London is one of the world’s most important financial and cultural centres and is noted for its museums, performing arts, exchange and commodity markets, and insurance and banking functions, as well as a host of specialised services. In popular and traditional usage, the term City of London, or the City, is applied only to a small area (2.59 sq. km) that was the original settlement (ancient Londinium) and is now part of the business and financial district of the metropolis. The City of London and 32 surrounding boroughs form the Greater London metropolitan area, which has an area of 1579 sq. km.
The Urban Landscape
The physical layout of contemporary London is the product of complex historical events and growth forces. The fort of Londinium, founded by the Romans in the mid-1st century AD, and the administrative centre established at Westminster 1000 years later, served as the centres for succeeding development in central London.
The city of London has been largely rebuilt since World War II (1939-1945), reinforcing its importance as a financial and commercial centre. The City is linked by Fleet Street and High Holborn to Westminster, and London Bridge provides access to South London on the southern side of the Thames River. To the north and east, beyond the limit of the former Roman and medieval walls of the City, is the East End. Noted for its production of furniture and precision instruments, this area was more damaged by bombing during World War II than any other part of London and has been the scene of large reconstruction. Traditionally, the East End, with such neighbourhoods as Whitechapel, Limehouse, and Bethnal Green, was occupied by various ethnic minorities and the poor.
On the western side of the City is the legal quarter. This area is one of the important rests of the medieval city along Fleet Street. In the 14th century the Temple, which had been founded by the Knights Templars, became occupied by lawyers; and later, Temple Inn and numerous other Inns of Court, such as Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn, arose in the neighbourhood. In the 19th century the Royal Courts of Justice were constructed just off the Strand. To the north is Bloomsbury, which is the centre for the University of London and the British Museum and is also known for its association with such literary figures as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence. Farther west along the Strand is the historic political centre of Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey are located. A central feature is the Mall, a processional road that links Trafalgar Square with Buckingham Palace. Also notable here is Covent Garden, designed by the English architect Inigo Jones in the early 17th century. It was London’s first formal square surrounded by town houses, although it eventually became an important fruit, flower, and vegetable market, a function it lost in 1974. Covent Garden served as a model for Bedford, Belgrave, Berkeley, Grovesnor, Russell, and a host of other squares in the now fashionable neighbouring districts of Soho, Mayfair, Belgravia, Bloomsbury, and Marylebone.
Toward the middle of the 19th century, urban development had spread north of Oxford Street to reach Marylebone, Euston, Pentonville, and City roads. Along this route the major railroad companies located the stations of Paddington, Marylebone, Euston, Saint Pancras, King’s Cross, and Liverpool, which today serve western, northern, and eastern England. Access to southern England is provided by Victoria, Charing Cross, Waterloo, and London Bridge stations.
Points of Interest
Despite both the extensive rebuilding in the inner city and the widespread destruction caused by German bombing raids during World War II, London remains a city rich in structures with historic associations.
Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London’s most imposing church, is a large baroque edifice, distinguished by a huge central dome, and designed by the English architect Sir Christopher Wren. Built between 1675 and 1710, the cathedral is the burial place of many important British figures, as is Westminster Abbey, a typical example of English Gothic architecture (13th and 14th century), long the site of coronations and royal weddings. Other well-known churches are the Gothic Southwark Cathedral; Saint Bartholomew-the-Great, built shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066; the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral; Saint Martin-in-the-Fields; All Souls‘; Saint Bride’s; Saint Clement Dane’s; Saint Margaret’s, the church of Parliament; and Saint Mary-le-Bow.
The great complex of buildings known as the Houses of Parliament, still officially called the New Palace of Westminster, serves as the seat for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Built in a neo-Gothic style between 1840 and 1850, it is distinguished by the clock tower that contains the famous bell Big Ben. Mansion House has been the official residence of the lord mayor since 1753. Guildhall, an early 15th-century Gothic hall, is used for the lord mayor’s banquet and civil functions. Westminster Hall, an assembly hall adjoining the Houses of Parliament, was constructed in the 11th century and redesigned in the 14th century with a magnificent roof.
The most venerable building in the city is the Tower of London, an excellent example of Norman military architecture. Beginning as a centre of defence for William the Conqueror, the Tower has served as a royal residence, state prison, execution ground, and place for royal pageants; the Tower is also the home of the crown jewels. In 1994 the Jewel House, an expanded and remodelled area housing the crown jewels, was opened.
Buckingham Palace has been the official residence of the monarch since 1837, when Queen Victoria moved her court from Saint James’s Palace, which is located on the Mall. Three other important palaces are Kensington Palace; Lambeth Palace, the London seat of the archbishops of Canterbury; and Hampton Court, the Tudor palace originally built by Thomas Cardinal Wolsey.
