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Palace of Westminster | © Tony Moorey / Flickr
Palace of Westminster | © Tony Moorey / Flickr

Events That Shaped London Throughout The Last Century

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Updated: 24 November 2016
The City of London has celebrated royal pageants, live broadcasts and annual events over the last century including the Chelsea Flower Show and The Lord Mayor’s Show. London has also shown strength and solidarity during times of hardship and grief, displaying resilience and bravery through the shock of The Blitz, and the 7/7 bombings in 2005. Culture Trip London explores some of the key events that have shaped London throughout the last 10 decades.

The Cenotaph, 1919

Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to honour the war dead, the first structure of the Cenotaph was constructed from wood and plaster for the Peace Day Parade on 19 July 1919. The Cenotaph was later remade from Portland stone by Holland, Hannen and Cubitts. At 35 feet high and weighing 120 tonnes, the memorial is engraved in Roman numerals to signify the dates of the First World War (MCMXIV – MCMXIX), and cost £7,325 to build (today equivalent to £255,332). Between 1919 and 1945, Remembrance Day was held on Armistice Day, when a two-minute silence took place to remember those lost in the war. Prime Minister David Lloyd-George was the first head of state to lay down a wreath. The Queen, members of the Royal Family, and heads of state continue this tradition every Remembrance Sunday, with a rendition of The Last Post.

Whitehall, London SW1A 2ET


The British Empire Exhibition, 1924

The British Empire Exhibition was a £12 million extravaganza held in Wembley Park North London and was opened by King George V. It showcased the work of 56 countries (with the exception of Gambia and Gibraltar) across 16 buildings. A ‘Pageant of Empire’ was devised as a colonial exhibition as early as 1913, and an estimated 100,000 visitors attended each day. The FA cup was the first event held and other attractions included an amusement park and an ornamental lake. Visitors could experience the culture of East Africa in a white walled Arab building. It was at the British Empire Exhibition that Prince Albert was left devastated by his stammer, painfully evident in his speech to the assembly, which proved to be the catalyst for seeking treatment from Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.

BBC Live Broadcast, Alexandra Palace, 1936 

The BBC test piloted their first high definition broadcast on 2 November 1936 at Alexandra Palace in Wood Green, North London. The BBC converted the tea rooms of the south-east wings into ‘A’ and ‘B’ Studios. Studio ‘A’ housed the electronic equipment of EMI-Marconi, whilst the other stored the Baird television systems. It was at ‘Ally Pally’ that presenter Elizabeth Cowell first uttered the immortal lines: ‘This is direct television from Alexandra Palace’. Built with art-deco bay windows, the Palace kept transmitters in the lower basement and a mast on top, which remains in place to this day. Alexandra Palace became the home of the BBC for the next 45 years until 1981, making regular programmes for The Open University. This has since become a popular venue for concerts and exhibitions, and there are plans to use £26.7 million to renovate the Palace into a tourist attraction.

Alexandra Palace Way, London N22 7AY

The Blitz Bombings, 1940 – 1941

The Germans began a 37 day blitzkrieg (lightning strike) against the UK, which significantly affected London with 70 air raids from 7 September 1940 until 11 May 1941, destroying 107,000 tonnes of shipping. The Docklands became a key target of the Blitz, due to its significance in shipping exports from the capital. Nine miles of the Docklands were burnt. A 12 hour Operation Loge (Black Saturday) lasted for 50 nights from 7 September 1940, during which 625 tonnes of bombs were dropped and an estimated 400 people were killed. On 13 September, Buckingham Palace suffered nine direct hits, destroying the Royal Chapel and the South and North Wings of the Palace with only one worker killed. The Queen famously remarked that she could now ‘look the East End in the face.’ In 1944, the SS conducted a second campaign, nicknamed the ‘Little Blitz’, which targeted the Guinness flats in Chelsea, and resulted in the deaths of 70 people. At the end of the War, 30,000 Londoners had been killed as a result of the bombings, with 50,000 left with severe injuries.

The Coronation Of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953

Princess Elizabeth II became the 39th sovereign of the United Kingdom in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953 upon the death of her father George IV on 6 February 1952. Elizabeth II became the sixth Queen to be crowned in her own right since the first coronation of Queen Mary I in 1553. Taking 16 months to plan, the coronation was governed by the Earl of Marshal, and the coronation was separated into six parts; the recognition, the oath, the anointing, the investiture, the enthronement and the homage. Queen Elizabeth II returned to Buckingham Palace wearing the Imperial State Crown, adorned with pearls from the collection of Elizabeth I. A guest list of 8,251 dignitaries attended, including representatives from 129 states and territories. During the three-hour service, the Queen carried the orb, the sceptre, the rod of mercy and the royal ring, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, placed the crown of St Edward on Elizabeth’s head. The crown weighed four pounds 12 ounces, and the royal attire was designed by royal favourite Sir Norman Hartnell. The procession was witnessed by three million people who lined the streets across the 7.2 kilometre route, with the Queen travelling three kilometres in the Gold State Coach with her consort, Prince Philip. The coronation was broadcast to 20 million British viewers, whilst 750 commentators were translating the events as they unfolded in 44 different languages.

