Throughout London's lifetime, it has seen a parade of high times and lows. Disease, fire, war, riots and terrorist bombings rank as the memorable, near-crippling invasions of nature and man, but London will always find itself back on its feet. Today, it is a world-renowned power having benefited from the latter-20th-century boom in popularity and dominance.
In the year 50 AD, the Romans found and settled in London which, at the time, was called Londinium. About ten years after London was discovered, Boadicea, queen of the Norfolk-based Iceni, burned it to the ground after the Roman governor fled the settlement; he did not have enough defences, and several thousands of people were lost as well. In order to protect themselves from future attacks, such as Boadicea’s, stone walls were built around the borders of London in c. 180 AD. It obviously worked because, over the next hundred years, its population flourished to a healthy 45,000. However, the Roman army didn’t want to hang around and, by 460 AD, London was abandoned by them.
To replace the Romans, the Saxons took London under their wing and, in around 600 AD, created a new town in Covent Garden, appointed a bishop for the city four years later, and brought the population back up to around 10,000 after the loss of the Romans left it dwindling. In 604 AD, the first ever St. Paul’s Cathedral was erected in the same spot as today’s one. But, over the next 500 or so years, the Danes took an interest in the prospering city – not a good one. They sacked it in 842 AD, and put it to the torch – for the second time – in 851 AD. Counting their third time lucky, in 994 AD, they tried again. But London was obviously well aware of how to respond with all the practice and, led by Alfred the Great, the city’s defences forced the Danes to retreat.
Thanks to the newly-appointed king of England, William I (or William the Conqueror as he’s more popularly known), the building process for the Tower of London began and was finished in 1078. Still standing today, the tower is the oldest building in the city. 1176 saw the rickety, wooden London Bridge be replaced by a stronger, more secure stone version – though it didn’t attract any less traffic; there used to be shopping stalls and carts lining the road across that bridge – people even used to live on it. By the mid 1300s, the population of London was still on the increase, reaching 50,000, only to be thwarted by the Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It caused widespread death and forced the employment of corpse-collectors to walk the streets of London with body carts, solemnly shouting, "Bring out your dead". Closed curtains in windows would indicate a death at the household.
Still on the rise, London’s population grew to 120,000 by 1550, and jumped again to 250,000 over the next fifty years. The plague was there again to slow the population down, striking in 1600 and lasting another three years. Seemingly relentless, the Black Death reared its ugly head for what was the last time in 1665, only to leave London at the hands of the Great Fire in 1666. People barely had a chance to return to normality – whatever that was at the time; over 13,000 homes were destroyed after the fire took light in a bakery on Pudding Lane. Most of London’s rooftops were thatch and there were a lot of timber frameworks – the fire burned the city ferociously. By the end of the 1600s and the start of the 1700s, London’s population hadn’t been deterred; it reached 600,000.
This was a prosperous period for London and a defining one as well. Several buildings that now form the face of London were built. Buckingham Palace was finished by 1703; St. Paul’s was (re)built in 1711; Westminster Hospital was founded in 1720; Guys Hospital was founded four years later, and London Hospital was founded six years after that in 1740. The traffic and congestion across London Bridge was significantly reduced thanks to the demolition of the houses across which had been built in 1757, and the walls that skirted the city were also pulled down by the end of 1766. They took six years to fully flatten. By 1769, London had its second bridge across the Thames: Blackfriars Bridge.
Expansion swept the city with the population, as always, on the rise. Nearly a million people inhabited the city and what were once small villages overflowed with people to form larger areas known as ‘boroughs’. The transport system was well underway, and bolstered by the creation of Euston Station in 1837 and King’s Cross (now known as King’s Cross St. Pancras) in 1848-9. Further disease in the form of cholera had London in a state of more ill health during the latter 1860s but, by then, public health had seriously improved. The last two decades of the 1800s saw the Albert Hall and the Natural History Museum built and founded respectively.
War dominated the first half of the 20th century with the first German air raid on London in 1916. Their aim was to coax the RAF back into home flying zones, but it backfired and we advanced on the German air force instead. Between WWI and WWII, in 1923, Wembley Stadium was built. Iconic for its twin towers sporting flags on their domes; hosting the annual FA Cup Finals and the 1948 Olympics among other huge events, Wembley today is Britain’s largest football stadium. By the 1940s, London was involved in war again with WWII. It’s here where the city received its heaviest pounding from German forces. Around 20,000 people were lost to the bombs of 1940-1. The London Underground became a home for many without proper shelter and, four years later, a further 3,000 civilians would be killed from German missile attacks. The period of the London bombing is known as The Blitz.
