London: World City

From its inception, London has been a world city.  Londinium was founded by the Romans as an outpost of a far-away empire and a gateway to the world.   The city’s global and imperial links have continued to run through its two thousand year history.   The capital of England, the city has drawn people from across the British Isles.  The Norman Conquest brought with it renewed connections with the population of northern France and the Jews of Europe.   London became a multilingual town of seamen, merchants, and immigrants.  Trade and industry grew along the Thames and the Port of London, waterways which reached out across the globe.  The origins of the British Empire during the reign of the Tudors brought new commodities, peoples and places within the orbit of the great city.  By the mid=18th century, London was at the center of a global network of commercial and military interests that included colonies in America, India, and the Caribbean.   British, Irish and European migrants converged on the ravenous city, a hive of activity and money-making known as ‘Modern Babylon’.   In the early 19th century, shipping demanded more space than the Thames could provide and vast new docks and warehouse districts were built to accommodate the commerce of an increasingly interconnected British world.  The 20th century witnessed the end of empire and multiracial immigration, introducing communities from South Asia, the Caribbean and Africa.   Today, new waves of immigrants from Poland look for work and wealthy Middle Easterners settle in the luxurious neighbourhoods.   All are a part of the historical and cultural mix that is London. 

London grew and developed in relation to its global connections.   The Romans built their walled city with an eye to access, selecting a narrow spot on the Thames that could be bridged near a deep pool in the river where ships could be anchored.   These sites would become London Bridge and the Port of London.   If all roads lead to Rome, in Britain the Roman roads all lead through London- the basis of the British highway system to this day.   Built upon communication and trade, London was one of the largest cities in Europe by 1300.  As trade and commerce expanded, the population grew exponentially, settlement became ever denser and the physical size of the city increased.   By the Stuart period, the rich had begun to drift to the west of the city while the poorer communities became associated with the east.   By the 18th century, new resources were being built to feed, house and move a rapidly growing population.  In the early 19th century, the population doubled to over 3 million.  The growing volume of shipping demanded more space than the Thames could provide and vast new docks and warehouse districts were built in the hard scrabble East End to accommodate the commerce of an increasingly interconnected British world.  Roads were widened, gas lighting installed and a tunnel was even dug under the Thames.   With the development of department stores and high end shopping districts along Regent’s Street and Piccadilly Circus, the West End became a distinctive place of conspicuous consumption, high fashion and entertainment.   The expansion of manufacturing, the railway and the introduction of steam ships continued to fuel the growth of the Victorian economy.   The home of the Bank of England, the square mile “City” once walled by the Romans became the center of global finance.    Like the wealthy, working class costermongers, flower girls and Cockneys have all squeezed money from the streets of London.   Hundreds of stage coaches, omnibuses, Hansom cabs and other horse drawn vehicle thronged London’s teeming streets.   By the end of the century, the ‘tube’ was moving Londoners through trains underground.  In 1851, the Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park declaring London’s status as a confident and expanding imperial capital.   Following the First World War, London doubled in physical size as new roads and railways opened up the suburbs of ‘Metroland’ and left the city center to the very rich and the very poor.   A new focus on cleanliness, efficiency and public services left its mark on the city in the form of red phone booths and its iconic map of the underground.   

The later 20th century was a difficult time for London.   The subject of an intensive bombing campaign, the city was devastated by the global conflict of World War II as its population declined and over a million buildings were destroyed.   The end of the war brought optimism, massive rebuilding, a welfare state to address social injustice and a new youth culture that redefined ‘Swinging London’.   However, this was cut short by a major economic recession and massive unemployment.   With the dismantling of empire, the 70s and 80s brought doubt, decline and punk rockers perched on the steps of Piccadilly Circus.  The dismantling of the welfare state and deindustrialization hastened by the controversial policies of Margaret Thatcher immiserated many but renewed prosperity for the “City” through international finance.   A new wave of building began, as the old docklands and southern London were transformed by dizzying skyscrapers like the “Shard,” the “Gherkin,” and the “Walky Talky.”   The London skyline is dominated by numerous cranes as development stretches further and further down the Thames.   With a population of 8.6 million, London today is one of the world’s most dynamic cities.  

