Homo sapiens – anatomically modern humans – first appear in this region around 40,000 BC. They discover a river valley shaped by prehistoric glacial activity and sub-tropical weather.
Semi-nomadic hunters, gatherers and then herders settle into farming and tending livestock over thousands of years, writes Paul Coleman.
But, after Caesar’s expeditions to Britain in 55BC and 54BC, the Romans create London as a city, building on the north bank where the River Thames seems narrow enough to be bridged. A timber-framed settlement grows into ‘Londinium’ and then ‘Augusta’ over four centuries, the largest frontier settlement in Britannia, a northern Roman Empire province.
London and trade
By 150AD, Londinium spans two kilometres (1.2 miles) on the Thames’ north side, covering 300 acres (121 hectares). Londinium’s population mushrooms to 25,000. A high stonewall fortifies Londinium from the 3rd Century.
Long after the Romans leave, London expands inside the old walled city as ‘Lundenberg’, and outside as ‘Lundenwic’ in the area around today’s Covent Garden. London becomes a trading port and then finance and trading capital of the British Empire from the late 16th Century onwards. London also ascends as the capital of England and of the United Kingdom.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the British Empire rules over one-fifth of the world’s population. Empire evolves London into a centre of world banking, finance and insurance.
The first modern joint stock banks are created on Lombard Street. London is home to the East India Company that becomes a de facto government in India.
Generations of a powerful and wealthy Empire élite control the trade in West Indies sugar, spices and the slave trade in African human beings. They make London a global trade centre, Thames port and maritime city.
This powerful stratum of London society acquires vast land and property.
Manufacturing and labour
The British Empire and the UK’s Industrial Revolution – the world’s first – turn London into a centre of manufacturing and industry.
Thousands come to London to toil in factories and workhouses. Both London’s working and non-working poor live in slum housing.
The appalling poverty of their lives, homes and neighbourhoods is fabled and observed by Charles Dickens and documented by ‘social explorers’ like Charles Booth. In the face of this tide of poverty, a municipal movement seeks to provide decent public homes, baths and parks for London’s working class poor.
During the 19th century, London’s role in the world gradually changes as the slave trade in African human beings is successfully challenged and then ended when plantation economies in Britain’s Caribbean colonies no longer generate sufficient profit for their largely absentee owners.
Britain’s subject colonies gain political independence during the course of the 20th Century. London’s industrial decline since World War II (1939-45) mirrors the fall of Empire.
London’s shipbuilding industry disappears long ago and the city’s teeming docklands fall into disuse during the latter decades of the 20th Century.
Thousands of Londoners experience falling demand for their heavy and light industrial skills. Apprenticeships disappear. Whole sections of London’s working class become expendable and many leave London for Essex, Kent and cities and counties further afield.
For many Londoners who remain, they see their children and grandchildren working in lower-skilled and lower paid service industries. A small yet significant minority work in London’s burgeoning financial sector centred mainly in the old enclosed Roman square mile, now known as the ‘City’.
During the rise and fall of Empire and industry, the old enclosed Roman square mile becomes known as ‘the City’, the 20th Century heart of London’s banking and financial services industry.
The City of London and its predominance of multinational finance houses turns London into a ‘global capital’. The City is administered by the Corporation of the City of London, a body topped with a figurehead Lord Mayor of London, not to be confused with the elected Mayor of London.
Businesses can vote in its elections. The City of London Corporation claims divine guidance. Its motto – Domine dirige nos – translates as ‘Lord, direct (guide) us’.
The Corporation primarily serves the interests of the City – as the area it adminsters includes only a relatively small and overwhelmingly wealthy population. Critics decry the City – and its late 20th Century extension at Canary Wharf – as equivalent to an ancient, secretive ‘offshore state’, lodged within but effectively unaccountable to the wider UK population.
They say the primary purpose of the City is to serve global banking and finance interests – global capital – and not the people of London.
The first decade of the 21st Century confirms the dominance of the self-regulated City over national politicians and local government who eschew a national industrial strategy and prefer to rely on tax revenues from the City.
The City’s dominance leads to the creeping creation of a UK ‘market state’ – where social democratic politicians become obsessed with the City and pursue neo-liberal economic goals, such as the privatisation of public services.
Later, it’s no surprise when the global financial meltdown of 2008 hits London and the rest of the UK – a global crisis caused in large part by wreckless casino-style financial practices within the City.
This meltdown plunges London’s political economy and civil society into recession and crisis, highlighted by the riots of 2011 and by the ‘Brexit’ referendum vote of 2016.
Londoners continue to feel the ongoing impact of the meltdown and its legacy throughout the second decade of the 21st Century – and the Covid-19 global 0f 2020-21 pandemic kills thousands and freezes the city’s economy.
London’s modern history continues to centre on a struggle between global capital and labour.
London Intelligence examines this ongoing legacy – and whom it hits – and the political and social tensions that inevitably arise.
© London Intelligence 2021.