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London - A Brief History: Part 5 - World Wars, 20th Century and London Today

London - A Brief History: Part 5 - World Wars, 20th Century and London Today

World Wars and the 20th Century London

ww2 blitz london children
The Blitz Devastation in London
Source: National Archives
London suffered heavily during World War I but was still the capital of a massive empire. Between World War I and II, London continued to expand geographically as the transport system expanded and allowed people to live in the suburbs; car ownership also facilitated this.

London’s unemployment grew rapidly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, only to be followed by World War II. During The Blitz, London suffered extensive damage, and again fires raged through the City of London destroying it. Over one million houses in London were destroyed, and the death toll reached 40,000. Many escaped to the countryside, fearing for their lives.

London went through a massive rebuilding project after WWII, and the 1950s and 1960s saw big tower blocks being built to house Londoners. During this time, many immigrants came to the city from the Commonwealth countries – Indians, Jamaicans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis made their way to the city, making it a truly multicultural place.
London’s population was decreasing, though, and had dropped from 8.6 million before WWII to 6.8 million in the 1980s. This began to increase again from the mid-1980s onwards.

Present Day London

London today is a cosmopolitan city with international repute. The city has an official population of more than 8.6 million people, matching its peak in 1939. The city is still growing, however, and its population is expected to reach 10 million by 2029.

London has twenty post codes, thirty-two boroughs and, at the time of writing, has Sadiq Khan as its mayor.

The city has not lost its unique historical influence, though, as it boasts four heritage sites: Kew Gardens; the areas of the Palace of Westminster, St Margaret’s Church and Westminster Abbey; the Tower of London; and Maritime Greenwich.

London is also an education hub with students from around the world flocking to the city annually in search of fine education. The city boasts high calibre colleges like the London school of Economics, Royal Academy of Music and the London Business School.

In terms of tourism, London attracts over 31 million tourists annually and possesses a vibrant economy. Measured in terms of international visitors, London is the most visited city in the world.
Today’s London is truly amazing. It has evolved to become the multicultural centre of Europe and an economic, educational and tourist hub. The future of the city looks brighter than ever.

Go Back and Read Part 4 - Industrial Revolution or read from the beginning with Part 1 - Roman London.

London: A Brief History - Part 4: Politics, The Industrial Revolution and London’s Railway Age

London: A Brief History - Part 4: Politics, The Industrial Revolution and London’s Railway Age

Image: National Economics Editorial
In 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain came to be as the English and Scottish parliaments came together with the Acts of Union. London at the time was expanding in every direction: in the west towards Mayfair, the east saw an expansion of the Port of London, and bridges across the river allowed London to grow towards the south.

A new phenomenon in London at the time was the coffeehouse where newspapers could be read, as printing presses became common. Fleet Street became synonymous with news.

Eighteenth century London was also rife with crime with the death penalty being using for the vast majority of crimes. Public hangings, in areas such as Marble Arch, were common and big public spectacles.

London went through a radical change in the 1800s. It became the world’s largest city and during the 19th century its population exploded from 1 million to 6.7 million. 
Also during the 19th century, the invention of the steam train and its railways, under Queen Victoria’s reign transformed London, but the building of new railways meant the demolition of many buildings. Most areas affected by the demolition were poor areas due to the easy approval by government authorities.

London’s maiden railway line was commissioned in February 1836 between Deptford and Bermondsey. The 1840s, experienced railway boom, which also saw the arrival of long distance railway travel. The introduction of the railways saw a massive rise in population and London’s area became larger than ever before. A few years later, in 1863, London unveiled the world’s first underground railway running from Paddington to Farringdon.

Meanwhile, in 1855, Joseph Bazalgette led a team of workers who constructed over 2,000km of tunnels in London’s first sewage system. The death rate in London dropped dramatically as living conditions improved.

London’s population began to become more international, as Irish settlers moved over during the Great Famine in the mid-1850s. People from poorer parts of Europe emigrated to London, as did many from colonial countries.

Go back and Read Part 3 - Disaster Strikes or Read Part 5 - World Wars and the 20th Century

London: A Brief History - Part 3: Disaster Strikes

London: A Brief History - Part 3: Disaster Strikes

Disaster: The Great Plague and the Great Fire of London

Image Source: Wikipeda - Painter Unknown

By the 1600s, the growth and continued expansion of London led to the influx of all classes of people and there were a large number of people who lived in extreme poverty in the city.

Poverty became so rife that city sanitation was adversely affected as people disposed of their waste (both organic and human) out in the streets of the city and as a consequence, London became filthy and infested with rats and fleas.

In 1665, the early victims of The Great Plague were first discovered in the poorer areas of London due to the deplorable living conditions. The spread of the plague was aided by the overpopulation of the area, which encouraged close contact between healthy and infected people, and even contact with rats and fleas. The disease spread quickly; the rich relocated to the countryside for safety while the poor had no choice but to stay put.

