London – The Counties

Above: Map of Inner London showing the old county boundaries.

This article describes the relationship between the City of London and of the four counties that existed for many centuries, until the formation of Metropolitan London.

City of London

It is important to grasp the fact that, although the City of London was surrounded by the County of Middlesex, it was never part of Middlesex. It had its own Lord Mayor and its own government. That is why, even today, it has its own Police force and still has its own Lord Mayor who is completely separate from the Mayor of London.

To emphasise the point of the City of London being a separate administration, we will look at an example of Canterbury. Canterbury is the county city of Kent and it is also in the County Kent. Canterbury is not separate from Kent, it is part of the County of Kent – and that has always been the case. Similarly with Norwich being the county city of Norfolk. The City of London has a unique status because it has never been ‘within’ a county.

The Counties

During the four centuries that the Romans occupied Britain, the tribes that had been living on the land long before the Romans arrived, were often displaced by new Roman settlements being built – like Colchester, St Albans, Rochester and Winchester. However, the tribes continued to live in Britain and, when the Romans withdrew. Then the Saxons came over to England. Over the centuries England was gradually divided into counties. Around London, there are four Counties to be considered – Middlesex, Essex, Surrey and Kent.

As has already been mentioned, after the Romans left England, what had been Londonium was eventually to become a Saxon city. Archaeologists now use the name Lundenwic for its name. In AD 604 a cathedral was established on the site of what is now St Paul’s Cathedral. The Saxons laid out many of the roads in the City that we know today and re-established a port along the riverside, including two docks at Queenhithe and Billingsgate. Only the City continued to be called ‘London’. Anyone living in what we now call Inner London regarded the place where they lived as being within one of the four Counties.

County of Middlesex

On the north side of the Thames was the large County of Middlesex. Even Westminster was in Middlesex. If you walk to the west side of Parliament Square you will see an ornate building which, since 2009, has been the home of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. The building was originally erected as the Middlesex Guildhall. This is just one example to show that Middlesex covered land in Westminster, right up to the River Thames. Until the 1900s places like Clerkenwell, Hampstead, Paddington, Stepney, Hackney and many others were in the County of Middlesex. They were later absorbed into Metropolitan London.

County of Essex

To the east of Middlesex is the County of Essex. While parts of today’s Greater London extend into Essex, the old Metropolitan London only absorbed parts of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent. The boundary between Middlesex and Essex was the River Lea (or Lee). The river still accounts for some of the borough boundaries today – like parts of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. None of Metropolitan London was within of the County of Essex.

County of Surrey

On the south side of the Thames was the County of Surrey. The County extended east to an irregular boundary with Kent. The boundary ran south from the Thames, through New Cross (along Jerningham Road near Telegraph Hill), crossing land now laid out as Horniman Gardens (there is a short road called Surrey Mount near Horniman Gardens) and then running near the line of the road called Sydenham Hill. The Old Kent Road was in Surrey and was so-called because it led to the County of Kent. Rotherhithe, Peckham and Nunhead were all near the Surrey border until they were absorbed into Metropolitan London.

County of Kent

To the east of Surrey was the County of Kent. This included Greenwich, Lewisham, Lee, Blackheath, Eltham and Woolwich – among other place names – which were all absorbed into Metropolitan London.


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London – The Vikings

Above: Map showing today’s Inner London boroughs with four known sites where the Vikings settled in London.

The Vikings did not have much effect on how London developed from an administrative point of view but it is important to realise where they settled in London.

The archetypal caricature of a Viking, in the minds of many people in England, is probably a rugged ‘hunk’ of a man with a fighting implement in one hand and some trophy slung over the other. Stories of Vikings setting fire to English villages, stealing gold from parish churches and raping the women in a community are commonplace. Sadly, that did take place but they were more sophisticated than that. Vikings is a generic name for the peoples from Norway and Denmark who were great adventurers. They sailed across the North Sea, attacking principally the east coast of Britain. A visit to York will make you aware of the Vikings – mainly from Norway – for which there is a museum called the Jorvik Viking Centre. The Vikings also attacked East Anglia and Kent. They were mainly from Denmark.

In Norfolk are two small sea-side resorts called Sidestrand and Overstrand. The last syllable ‘strand’ is, in fact, a Danish word and simply means ‘land beside water or the sea’. These are simple examples of how Vikings have affected the English language.

