Wandering through The City of London, it feels like an up-to-the-minute kind of place, but this modern financial centre is built on strong historical foundations. In fact, it is from this area of London that the rest of the metropolis grew. There are still hints and clues to its origins dotted about the Square Mile if you know where to find them.
To begin our history of The City we need to travel back to Roman times and 50AD to be precise. This is just seven years after the Romans invaded Britain and the year in which The City was founded. They called it Londinium and chose its location due to the business advantages associated with being on the north bank of the River Thames – something that works to its favour even today.
Londinium thrived as a port and trading post, with many businesspeople arriving and settling in the advantageous spot. They gathered together and formed bodies known as guilds, which regulated how industries were managed and carried out for the good of members and customers alike.
What’s in a name?
The locations where each of these guilds for different industries began can still be identified today, as they live on in street names. Ironmonger Lane, Cloth Fair, Bread Street and Mason’s Avenue all have their origins in historic professions. Look out for these places as you make your way around The City and feel a true connection with the past.
In 60AD, the Romans’ hold over Londinium was threatened by Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe, who sacked the settlement after leading a revolt. Many lives were lost in the conflict, but eventually the Romans regained power and took Londinium forward.
Remnants of the Romans
What the Romans did for The City cannot be underestimated and various remnants from this time can be seen around the area. For example, the Roman wall that encircled the boundaries still largely defines the edges of the Square Mile and the remains of it are still visible in various places. In recent years, the foundations of the Roman Temple of Mithras and the only known Roman amphitheatre in the whole of London have been discovered.
Despite being excavated over 60 years ago when a new building was being constructed, it is only now that the temple is being returned to its original location. In a project involving some 50 archaeologists, Bloomberg is funding attempts to restore the Mithraeum with a projected completion date of 2016.
Origins of St Paul’s Cathedral
The first church to be built on the site of St Paul’s Cathedral was constructed by Mellitus, a monk who travelled to Britain in the company of St Augustine. St Ethelbert, King of Kent, is on the throne, as the first Christian monarch in England. The cathedral will be destroyed by fire in 675 and again in 961 by the Danes as they invade, before the current incarnation is built in 1675 and opened to the public in 1708.
If you thought that picking up your daily dose of Java in The City was a relatively new phenomenon, think again. Coffee houses started to appear as early as the 17th century and soon became important meeting places, where news and gossip was exchanged. Soon enough, people from the same trades would know which establishments their fellow industrymen drank in and they became hubs for these professions.
Few people know this, but the London Stock Exchange actually began in Jonathan’s Coffee House, which was located on the aptly named Change Alley. Lloyd’s – a high street name today – takes its moniker from Edward Lloyd, who sold his coffee on Tower Street and welcomed bankers to his establishment.
By 1631, the official population of residents in The City was 130,163, as people came to the area to take advantage of its benefits as a place of business. It is exactly this same reason that saw the population decrease to 26,923 by 1901, as people vacated residential buildings to make way for offices and workplaces.
A new bridge for London
London Bridge was completed in 1831 by Sir John Rennie after seven years of building. Connecting The City with the south side of the river, it is much wider than the medieval structure it replaced.
First underground railway
The world’s first underground railway was the Metropolitan Railway between Paddington and Farringdon, just outside of The City. It was popular from as soon as it is opened in 1863 and paved the way for the extensive Tube network that can be found throughout modern London.
Many of The City’s historic buildings are destroyed during The Blitz bombing raids of the Second World War, which began in 1940. Citizens took refuge in local Underground stations to avoid the bombs above ground.
A place for culture
Despite being well established as a business and financial area by the 20th century, the Barbican Centre opened to the public in 1982. Featuring a theatre, concert hall, art galleries, library and cinema, it was the biggest art complex in Europe. It still hosts many cultural activities and is a wonderful place to catch a performance while staying in The City.