As a response to the disease, some new laws were created to help curb the spread of the plague: the military guarding certain areas, painting red crosses on doors of the infected, killing dogs, and searchers who hunted down dead bodies for mass burials etc. The climax of the plague was in September 1665 when the summer heat peaked. The next winter halted the spread of the plague as the cold took its toll on the rats and fleas.
Though the real tragedy had passed by the tail end of 1665, the demise of the disease was in part due to the Great Fire of London in 1666. The fire destroyed the infested areas where rats had multiplied. The fire was reported to have burnt down over 13,000 houses, 88 parish churches, and left over 70,000 inhabitants of London homeless.

Only 6 people were reported to be killed by the fire which lasted from the 2nd to 5th September 1666.

The rebuilding of the city after The Great Fire was swift; King Charles appointed commissioners including Christopher Wren to supervise the rebuilding. The supervisors determined the length of streets, quality of materials and positioning of important public structures like markets, churches, and secular buildings.

Wren’s grand plan for London was never used, but by the end of 1670, over 6000 houses had been built. Christopher Wren, who was knighted in 1673, supervised the construction of fifty-one parish churches and started the construction of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Another notable name in the rebuilding of London is John Nash, who designed Buckingham Palace and Regent Street, as well as Marble Arch in 1827, to be the official pathway to the Cour d’Honneur of Buckingham Palace.

The Bank of England was established towards the end of the 17th century, and London was now handling 80% of England’s imports and almost 70% of its exports.
It should be noted that London was never a place where goods were manufactured, but a place where goods were traded.

Back to Part 2 - Roman London / Read Part 4 - The Industrial Revolution

London: A Brief History - Part 2: End of Roman London and the Vikings

London: A Brief History - Part 2: End of Roman London and the Vikings

London’s Fortune Changes: End of Roman London

Londinium boasted an amphitheatre, a temple, a palace, bath houses and a large fort at its peak but as the proverb says “every beginning must have an end”. During the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 122AD, it was estimated that Londinium had a population of about 45,000 and was largely perceived as a cultural melting point, due to its cosmopolitan mix. However, by the 3rd century, Londinium’s fortunes began to change as a result of several factors, including: political instability in the empire, recession, as well as barbarian and pirate attacks.

Over the next century, soldiers were constantly pegged away from Britannia to deal with barbarian attacks elsewhere and Emperor Constantine II recalled the last troops in 407 AD. A few years later, Emperor Honorius declined requests from Britain for military aid and this officially marked the end of Roman rule, thereby setting in motion the end of Roman London. By the middle of the 5th century, Londinium was completely deserted and abandoned.

The Viking Invasion of London

When the Romans left, London ceased to be an important town and it fell into obscurity.
But the location of London on the Thames was an important factor, so the 7th century witnessed trade expand and the city flourished once more.

The growth was stable and free flowing, so as a result, by the 9th century, London became a prosperous trading center and its affluence attracted the attention of the Danish Vikings. The Vikings were severe: in 851 the Danes attacked and destroyed the city.

The 10th century is a confusing one for historians, but it is believed that the English, Danish and then Norman kings had control of the city at different times.

By 1014, while the Danish were controlling the city, a large force of Norwegian Vikings and Anglo-Saxons attacked London, which led to the fall of the London Bridge – this is still a popular, and well-known, nursery rhyme today. When Danish King Cnut ascended to power in 1017, attacks ceased due to Cnut’s willingness to unite Anglo-Saxons with the Danes and the invitation of Danish merchants to settle in the city. Until King Cnut’s death, London prospered but his demise reverted the city back to Anglo-Saxons rule under Edward the Confessor.

London became the largest city in England and the most prosperous in Britain, but it was not the capital of the realm. Winchester held that role until the 12th century. 

Other parts in this series: 
Go back to Part 1: Roman London

Read Part 3 - Disaster Strikes

London: A Brief History - Part 1: Roman London

London: A Brief History - Part 1: Roman London

The City Builds and Burns: Roman London (43 to 410 AD)

Image Source: Wikipedia

Today’s London started off as a civilian town called Londinium, established by the Romans a few years after the invasion of AD43. Londinium is believed to have been equivalent to the size of Hyde Park today, and the Roman army built a sturdy wooden bridge over the Thames, east of where today’s London Bridge is situated. As a result of the bridge and construction of roads from the Londinium port, there was an influx of merchants, traders and other urban dwellers in search of better living conditions and opportunities.

Over the next few years, Londinium prospered and became an important town but this came to a halt when in 60AD, Queen Boudicca, of the Icene tribe of Norfolk, targeted Londinium as a show of her antagonism of Roman rule. Boudicca and her army razed Londinium to the ground, killing thousands in the process, and as a result orchestrated one of the first recorded burnings of London in history. The buildings at the time were made of wood and clay and therefore burnt very easily.

After the invasion of Boudicca, it did not take long for the Romans to re-establish control. The strategic location of Londinium made it too valuable to forfeit, therefore it was hastily rebuilt. It became a walled and planned Roman city. The rebirth was the beginning of a golden era of trade and by 100AD, large amounts of goods were being traded in Londinium – emanating from, and going to, extensive corners of the empire.

Luxury goods such as pottery, wine, olive oil, marble and slaves became rampant in Londinium through import from Spain, Italy, Gaul and Greece, while a viable export market for tin, silver, copper, oysters, corn and woolen cloak was established.

Read Part 2 - The End of Roman London