London – Changes Across the Centuries

Above: Greenwood’s map of London, published in 1824, was the last map of Inner London to be published before the coming of the railways.

From the times of the Romans, through to the Saxons, the Normans and on through the Tudors, the Stuarts and Victorians to the present day, a few major changes have taken place in and around London. They have had a profound effect on the way in which London has developed. It might be useful to consider the overall effect of the long ‘gap’ of nearly a thousand years between the Saxons and Victorian times. During that period of time, there were events which took place that had a major impact on how London came to be the place it is today. Most of those listed below take the story up to the time of the creation of Metropolitan London, some extend up to the present day.

The Romans

As far as archaeologists can tell, the large ‘saucer’ which makes up Inner London today – extending from the high ridge of hills around Hampstead and Highgate, down to the valley of the Thames and then rising in the south around Forest Hill, Sydenham and Crystal Palace – was completely uninhabited before the Romans came to England in AD 43. The Romans established a town which they called Londinium. Around the second century, they built the Roman Wall around their settlement which affected what became the City of London. Even today some of its streets are at odd angles due to the effect of the Roman Wall which was not removed until 1760.

The Saxons

The early Saxon settlement – Lundenwic – was in and around the road was now called the Strand. The result was to establish an extended area to the west of the City of London which, over centuries, developed into what we now call the City of Westminster. After AD 886 a Saxon London – Lundenburgh – was established within the old Roman Wall.

Tower of London

It was not until 1078 that the White Tower (within the Tower of London) was completed by the Normans. The concept of the Tower of London was to provide a place of safety for Norman kings to live. East of the City of London today is the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and to the north is the London Borough of Hackney. Most of this land was once all one vast Manor of Stepney. The same land was also part of the enormous Parish of Stepney. Dotted around the land were small hamlets. These were organised by the Governor of the Tower of London into an ‘early warning’ system to the Tower. Those living near the Thames were asked to report to the Tower if any foreign ships were seen approaching London on the Thames. The hamlets became known as ’Tower Hamlets’ because they came under the direction of the Governor of the Tower. In 1965, when the new London Borough was created, the borough was named Tower Hamlets because of these hamlets – like Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliffe and Limehouse.

London Bridge

We know that the Romans built a bridge across the Thames near the site of today’s London Bridge because timbers have been found to act as evidence. It may be that many wooden bridges were constructed with each one lasting maybe 50 years of more before a new one needed to be erected. A stone bridge was not completed across the Thames until 1176. The construction took until 1209 before the bridge was completed. Although some parts fell down over the centuries, that bridge was to last until the 1820s before a new bridge was erected. Today’s London Bridge is the third at this point on the river, being officially opened in 1973.

Maps of London

Although London goes back to Roman times, it was not until the 16th century that maps of London started to be produced. Because large sheets of paper were hard to produce, most of the large-scale maps were printed in sections, with the map continuing across several sheets. The earliest map of London was produced around 1530. It was obviously produced in maybe 20 or more sections of which only three have been found. The earliest almost complete map of the City of London and Westminster is the so-called Agas Map, in eight sections, that is undated but was probably published about 1561. Maps continued to be produced by private individuals over several centuries. In 1850 the first Ordnance Survey map of London was produced and updates have continued for those maps ever since.

Royal Exchange

This building in the City of London, which was officially opened in 1571, was not only important in its own right but it gave rise to many other institutions. When opened, the purpose of the Royal Exchange was to provide a meeting place for rich City merchants and ship’s captains. The idea was for the merchants to exchange ideas in conversation with the captains who had ships moored alongside the City that were full of cargoes like nutmegs that were very valuable in the 16th century. Such cargoes were greatly prized but only the rich merchants could afford to buy the contents of a ship’s hold. By providing a place where these two parties could meet, buyers for cargoes brought back from distant lands could be bought and sold on a wholesale basis. As a consequence of the connection with shipping, insurance of the ships began to develop which led to the founding of the world famous Lloyd’s Insurance. This, in turn, led to the development of general insurance. When merchants began to invest in ships and their cargoes this also led to the creation of the Stock Exchange.

Westminster Bridge

Remarkably, Londoners struggled on for around 500 years with just one bridge in what we now called Central London. Building a second bridge was often talked about but it was always opposed by the Watermen who gained their livelihoods from rowing passengers on the Thames. Eventually, a new crossing at Westminster was passed by Parliament and the second bridge completed in 1750.

