10 Historical Events that Shaped London

'Complex, elegiac, imperfect and unknowable': how to experience London from your own home
'Complex, elegiac, imperfect and unknowable': how to experience London from your own home | Ling Tang / © Culture Trip
Photo of Chloe-Rose Crabtree
History Editor22 July 2019

People have been living along the strip of the Thames River that courses through Central London for thousands of years. Born of fire, plague and conquest, London’s history is written all over the city, you just need to know where to look.

More than crimson double-decker buses and warm beer, London has evolved over its 2000-year existence to become one of the most culturally relevant cities in the western hemisphere. Its history, often maimed by war, disease and fire, shows Londoners’ determination to distinguish the city as a place of innovation, culture and growth.

Where does the name London come from?

The chalk-rich banks of the River Thames made the area desirable for settlement long before Romans claimed the region as their own in AD 43. Roman settlement along the Thames was roughly the size of Hyde Park and known to the Romans as Londinium.

It is thought that this is where the modern name ‘London’ comes from but some scholars of early druidic cultures suggest that the name actually originates from ‘Llandin’, the early Welsh name for modern-day Parliament Hill.

Why did William the Conqueror build the Tower of London?

These days, camera-toting tourists flock to the Tower of London to admire the crown jewels and Tower ravens, both of which are safely guarded by Yeomen Warders who live within the Tower walls.

But the tower was first built in 1078 by the Norman emperor, William the Conqueror, who invaded Anglo-Saxon Britain in 1066. The original structure, known as the White Tower, was meant to demonstrate the strength of his rule to the British people.

William’s White Tower served as the royal residence for much of its 900-year existence but by the 16th century, the Tower of London became known more for its function as a prison. To this day visitors can see etchings on the walls left by political prisoners dating back to the Tudor era.

Bubonic plague sporadically threatened Londoners from 1347-1665

Starting out with the fever chills and aches of the flu, bubonic plague progresses quickly, covering the body in painful cysts called buboes and often resulting in death. Luckily the bubonic plague is a rare occurrence in the modern era but it was a sporadic threat in London for over three centuries.

The first major epidemic, referred to as the Black Death, wiped out nearly half of the city’s population between 1347-1351. Relief only coming when cold weather temporarily stemmed the flea population – the plague was predominately spread by fleas that fed on healthy people after receiving a blood meal from infected humans and rats.

According to the Museum of London: “A major outbreak of the disease struck roughly every 20-30 years, killing around 20% of London’s population each time.” This ended with the last plague outbreak between 1664-1665, but the plague left a lasting mark on the city with a peppering of ‘plague pits’ throughout London.

Ling Tang / | © Culture Trip

The Great Fire of London burned nearly 70% of the city in 1666

Only a year after the last bout of plague, the Great Fire of London further devastated the city – though it beneficially wiped out much of the plague-infected rat and flea population.

London experienced many fires throughout its history, but the 1666 fire is most well-known for the level of destruction it wrought – the fire destroyed just under 70 per cent of London buildings, including the original St Paul’s Cathedral.

While much of London’s rebuild maintained the capital’s original layout, residential neighbourhoods shifted as the wealthy moved out of the densely populated city centre.

The rebuild also made London look much different than it had before. Perhaps to avoid another large-scale fire, wooden structures were replaced with less flammable brick, permanently altering the city’s fabric and aesthetic.

In 1863, London introduced the world’s first underground railway

Few Londoners could imagine getting around the city without the complicated network of trains weaving their way deep beneath the streets. The Underground, known by locals as ‘the Tube’, is such a London institution that its map design is featured heavily on tourist memorabilia.

The Tube revolutionised how cities planned public transit systems, spawning imitations in other major metropolises like Paris and New York.

Ling Tang / | © Culture Trip

Suffragettes stood their ground at the Houses of Parliament in 1907

Over a decade before women were given the right to vote in 1918, 15 suffragettes made their way to the Houses of Parliament lobby on February 13 where they protested for women’s right to vote.

While women’s suffrage has become a standard civil right in most modern-day countries, suffragettes faced imprisonment and cruel treatment in their effort to gain voting rights. Today, a statue of suffragette Millicent Fawcett stands in Parliament Square as a reminder of the battle fought to win the right to vote.

Ling Tang / © Culture Trip | Ling Tang / © Culture Trip

Bombing raids during WWI and WWII drastically changed London’s landscape

While wartime bombings affected London in both world wars, the ‘Blitz’ that truly altered the cityscape refers to heavy bombing by German forces that started in September 1940 and lasted for 57 days.

The bombings left parts of London in ruins, and when WWII ended in 1945 much of the city had to be rebuilt. To help aid with the loss of Londoners’ homes, council housing was built throughout the city, and major cultural projects like Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall breathed life back into post-war London. The severe devastation was also tinged with a silver lining when Roman ruins were found underneath the rubble. These ruins can now be seen around Central London and at the London Mithraeum.

In 1948, the Empire Windrush brought British citizens from the Caribbean to London, prompting a new conversation about ‘Britishness’

After WWII, the British government passed the British Nationality Act of 1948, creating the status of ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’, which granted citizenship to all British subjects.

Invited by the British government to fulfil a post-war labour shortage, newly-dubbed citizens from the Caribbean boarded the HMT Empire Windrush in Jamaica and landed on the shores of the UK in 1948. Full of hope, Caribbean migrants did not expect that their arrival in the ‘motherland’ would expose them to racially motivated discrimination and violence.

As historian Kennetta Hammond Perry explains in her book, London is the Place for Me (2015): “post-war Caribbean migration [to London] exposed the historic tensions between Britain, the multiethnic, multiracial imperial body, and prevailing notions of Britishness, as a racialised and exclusive White metropolitan identity.”

After racial tensions reached a head with the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, the Caribbean community created safe spaces to express Caribbean culture and tradition. Today, Carnival celebrations have become one of London’s most anticipated events of the summer.

21st-century terrorism both shook and unified Londoners

A series of coordinated Tube bombings on 7 July 2005 had the potential to fracture London’s sense of community.

While instances of terrorism initially stoked fear amongst Londoners, they also resulted in an outpouring of unification among the capital’s residents in the form of public vigils, individual acts of heroism and general defiance in the face of fear-mongering. Rather than be broken by the few bad actors, the 7 July attacks pushed Londoners to strengthen their community within the massive capital.

The 2012 Olympic Games made London shine as an international metropolis

The day before the July 2005 attacks, London won the bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic and Paralympic games. While London’s celebrations were interrupted by the violence, the 2012 games buoyed spirits in the capital and gave Londoners something to look forward to.

The international games were a moment for London to showcase its strength as a cultural centre full of people from varied backgrounds. As an international hub, London’s displays at the 2012 games were a demonstration of how the capital has a history of resilience that continues into the 21st century.

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