Notting Hill Carnival, 1966

The annual Notting Hill Carnival has been entertaining Londoners and tourists on the streets of Kensington and Chelsea since 1966. Celebrating British West Indian culture over two days in August, the carnival has provided the finest music, dance and cuisine for over 50 years. The carnival grew from the success of The Element of Caribbean Festival, created in 1959 by the late Claudia Jones, Editor of The West Indian Gazette. An estimated 1 million people continue to visit the carnival each year, enjoying the reggae sounds of the ebony steel band, and the visual spectacle of soca floats. The international event has raised an estimated £93,000,000 through commercial revenue.

The Queen’s Silver Jubilee, 1977

On 6 June 1977, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated 25 years on the throne by lighting a beacon at Windsor Castle. The Queen and Prince Phillip undertook six Jubilee tours across the UK and Northern Ireland, covering 36 Counties. Their visits extended overseas on a 56,000 mile trip to countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The Sex Pistols infamously marked the occasion with their rendition of God Save The Queen across the Thames and Westminster Pier which resulted in the arrest of manager Malcolm McClaren and his then partner, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. New landmarks across London were unveiled by the Queen during the Jubilee, including South Bank Jubilee Gardens, and 4000 street parties took place across London; whilst over 500 million people watched the celebrations of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee around the world. The grand finale involved a river progress with barges from Greenwich to Lambeth on 9 June 1977, replicating the Elizabethan style of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Siege At The Iranian Embassy, Hyde Park, 1982

From 30 April to 5 May, 1982, six men of the Iranian Arab group Democratic Revolutionary Front of the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA) took 26 people hostage at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Princes Gate, South Kensington. Led by Oan Ali Mohammed, they called for an autonomous southern state of Khuzestan, and for the British government to secure the release of Arab prisoners from the province state, with the assurance that they would be able to leave the UK safely. The government refused to comply with the demands and DRFLA began a tense six-day standoff. The SAS force of 35 personnel under Operation Nimrod stormed the embassy balconies, culminating in the deaths of five terrorists. One hostage, Ali Akbar Samadzadeh — a temporary employee at the embassy — was killed by the hostage takers. The sixth terrorist, Fowzi Nejad, survived and was sentenced to 27 years for his part in the plot. Those released were bundled out onto the back lawns of Princes Gardens. Iranian diplomats did not work at the Embassy again until 1993.

The Funeral Of Princess Diana, 1997

On 31 August 1997, the world woke up to the shocking news that Diana, Princess of Wales had been killed in a car crash while escaping the paparazzi under the Pont de l’Alma in the centre of Paris. Princess Diana’s funeral took place in London on 6 September 1997, between 9.08AM and 3.52PM, where the cortege began its route from Kensington Palace and Hyde Park. Further travelling across The Mall, through to the service at Westminster Abbey and finishing at the Spencer ancestral home of Althorp, where Diana was later buried on a private island. The Duke of Edinburgh walked behind the cortege alongside Earl Spencer and Princes Charles, William and Harry. An estimated 2,000 guests attended, with 1 million bystanders paying their respects en route and 32.10 million British viewers watching on television.

The Creation Of The London Eye, 2000

The London Eye (the Millennium Wheel), was commissioned in 1999 at a cost of £70 million to mark the dawn of a new millennium in the capital. Constructed by Marks Barfield Architects, the Ferris wheel stands at 135m tall, with a diameter of 394 feet. Situated on the South Bank next to the River Thames (under the London Borough of Lambeth), the London Eye is visited by an estimated 3.75 million visitors annually and has won 85 international awards. Known as the Coca-Cola London Eye, visitors have the option of hiring a private capsule for corporate events, as well as hiring access to the London Eye outside regular operational hours.

London Eye, London SE1 7PB

The Queen’s 90th Birthday, 2016

Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 90th birthday on 21 April, 2016. To mark the occasion, beacons were lit across the Long Walk in Windsor by the Queen and other senior royal members including The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh undertook a four mile birthday walkabout outside Cambridge Gate to greet the large crowds of well-wishers. The Queen’s official birthday celebrations in Windsor will take place across three days in May, featuring a 90 minute extravaganza of theatrical lighting and video projection, with more than 1,500 people invited to attend. The celebrations will chart the Queen’s life from birth in 1926 through to her experiences of World War II and her coronation in 1953. Further, 100 Military and Commonwealth pipers will perform, supported by live solo acts including singers Katherine Jenkins, Andrea Bocelli and Alfie Boe.