Dickens and London

The White Tower

Steeple of St Mary le Bow

Lloyds of London

London was first built in around 50 AD by the Romans, at the tidal limit of the river Thames where there was a suitable place for a bridge. The Romans built a fort, a wall around the city, a forum, an amphitheatre as well as homes, baths, shops and temples and the City and the Museum of London are rich in Roman remains.

The City was deserted after the the Romans departed in around 400 but became  the capital of the East Saxons in the 9th century. After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 King William the Conqueror built the Tower of London just outside the Roman walls.  The 11th century White Tower (illustrated above) survives today.  Later the Norman Kings built their palace at Westminster and London became the capital of England. The historic City of London, now the financial district, is still separately governed and is referred to with a capital 'C'. 

For most of its long history most of the City buildings were  houses built of wood and there were many fires. The most devastating was the Great Fire of London of 1666.  This started in a bakery in Pudding Lane and swept through the City destroying almost everything in over 400 acres including St Paul's Cathedral and eighty seven churches.  St Paul's and fifty one churches were rebuilt, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.  Foreign tourists came to the City to see the steeples of the Wren churches and one of the finest, that of St Mary-le-Bow is illustrated above.  Click here for details of a walk focusing on Wren and the City Churches.  Some of the pre-fire churches fell into disrepair and were rebuilt in the eighteenth century.  But in the nineteenth and twentieth century City churches were demolished for reasons like road widening, or to transfer their benefices to new churches in the suburbs or badly damaged by bombing in the Second World War of 1939-45.  Today only around forty remain and each one is worth a visit.  The Friends of the City Churches works to ensure that they are preserved for posterity and as far as possible open to the public.  

Beyond the City London grew gradually up to about 1800 and then mushroomed over the surrounding countryside, swallowing villages into suburbs. Over Dickens' lifetime the population of London trebled to around 3.3 million people, it became the largest and wealthiest city in the world and the East End started to take the shape familiar today. Many of London's most prominent and beautiful buildings were built in the 19th century, as were the monotonous spreading suburbs. But the city's infrastructure and government were slow to adapt to cope with the massive increase in population. And the prosperity did not filter down to the poor, who crowed into fearful slums and often suffered extreme deprivation.  Dickens campaigned actively to secure better government in London and gradually conditions improved as the sewers were built and (after his death) better housing was provided for the poor.  Many guides to London tend to focus on the history of wealthy people because, for the most part, the palaces, houses and churches of rich have survived and the homes and workplaces of the poor have not. But Dickens' novels and the investigations and pictures of his contemporaries enable us to recreate the history of 19th century poor people.

During the nineteenth century the City ceased to be a residential area and the centre of Britain's foreign trade and started to evolve into one of the word's leading financial districts.  In the period between 1960 and the early 1980s the City embraced modernism in architecture and commissioned the building of the Barbican (see Modernism and the City).  From around 1980 City financial institutions started to commission leading architects to replace its office blocks and the City  started to become known for its innovative and exciting modern architecture.  Sir Richard Roger's iconic Lloyds of London (1986) is illustrated above.