Docks in London

The building of docks in London started with so-called ‘dry docks’ in which ships could be built or repaired in a dry space and then floated out of that dock when the work was completed. When closed, the gates were constructed so that the water from the Thames was prevented from entering the dock. By hanging the dock gates the other way round, ‘wet docks’ could be constructed to trap the water from the Thames and therefore leave the ships constantly floating in water in contrast to being tied to a river bank when the tidal water went down.

The first such construction was the Howland Great Wet Dock, built 1696-99 by a man called Howland beside the Thames at Rotherhithe. The dock was only used for discharging cargo and not for shipbuilding. It was later used by the whaling trade – for laying up whaling ships when they were not at sea – and renamed Greenland Dock in 1763. It was later extended to nearly twice its original length and remains today although it is now in use for mooring house-boats and water sports.

The West India Docks – constructed on the Isle of Dogs in 1800 – and the London Docks – constructed at Wapping in 1802 – were some of the larger docks. These two dock systems were still in use until the 1970s when they closed down, along with all the other dock systems on the Upper Thames. All the handling of goods is now carried out at Tilbury Docks, 25 miles down-river of London Bridge.


The very first railway constructed in England was the Stockton to Darlington Railway, in 1825. Those who were responsible for transport very quickly realised how important the new trains were. London’s first railway – only three miles long and running from Deptford to London Bridge Station – was started in 1834. Called the London and Greenwich Railway, with the intention of running to Greenwich and possibly to the south coast of England, this short line opened in December 1836. Because most of the line crossed open fields, it was decided to build it on a long brick viaduct. This meant that any roads could run through the arches, without the need for a level-crossing, and it also meant that any cows in the fields would not cause a problem by straying onto the railway lines. The route also crossed a canal and the problem of raising the tracks to cross the canal may have influenced the choice of a viaduct.

The modest three miles of railway soon grew and today London is crisscrossed by many railway viaducts and has more than a dozen railway termini (including London Bridge, Cannon Street, Waterloo, Charing Cross, Victoria, Paddington, Marylebone, Euston, King’s Cross, St Pancras, St Pancras International, Liverpool Street, Fenchurch Street) serving the main lines into the capital.

London certainly lost its ‘innocent’ fields and country lanes layout when the railways came to London. With all the viaducts for additional railway lines that were built subsequently, access by road was never the same again. Many communities saw a railway line pass right through the centre, cutting one side off from the other, as they still are today.

Houses of Parliament

In the days of the Normans, England was ruled directly by the King. As time went by a Parliament was set up and the King’s power was gradually reduced. The early Parliaments were held in the Palace of Westminster. When that burned down in 1512, King Henry VII decided to move to the nearby Whitehall Palace and left the ruins to be rebuilt to house the Parliament. History was to repeat itself when, in 1834, there was another terrible fire on the site. The buildings that stand beside the Thames today – including Big Ben – were not begun until 1837 and fully completed until 1852.

Metropolitan Control

The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was the principal instrument of London-wide government from December 1855 until the establishment of the London County Council (LCC) in March 1889. Its principal responsibility was to provide infrastructure to cope with London’s rapid growth, which it accomplished.

Eventually, it was realised that the metropolis needed to be run as if it was a large city. Eventually, in 1900, the ‘County of London’ was formed, presided over by the London County Council (LCC). To create a new County of London, it was necessary to take parts of the County of Middlesex, the County of Middlesex and the County of Kent and draw a boundary around the edge. Within that piece of land was the City of London – which remained independent. Twenty-eight Metropolitan Boroughs were created to administer matters like parks, street lighting, schools and local planning.

London’s Sewers

It is hardly believable but London had no sewers until the 1850s. Houses just had a cesspit at the bottom of the garden. In a small village that idea had worked well for centuries but with such a large population the idea was completely impractical. Cholera outbreaks were common and, of course, we now know that such terrible diseases were the result of bacteria that developed as a direct result of the insanitary conditions. A proper sewer system, that covered most of today’s Inner London, was built 1865-70. The government called in top engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, to create an underground complex of sewers. He and his team built 82 miles of intercepting sewers parallel to the River Thames, and 1,100 miles of street sewers at a cost of £4.2 million.

Many of the changes just described happened quite suddenly but had profound effects on London for centuries to come. Some of the changes were not regarded as anything very special at the time. It was only by looking back that we can see how profound they were. From the handful of ‘landmark changes’ described above, it will be seen that the development of London took centuries to accomplish and even then, there was no central organisation for the large metropolis until 1900 with the advent of the Metropolitan Boroughs.


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