Above: Map of Inner London (showing today’s 12 Inner London Boroughs). The City of Westminster (coloured YELLOW) is one of the 12 Inner London Boroughs. At the centre is the City of London (coloured PINK). Superimposed on the map is Londinium (coloured RED), shown with the Roman Wall Surrounding it.
If you are new to London’s history and you are trying to get to grips with how it developed, then the ‘London’ series (in this blog and those which follow it) may help shed some light on what is quite a complex subject. The vast urban sprawl that we know as Greater London is really a collection of much smaller pieces of land that, for administrative purposes, have been combined. It is therefore small wonder that the locals – not to mention the visitors – become confused when they live (or stay for a short time) in London.
Names like ‘The City of London’, ‘Inner London’, ‘Greater London’ will all be explained along with names like ‘Metropolitan Boroughs’ and ‘London Boroughs’. This short series of blogs which starts today – all titled with the word ‘London’ at the start – aim to give some structure to the whole subject. Even for those of you who know London well and maybe live in London, it might help you see things more clearly.
The early days of the story of London should look at the people living on the land before the Romans arrived. The best way to tackle that is to delve into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Artefacts found that represent all three periods are on display at the Museum of London and also at the British Museum. It was these mainly nomadic tribes, living long before the Romans arrived, that began the story of London. In a few examples, these early people were responsible for the early development of its communities.
Leaping forward in time from the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, it was the Romans who established a town in AD 43 at a point on the north bank of the Thames that archaeologists now call Londinium. The town was fortified with a massive wall around AD 200 and continued as a Roman settlement until AD 410 when the Roman legions withdrew from Britain. Over the centuries, that town developed into the City of London that we know today. For many centuries after the Romans left, the name ‘London’ applied only to the City of London. It was not until the late 1900s that ‘London’ meant anything other than what is sometimes called ‘the Square Mile’. The City is just over one square mile, in fact, and it is anything but ‘square’ having a very irregular shape. By the way, the ‘lump’ missing from the SE ‘corner’ on the enlarged map is where the Tower of London is situated. That land is not part of the City of London.
When the Romans reached the Thames, they were looking for a suitable place to establish a town. The site needed to be beside the Thames, to establish a port, because their ships were bringing foods and other supplies from the Continent and also from Rome itself. The town had to act firstly, as a garrison (to defend Londinium against any marauding local tribes), secondly, it had to act as a port (for ships to moor alongside and warehouses to be established) and thirdly, it had to be a suitable location to establish a town where the Romans could live.
Much of the land beside the Thames was quite marshy – and remained in that state for many centuries until modern building methods could overcome such problems. Using today’s modern place names, we will take a quick look at the land. On the south of the Thames, Woolwich and Greenwich were marshy and on the opposite bank East Ham, West Ham, the Isle of Dogs and Stepney were all in a similar state. For Romans, who also wanted to construct a bridge linking both banks of the Thames, the river was also too wide for a bridge, even if the land had been stable.
Working further west, Deptford, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, Southwark and Lambeth were also mainly marshes beside the Thames. On the northern side, Westminster and Chelsea were also areas of marshy land near the river.
We now come to the land that became Londinium. The site selected was slightly undulating – with two small hump back hills today called Cornhill and Ludgate Hill. Neither hill is very high but the land was at least well-drained. Between the two hills flowed the River Walbrook – whose course is in part remembered by the short modern street called Walbrook. On that land were built the Forum (market place) and beside it was the Basilica (rather like today’s town hall). Both their sites have been excavated since the Second World War. At least one temple was built. The remains of the Mithras Temple were discovered in 1954. The town also had an amphitheatre, whose site was not found until the late 1980s.
At this point, the Thames was sufficiently narrow for the Romans built a wooden bridge, linking with a small Roman settlement on the south side of the river. Today’s Borough High Street is on the alignment of the Roman road that was built as a causeway across the marshes. It runs south to link up with a road that still bears the name of a road crossing a marsh – Newington Causeway.
Above: Enlarged map of the Roman Wall, superimposed on a modern Google map. The Roman wall (coloured BLACK) joined onto the Roman Fort (coloured BROWN). The modern boundary of the City of London is highlighted (coloured PINK).
The Romans established Londinium in AD 43 and all the houses, shops and main features just described were in place for many decades. In AD 189 it was then decided to construct a massive wall around the town. London has no natural stone, being entirely situated on deep clay deposits. The stone – known as Kentish Ragstone – was brought by sailing barges from the Maidstone area, in Kent. The wall ran along the riverside of Londinium and around the landward side, extending a distance of nearly two miles. It was about 20 feet high and about eight feet thick at the base. It is estimated that the work – probably using British slaves – took from AD 189 to AD 197 to complete.The line of the wall is shown on the map. At the NW ‘corner’ was a large fort whose purpose was to garrison the Roman soldiers. So massive is the wall, that parts of it remain to this day.
The line of the wall is shown on the map at the top, with an enlarged second map below. At the NW ‘corner’ was a large fort whose purpose was to garrison the Roman soldiers. After the Second World War, archaeologists worked out that the Roman Fort has been built before the Roman Wall. When the Roman Wall was eventually built, it was added onto two corners of the fort. The Roman Wall is so massive that parts of it remain to this day. The wall on the south side was constructed beside the Thames. Since those times the river has been embanked and so the wall’s line on a modern map is seen to be slightly inland.
Finally, it will be noticed from the map that the boundary of Londinium (within the Roman wall) was smaller than today’s City of London. Apart from the riverside wall, which was probably removed by the Saxons, the rest of it was still in place until 1760 when most of it was demolished. For that reason, the wall affected the alignment of City streets and some of their strange angles today relate to the original line of that wall.
Due to the Roman legions being recalled to Rome, about AD 410, Roman rule ceased in England and Londinium was left to crumble. It is generally believed that Londinium was in decline by about AD 300 and what had once been a thriving Roman settlement was a shadow of its former self. One thing is for certain – the Roman wall still encircled the old township.
For anyone wondering what the Romans ever did for London, here are three simple answers. (1) It was the Romans who founded a township on land that we now call the City of London. (2) Because of the Roman Wall, it was the Romans who were responsible for some of the street alignments around the City today. (3) Due to the Romans laying out roads that ran from Londinium, we are still driving on many of them today – like Kingsland Road, Borough High Street, Old Kent Road, Kennington Park Road, Clapham Road.
Comment 10 – An Introduction to the History of London
Today we start a short history series of how London has been formed – from Roman times to the present-day. Before the Romans, there was no known settlement on the land we now call Inner London. There will be continuous blogs over the next two weeks covering the main aspects of how London came to be the way it is today.