Above: The intimidating figurehead on a replica Viking long-boat now on display at Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate in Kent.

Vikings attacked Britain even while the Romans were in occupation. In AD 449 they attacked Kent. To mark the 1500th anniversary of this event, a Danish museum built a replica long-boat and it was rowed to England, landing at the Main Bay, Broadstairs. The long-boat was put on show at Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate, where it can still be seen.

Returning to the history of London, there is plenty of evidence for Vikings in the area. The clue to Vikings is long-boats and for them to be usable there has to be water. The places associated with Vikings were all beside the Thames or beside rivers that flowed into the Thames.

Hackney is one example. Its name derives from Old English ‘Hacan ieg’ meaning ‘Haca’s Isle’. It is believed that the name was an early form of Haakon a name still in use by the Norwegian royal family. The isle or island was a piece of land, surrounded by water somewhere along the River Lea. Viking long-boats could easily have navigated up the Lea from the Thames.

Greenwich was a place where the Vikings, in this case, the Danes had a camp by 1012. They had taken Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury hostage and were hoping a ransom would be paid. Alphege had left instructions that, if he were taken prisoner, a ransom should not be paid and in 1012 he was murdered at Greenwich by the Danes. There is a tradition that the parish church of St Aphege was built on the site of his martyrdom.

Tooley Street, near London Bridge, was another site which the Danes occupied. They established a church – called St Olave – which also stood near London Bridge. In fact, Tooley Street derives its name from a corruption of ‘St Olave’s Street’. Further evidence for the Danes was found when New Guy’s House, a large red-brick block in at Guy’s Hospital, was being built in the 1960s. While preparing the foundations, the remains of a long-boat were found in the ground on the site. It was concluded that, in the 9th and 10th centuries, the ground had been so marshy that the long-boat could be rowed to the place where it was found.

The Strand was another place where the Danes were encamped. We have already talked about the word ‘Strand’ and this street also ran close to the river. It ran even closer before the construction of the Victoria Embankment increased the land beside the Thames. A further reminder today is the parish church called St Clement Danes.

The City was another place where the Danes settled. They founded no less than four churches, all bearing the name St Olave. Only St Olave, Hart Street, on the east side of the City remains today. The Danes were driven out of the City in AD 886 by Alfred the Great and a Saxon population moved into it.

Just a few artefacts from Viking times are on show in the Museum of London but across Britain, there are numerous examples of their work.


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London – Saxon London

Above: Map representing the City about AD 700 – showing the extent of the early Saxon settlement called Lundenwic. The Strand runs near the Thames and further north is Holborn and High Holborn. The curved road entering the orange area is Drury Lane. Notice that the whole Roman Wall remains, including the wall along the riverside.

We know that the Romans left Londinium around AD 410 but exactly what happened to the old settlement is not clear. We also know that Saxons, who were essentially a farming community and not given to erecting imposing stone buildings, decided to leave their native homeland – in what would now be parts of southern Germany – and settle in England. They came over from the 6th century onwards and settled all over England.

Archaeologists often puzzled over the fact that when they excavated parts of the City of London they often found Roman artefacts and the remains of Roman buildings but they never found any evidence for Saxons. After the Second World War, large parts of the City of London lay in ruins and London archaeologists made many amazing discoveries in the bombed out buildings that were to be seen everywhere. Yet again, there was no evidence for Saxons. In fact, the mystery of the ‘missing Saxons’ was not solved until about 1985. In that year there was an archaeological dig taking place on a relatively small site in the Covent Garden area. The buildings were standing empty – after Covent Garden Market had relocated to Nine Elms – and several digs were conducted in demolished buildings. One sharp-eyed archaeologist noticed that the colour of clay under the foundations of a building was of one colour but, at regular intervals, there were small patches of discolouration. He concluded that the change in colour could be due to posts, driven into the ground to form a wooden house.

His hunch was correct, the timber posts had rotted away over time leaving just a discolouration in the ground. The history books on London now had to be re-written because the evidence was starting to be found showing that the Saxon settlers had chosen to live along the banks of the Thames to the west of old Londinium. From the late 1980s onwards more and more evidence for the Saxon settlement was found – extending approximately from today’s Trafalgar Square, around the Strand and east to where Drury Lane is today, possibly even further. The settlement is now called Lundenwic, a name that it is believed to have been used by those early Saxon settlers. Lundenwic probably flourished between about AD 600 and AD 800.

