two parts — the court part and the merchants’ part. The court part had moved west toWestminster, the “Church in the West”, while the merchants remained in the City.

The Londoners of the Middle Ages took for granted many terrible things. Among them was the sight of prisoners being dragged through the streets on frames called hurdless to be hanged at Tyburn Tree, the gallows named after another lost stream, the Tyburn. At the beginning ofOxford Streetis a small tablet which marks the site of Tyburn Tree.

The medieval Londoners were used to filth, bad smells and disease, including bubonic plague. This broke out at intervals inLondon.

In 1664, during the reign of Charles II,Londonwas attacked by an outbreak of plague which was so fearful that it is always referred to as the “Great Plague of London”. In the summer of 1665 people were dying at the rate of thou­sands a week within a few hours of being taken ill. Carts were taken round the streets when the plague was at its height, and the drivers called: “Bring out your dead!”

When the plague was past its worst, another disaster fell uponLondon. Fire broke out in a house inPudding Lane, nearLondonBridge, in September 1666. The crowded wooden houses round burned easily, and the fire spread until most ofLondonwas a sea of flames. After a few days, when it was over at last, a large part ofLondonwas a smok­ing wilderness.

Terrible as it was, the Great Fire had some good results, for it destroyed the crowded and dirty streets which were breeding places for the plague and it gave the people the opportunity to build a new and healthierLondon. Unfor­tunately, even though the great architect, Sir Christopher Wren, was given the job, he was not able to carry it out completely, as people who had lost their houses and shops wanted to have them rebuilt as they had been before. Wreil was, however, allowed to rebuildSt. Paul’s and a large number of parish churches.

In the 18th centuryLondonbegan to spread into the open countryside round about.

Londonin the 19th century was better drained than before. Railways began to be built and factories grew up. At night streets were lit, first by gas and then by electric­ity. In many waysLondonwas becoming a better place to live in, but the air was becoming full of grime which blackened the old buildings, and it seemed as though the city would never stop swallowing up the villages round about.

Londonsuffered greatly in World War II. In September 1940 the German Air Force sent its aircraft over the capital and bombed it every night for over two months. This attack was known as the “blitz” from “blitzkrieg”, a German word meaning “lightning war’ In December, 1940 so many fires were started one night from bombs being dropped that some­thing like a second great fire of London started.St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey were hit by bombs, and the debating chamber of the House of Commons was altogether destroyed. Later in the warLondonwas attacked again by pilotless aircraft and by rockets.

At the end of the wrar, althoughLondon had been hit in very many places, few parts were completely flattened. One of these was the area roundSt. Paul’s. The ruins remained for years afterwards, long enough for a few plane-trees to grow among them. It tookLondon some time to recover from the war and some signs of bombing still remain, but by about 1955 most of the damage had been repaired.

From Children’s Encyclopedia Britannica. 1960; Guide to Lon­don in Pictures; Comment, Apr. 1964.

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