Prosperity and longevity reigned supreme in the city. It was a seriously positive time with record numbers of imports and exports passing through London’s docks. More and more people were being employed, with 50,000 new jobs opening in what was being called the ‘office boom’, and women in particular benefited from this, outnumbering the quantity of males in office jobs. It was in the fifties that West Indian immigrants arrived in London, but were unfortunately brought under attack by delinquent youth gangs. In 1952, London succumbed to what’s been dubbed The Great Smog, or The Big Smoke. Due to the amount of coal being used (and subsequent fumes being produced) in household fireplaces and coal-powered factories and power stations, together with abnormal weather conditions i.e. a windless London, a cloud of warm air hovered over the cool air of the city, forming a lid trapping any noxious air from escaping. This event lasted from Friday 5th – Tuesday 9th December.
London’s society was growing more out of control than never before seen. ‘The Swinging Sixties’, as they’re known, saw hair grow longer, skirts rise higher, and the motto of ‘peace and love, man’ bandied around like toffee apples on Halloween. For London, the 60s were a time of anti-establishment, loud music and general rebellion among the youth culture, bringing Carnaby Street’s popularity to the fore. Otherwise, the population of this thriving city continued to grow into the millions; just over 3.2million, to be precise – London’s ‘Baby Boomer’ generation certainly lived up to its name. In 1966 (all Germans look away now), England won the FIFA World Cup, beating Germany 4-2. From a German perspective, it should’ve been 3-2 if anything because, according to post-match analysis, the third English goal wasn’t actually a goal; the ball didn’t cross the goal line.
Things took a turn for the worse during the seventies. Unemployment began to rise, and the population was shrinking (albeit marginally). A group of Irish Republicans called the IRA formed a bombing campaign and found themselves on London’s streets. This put fear into the minds of Londoners and, together with the general decline of industry, factories and docks closing down and widespread dereliction, many thought London was on the brink of something devastating. But they had every right to be afraid with unemployment rising from 3.2% to a whopping 7.2% during the mid seventies. Elsewhere, a new breed of music was being born: pub rock. Something that would develop into a much more public entity over the next few decades, pub rock consisted, typically, of three musicians with an electric guitar, a bass guitar, and a set of drums, dressed in ripped and tatty clothes, singing about unconformity and individual rights. An era of punk was about to explode.
London became a global force of financial power and generation during the eighties. The banks were replacing the roles that the former docks provided, giving London a position of serious wealth. A huge transformation occurred in the capital, with the regeneration of Docklands. Bringing it from near ruin to the glossy, glass-window-sky-scraper-festooned area it is now was the largest urban regenerative project that Europe had ever seen. It was also in 1980 that the iconic Tower 42 was built. Its purpose was originally planned to house the Bank of Westminster but, following subsequent bombing in the 90s which led to refurbishment and a re-brand, it got the name it has today (chosen because of its 42 floors), and is owned by a number of businesses who use it for general office-purpose matters. As predicted, the punk-rock era kicked off in the eighties with the likes of The Sex Pistols leading the way. Exotic hairstyles like Mohawks were the new short-back-and-sides; tartan was in fashion, as were skinny jeans and big, clumpy boots. Chains and spikes replaced all forms of jewellery in the punk scene, and the music just got louder and more raucous than ever before heard.
Multiculturalism and a younger population than the rest of the country saw London develop a new sense of self-awareness. Generally, a more positive mood was permeated from the city and, with the construction of things like the Channel Tunnel, linking England to France via high-speed rail transport it’s not hard to see why. Cheaper airline flights also brought more tourists to London, forcing tourism rates to rise to 15%. Technological advancements were also on the rise, with more than 200,000 people working in the cultural and creative industries of software, music, design etc. Tragically, however, in 1997, Diana, the Princess of Wales, was fatally injured in a car crash in Paris. It was a time of global mourning for ‘the people’s princess’ as she had was known, thanks to her unbelievable generosity and kindness.
The turn of the millennium saw some new faces to the London city scene. 2003 brought the London Eye into focus but, in 2000, the Millennium Bridge that links to the Tate Modern was opened. It was dubbed ‘the wobbly bridge’, for the obvious reason that there was a definite sway as one would walk across it. The issue was remedied, though, and it is now a completely safe point of access across the Thames, along with its thirty two fellow bridges. Moving on through the mid-noughties and London suffers the 7/7 bombings (they happened on the July 7th). A bomb was found on a London bus and three others on separate London Underground tube trains. As well as the four suicide bombers, 52 people were killed in the incident, and over 700 left injured. London’s population still continued to rise, reaching a monumental 7million in recent years.