One other factor should be mentioned. From Roman times the Vikings had been attacking the eastern shores of Britain. They gradually settled in England and by about AD 800 they had settled inside the old Roman walls. There is a separate blog about the Vikings called ‘London – The Vikings‘.

Above: Map representing about 1000 – showing the Saxons having left Lundenwic and having established Lundenburgh. Streets, whose alignment still exist today, are seen on the map. Notice that the Roman Wall beside the Thames is shown having been removed in part.

Cutting a long story short, King Alfred the Great formed an army and, in AD 886, drove the Vikings out of the walled City and re-established it as what is now called Lundenburgh. While there was the early settlement of Lundenwic in and around the Strand, some people obviously settled within the old Roman walls. St Paul’s Cathedral was founded in AD 604 with the walls and it is believed that near the Thames there were ships bringing goods from overseas and trading with those who lived near the quays.

From AD 886 Lundenburgh was established as a centre of government. It is believed that Alfred the Great was responsible for the layout of many of the City’s streets and lanes. The only piece of stonework, from Saxon times, within the City of London is a stone arch inside the ancient church of All Hallows Barking.

As any school pupil knows, after the period of the Saxons came the Normans – in 1066 and all that! The streets of the City of London were starting to be formed as we know them today. From these early years until 1760 the City – bounded by the Roman Wall – was the only place that was called ‘London’. The use of the name ‘London’ only applied to the ‘Square Mile’ and that name continued in use until 1900. By that date, administrative changes meant that the name ‘London’ was also being applied to the large area of land around the City.

If you are wondering whether the Saxons left their mark on London, two important examples can be given. (1) It was the Saxons who created many of the counties of England. (2) Many of the place names that we take for granted today in the London area, all go back to the owner of a farm in Saxon times – like Lewisham, Eltham, Islington and many other place names in Inner London.


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London – Roman London

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.


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Norwood Triangle Plaques

Above: The shop in Westow Hill that was once one of the Cullen’s shops.

In the summer of 2017 members of the Norwood Society completed a most unusual project. They had seen ‘Blue Plaques’ on shops in the Bloomsbury area, recording earlier owners of the properties. Thinking this idea could be applied to the Norwood Triangle, which still has many Victorian shop fronts to be seen, they set about the task of researching earlier owners of the premises. They found a ‘treasure trove’ of interesting shop-owners and set about producing plastic roundels as stickers – based on the design of the well-known Blue Plaques. The next task was to ask those running the premises today to display a plaque.

Some shopkeepers were enthusiastic and readily displayed the plaque in their window. Some took a little persuasion while others either refused or did not respond to the initial written request. Exactly how many plaques are on show in the local shops is not known but it probably exceeds 100.

The so-called Norwood Triangle consists of three streets – part of Church Road, Westow Hill and Westow Street. They form a triangle of streets and endure heavy traffic usage, so much so that the three streets are now one way. Like all neighbourhoods, the shops went into decline in the 1960s and 1970s but the area became ‘re-born’ in the 1990s with many small independent shops emerging along with several food shops and a variety of eateries.

Above: The plaque in the window of the present shop shown at the top of this article.

Looking at the many plaques that have been researched and displayed in the shop windows, a few of them stand out as being of real interest. Here is just a small sample of some of the plaques to be seen in the Norwood Triangle.

23 Church Road – ‘DOLLY VARDEN Milliner traded here 1932-1939’.

62 Church Road – ‘AUGUSTUS GEO EMMS Bicycle Manufacturer traded here 1886-1891’.

6 Westow Hill – was ‘JAMES & WALTER COVELL Butchers by Royal Appointment 1874-1932’.

20 Westow Hill – the site of the once familiar name of ‘J KENNEDY Sausages and Pies traded here 1934-1990’.

80 Westow Hill – the site of another familiar name of ‘W H CULLEN Grocers traded here 1895-1985’ and the shop-front remains in its original state, apart from a change in the colour of the paint.

The Norwood Society and especially the group that worked on the project are to be commended for their creative ideas and the hard work that was obviously necessary to see the project to a conclusion. It certainly has generated local interest which can only be a good thing.


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St Olave’s Grammar School is now a Hotel

Above: The exterior of the Lalit Hotel seen through the newly constructed entrance, leading off a side street in Tooley Street.