Through the ages, London has projected an image of imperial power and might.  To the west, Edward the Confessor erected a royal palace and built Westminster Abbey, the famed burial place of English kings.  To the east, the Normans built the Tower of London to secure their power over the unruly city, its population and activities.   By the late Middle Ages, royal London had become a center of power, fashion, wealth and civic pride.   The Tudors and the Stuarts continued to build fine palaces in and around the city to assert royal power and control over the brash and often defiant city.   With the defeat of Napoleon, Britain had conquered its major rival for global power and its victory was suitably commemorated across the city.   New statues, monuments and public spaces like Trafalgar Square hailed Britain’s zenith as an imperial power.   Government buildings along Whitehall were rebuilt in grand, classical style to link London with the imperialism of the Romans and the democracy of the Greeks.   The construction of the magnificent Houses of Parliament at the end of the 19th century proclaimed London as a great capital of the world.  The terror and destruction of the Blitz brought a powerful image of London’s strength, its endurance reflected in the famous photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral, standing defiantly amidst the smoke and flame.  
At the confluence of global currents and their own urban traditions, Londoners have been distinct, diverse, creative and unruly.    The size and density of their population has brought shining opportunities and serious problems.   London is a city of art, writing, entertainment and diversion of all sorts.   By the Tudor period, its dense and lively population provided a thriving market for commercial theatre and the plays of William Shakespeare.   In the 18th century, it was known for its many coffee houses, societies and gentleman’s clubs.   Music halls and today’s theatre district in the West End provided for Victorian Londoners while Soho offered more risqué entertainments for the 20th century.      The city has become known for its culture, housing some of the world’s finest art museums.   Yet London has also been known for its mean streets.  By the Tudor period, overcrowding, poor sanitation, food shortages and disease had earned London a sinister reputation and endemically high death rates.    18th century growth overwhelmed the old medieval system of poor relief and London became infamous for its crime, begging, prostitution and feral children, like those portrayed in Dickens’s Oliver Twist.   In the late 19th century, the dark figure of Jack the Ripper came to personify the fears of outcaste London.    The London “Bobby” and waves of social reform were called upon to impose order on the chaotic and disorderly streets.  Clamouring for freedom and justice against the power of wealth and class, the mass demonstration and street protest is a venerable tradition still very much evident in London today.  A city of imperial power, London is also a city of the masses- a plebeian, multicultural and boisterous world city.    


We will explore many neighbourhoods and areas of London through hikes and walking tours. Amongst others, we will visit the following sites: 

Museum of London: Featuring wonderful galleries from prehistory to the present, this museum will give us a broad overview of the history of London and its people. Its walkthrough reconstruction of a Victorian cityscape and the elaborately decorated golden coach of the Lord Mayor are among its fascinating exhibits and artefacts.  

Tower of London: Erected by William the Conqueror in 1066, the White Tower was only the first fortification in this massive stronghold of royal power. It is the home of the ‘Beefeaters’, the ravens, the Crown Jewels and more than a few ghosts. The Tower of London is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Westminster: The site of a royal palace and the British Parliament, Westminster is the seat of royal and democratic power in Britain. The royal court has resided at Westminster since 1049 and is today the site of Buckingham Palace.   Pall Mall forms a processional way uniting the palace with the military headquarters and parade ground at Horse Guards. There, it joins with the stately government buildings and offices of White Hall, leading down to the magnificent Houses of Parliament, renown for that London icon Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, the medieval monument to royal power and the burial place of kings. The Palace of Westminster is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Covent Garden & London Transport Museum: We will visit Covent Garden, the site of a famous vegetable garden since the 17th century. Today a fashionable shopping and entertainment center occupies its iconic 19th century neo-classical market sheds. Nearby is the London Transport Museum, where we will explore the history of such London icons like the Hansom cab, the double decker bus, and the ‘tube’. 

Royal Palace: There are a whole series of historic palaces in and around London. A magnificent mansion and extensive gardens, Hampton Court was the residence of Henry VIII and remained an important royal palace through the Tudor and Stuart monarchies. Kensington Palace became a royal residence in the 17th century and is best known as the home of a young Victoria.

Greenwish Maritime Museum: We will take a river journey from Westminster down the Thames to Greenwich, the home of the Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark and Greenwich Mean Time. The Maritime Museum explores the story of Britain’s connection to the sea.  Through its naval and mercantile power, Britannia ruled the waves. The nearby Cutty Sark allows visitors to explore the famed and restored clipper ship built in 1869.

St. Paul's: t. Paul’s Cathedral was built in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren, the third cathedral to be built on the site. It dominates the skyline and is one of London’s most recognizable sites.  Inside, its soaring dome, marbled spaces and expansive crypt are a virtual monument to those who made the British Empire. 

Soho/China Town: Soho has long been known for its night life and clubs. China Town is its boisterous neighbour, known for its historic community, many restaurants and Chinese shops. 

London Theater: London has long been a center of entertainment and diversion. We will visit Leicester Square, the site of many film premiers, and London’s current West End theatre district. We will also visit the entertainment district during the Tudor period on the south side of the Thames. The reconstructed Globe Theatre is located there, featuring a museum and daily performances of Shakespearean theatre.

Imperial War Museum: The London spirit during the Blitz has become legendary. With a focus on Britain in the world wars, this museum explores the experience of ordinary people in modern war. It features galleries and incredible artefacts from the First and Second World Wars, including planes and a V1 rocket hanging in the atrium. The museum also examines Britain’s current military engagements across the world. The museum is the caretaker of the prime minister’s war rooms in Westminster during World War II, which houses the Winston Churchill Museum, a fascinating exhibition of that iconic British Prime Minister. 

Camden Market: We will spend a day reflecting on London in the swinging sixties through a visit to Camden Market, a series of colourful markets specializing in popular culture and fashion.   Stalls sell food from around the world. Camden is also the site of a famous canal and lock system which we will explore.

London Art Museum: There are several world class art museums in London that students will have the opportunity to visit.   The National Portrait Gallery tells the story of British history though the individuals portrayed in hundreds of painted portraits.    We will also visit the famous Victoria & Albert Museum, a collection of global art that has its roots in the imperial power and reach of the Victorian empire.