Photograph of Barbican, London by Andrew Bartram via Flickr (cc)
Conventional accounts of London’s history concentrate on the ‘two cities’—twin centres of wealth and power, each with its monumental buildings—and their explosive growth between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. The City of London’s Square Mile is the Roman city, the boundaries of its ‘Corporation’ those of the Roman walls: a financial centre and entrepôt comparable to Amsterdam or Hamburg, with its Cathedral at St Paul’s and its docks just downriver from the Tower of London, a fortress founded in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror, who also created the governmental seat at Westminster, a few miles further up the Thames, identifiable now by the industrial fantasy Gothick of the Houses of Parliament and the spiky accretions of Westminster Abbey. Lovers of Jacobean theatre would add the City of Southwark, just across the Thames from St Paul’s, with its shabby Cathedral set until recently among stinking warehouses.
The standard history then tends to trace from these a semi-accidental spread of suburbs. By the seventeenth century, the City and Westminster were linked by Covent Garden and Holborn along the axis of the Strand; the dockside industrial towns emerging in Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich would eventually be absorbed by London. But the real explosion came in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, when imperial London became the biggest city in human history, an accolade it would hold until the 1920s. The flat-fronted ‘Georgian terrace’ began to carpet Middlesex, Essex and Surrey, giving the resulting city its inner districts: aristocratic (Mayfair, Belgravia), bourgeois (Camberwell, Islington, Notting Hill) and proletarian (Stepney, Paddington, Lambeth). These were joined in the mid-nineteenth century by ‘railway suburbs’, similar to those in the industrial North—New Cross, Tottenham, Finsbury Park, Acton—while the City’s East End expanded into an immense, impoverished, sub-proletarian zone of casual dock labourers and ‘informal’ trades. In the twentieth century, new-built suburbs stretched out into open countryside—Pinner, Sidcup, Hillingdon, Ilford—until a legal limit was set by the creation of a ‘Green Belt’ in the 1930s.
The legend has it that this was all laid out by the Invisible Hand. Historically, London was never subjected to a plan; after the Great Fire of 1666, Christopher Wren, the principal architect then restyling the City’s skyline with domes and steeples, proposed a rational, ‘continental’ reshaping around straight streets and rond-points; but any construction that would hold up business was vetoed by the City’s burghers.This was a stark contrast to Absolutist capitals like Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Petersburg; the monarchy and its military accoutrements still occupy large chunks of the city centre, but Buckingham Palace looks like a Victorian hospital compared to the Winter Palace. London’s inner-city terraces were knocked up on the cheap, their ‘classical’ straight façades applied to chaotically built speculative ventures—the famous phenomenon of ‘Queen Anne front and Mary-Ann backside’. So it would continue, up to the ‘mock-Tudor’ semi-detached suburbs of the inter-war era.
In this reading, London was suddenly besieged by an outbreak of ‘planning’ after the Second World War, with unpopular concrete housing estates and motorways stamping their rectangles across the winding streets and alleys—a mercifully short interruption of a laissez-faire reign that resumed under Thatcher, when ‘market forces’ reshaped derelict docklands into a second home for the City at the gleaming skyscraper enclave of Canary Wharf. What this narrative has no room for—what is almost written out of popular histories, bar a few token references to ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone—is London’s third centre of power. Not simply the seat from which the empire was governed, this was also a centre of municipal socialism, the place from which the capital governed itself. Over ninety years, from the 1890s to the 1980s, London built up a local welfare state that rivalled those in Vienna, Bologna or Stockholm.