Museums and Art Galleries
Pre-eminent among London’s museums is the British Museum, which possess one of the finest libraries in the world as well as a superior collection of artworks, antiquities, and objects of natural history. The Museum of London has exhibits dealing with the development and life of London from Roman times to the present. The Victoria and Albert Museum specialises in fine and applied art. The most famous national collections of art include the National Gallery, facing Trafalgar Square, and, next door, the National Portrait Gallery. Contrasting with the essentially classical collections of these two galleries are the romantic, impressionist, and modern art collections of the Tate Gallery. Smaller galleries include the Courtauld Institute Galleries, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Hayward Art Gallery, and the Queen’s Gallery.
Among the many centres of professional theatre in London are the National Theatre, home of the National Theatre Company; the Aldwych Theatre, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London until 1982, when it moved to the new Barbican Arts Centre; the Drury Lane Theatre; and the Royal Court Theatre. The city has five major symphony orchestras and a number of string and chamber orchestras, many of which are located in the South Bank area of the city. The main concert halls are the Royal Festival Hall and, in the same complex, the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room; the huge, elliptical Royal Albert Hall; and Wigmore Hall. Opera and ballet are enjoyed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Sadler’s Wells, and the London Coliseum.
London is noted for its plenty of park spaces. The most notable are the Royal Parks, which were formerly royal estates. These include Saint James’s Park and, to the west, Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens. To the north is Regent’s Park, and farther upstream along the Thames are Richmond Park, Hampton Court Park, Kew Gardens (also known as the Royal Botanical Gardens), and Bushey Park. Surrounding the Royal Naval College and the old Royal Observatory is Greenwich Park. Other important open spaces include Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields, which overlooks London from the north.
Higher education in London is dominated by the University of London and its numerous subordinate members. Other institutions include the Royal College of Art (1837), the Royal Academy of Music (1822), and the Royal Naval College, Greenwich (1873). London is also a centre for technical schools, including the polytechnics of Central London, North London, South Bank, the City of London, North East London, and Thames.
At the time of the Roman occupation of Britain in the 1st century AD, London was already a town of great importance, although not an administrative centre. In the 9th century King Alfred made London the capital of his kingdom. After William the Conqueror established himself in England, he began construction of the Tower of London, intending it as a citadel to control the masses. Many Normans settled in London and built imposing edifices. The wooden London Bridge was torn down in 1176 and rebuilt with stone. The new structure, completed in 1209, with 20 arches and a drawbridge, was in service until early in the 19th century, when it was replaced by a new bridge. The old bridge was moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, in 1971.
Throughout the Middle Ages the development of London was slow and was repeatedly arrested by wars, epidemics, and commercial crises. The opening by Queen Elizabeth I of the Royal Exchange in 1566 marked the growth of the city in world importance. The queen, however, feared that if the city expanded it might become too powerful, constituting a threat to her royal authority; she therefore issued (1580) a proclamation prohibiting the construction of any new building within a radius of 4.8 km (3 miles) outside the city gates. It proved impossible, however, to fix London’s expansion by decree, and the growth of the city was hardly checked even by the natural disasters, political agitation, and civil wars that marked the succeeding era of the Stuart monarchs.
In 1665, during the Great Plague, nearly 70,000 Londoners died from the disease within a period of a year. The epidemic was followed by the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed most of the walled section of the city. Because the Rebuilding Act of 1667 constituted that only stone and brick be used, the new buildings that rose from the ruins formed little similarity to the odd wooden dwellings of old London. The walls and gates of the city, among the last rests of the medieval town, were demolished in the 1760s. During the 19th century many suburbs were incorporated into Greater London, all the bridges in the city were rebuilt in stone, and the streets were equipped first with gas, and later with electric, illumination.
The influx of British subjects from the Commonwealth countries in the later half of the 20th century made considerable changes in London population patterns. As immigrants tended to concentrate in certain parts of the city, these districts became characterised by dominant racial or ethnic groups and therefore were potential centres of tension. Clashes between whites and blacks, for example, boke out now and again in the Brixton district, and South Asians in the Southall area sometimes became targets of white racist antagonism. Particularly harmful incidents of this nature occurred in 1981, when tensions provoked by general unemployment and a worsening economic situation caused riots in several British cities. Since 1950 London has also experienced a general decline in population, especially in the inner boroughs. However, the population of Greater London, at 8,346,137 in the 1951 census, fell to 6,696,008 in 1981. Population (1991 estimate) 6,803,100.