In the 16th century, the Vestry of St Saviour – a large parish church near London Bridge, which is better known today as Southwark Cathedral – decided to found a Grammar School. Within a few years of its foundation, the nearby church of St Olave – once in Tooley Street but later demolished – also founded their own Grammar School. The two schools continued a separate existence for almost 300 years before they combined and became called St Olave’s and St Saviour’s Grammar School for Boys. It’s a long story but the essence is that a new site was found, near Tower Bridge, in the 1850s and a new building was erected for the combined school. That building proved to be unsuitable and was demolished. A new building on the same site was completed in 1896 to designs of E W Mountford – which is the building that remains today.

The elegant red-brick building remained in use by the school until 1968. One of the problems with the site was that the playground was rather small and was entirely made of tarmac. The School moved to a large site at Orpington, with much larger buildings, surrounded by extensive playing fields.

The old building in Tooley Street was acquired by South London College as an annexe. One of the college facilities offered in the old building was dental technology which fed into further studies in that subject at the nearby Guy’s Hospital. The old school was used by the College until 2004. There was an anxious gap of over 10 years while the listed building stood empty, awaiting its next use. It was acquired by the Lalit Hotel group – which had run a chain of hotels only in India. It had been the wish of the owner of the chain to open a hotel in London which was achieved when the old school building was purchased. Sadly, he died before the hotel was opened in 2017.

Above: The original school hall is now laid out as a grand dining room.

Having several restrictions on any alterations to the building, due to its listed status, there are few changes to the interior. For any ‘Old Boy’ of the school, who was educated at the Tooley Street building, the building would appear to be just the same as it ever was. The original school hall has now been put to good use as the dining hall of the hotel. The hotel kitchens still use the original kitchen space from the old school. Most of the other rooms have been redeveloped as guest rooms and suites but, because of the history of the building, they are referred to by the staff as ‘classrooms’.


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Brunel Lettering (Sculpture)

Above: The large lettering beside the approach to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. The green spire of the Norwegian Church is to be seen behind the trees.

Both Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom will forever be linked with Rotherhithe. The father began constructing the Thames Tunnel in 1825 – the world’s first tunnel to be constructed under a river, in this case, the River Thames. There were many problems to overcome – including flooding while excavating the tunnel and also problems with finances – which meant that the tunnel was not completed until 1843. Having built the twin-bore tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe, there was not sufficient money to fund the construction of approach roads at either end. The tunnel was therefore given over to pedestrian access, with large staircases at either end.

The project was a grand success in terms of building the tunnel but a complete flop financially because the small charge to walk through it was never going to pay for the huge cost. The tunnel was sold to a railway company who built a railway line from Liverpool Street Station to run through it and join up with lines running south. Most Londoners know it better today as the tunnel that links Wapping Station with Rotherhithe Station on the Overground Line.

Nevertheless, the tunnel is still in working order over 150 years later and it acts as a tribute to the father and son engineers who were responsible for its successful construction. Unfortunately, although the trains pass through it, it makes no visual impact on the area. That is the nature of tunnels. It was decided, therefore, to provide a visual tribute to the Brunels in the form of something that everyone passing by would see.

The two metre high forged steel letters were made by blacksmith Kevin Boys and his apprentices at their forge in Surrey Docks Farm. The letters were unveiled on 23 March 2014. They form the first phase of the Brunel Statue Group’s vision to erect a 15-metre high statue commemorating Isambard Kingdom Brunel on a nearby site.

According to the proposal, the £500,000 scheme will centre around a statue of Isambard Brunel – not only the creator of the Thames Tunnel but also the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Paddington Station. The statue will also be made by Kevin Boys. The layout of the Thames Tunnel is such that it passes under the southern end of the Rotherhithe Tunnel. The road tunnel, by the way, has nothing to do with Brunel and was designed by a man called Maurice FitzMaurice, the Engineer to the London County Council.

Southwark Council has already recommended that the project is granted permission to go ahead. The statue depicts Brunel appearing to juggle ‘a symbolic representation of a ship, a tunnel, a bridge and a locomotive’, recognising his diverse engineering achievements. Whether the concept is a ‘step too far’ even bearing in mind that it is a tribute to Brunel remains to be seen. Whether erecting the giant statue so close to a traffic roundabout beside the road tunnel is a suitable site is another consideration. Time alone will tell.


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