Wednesday, 8 February 2017

From City to Metropolis: The Historic Boroughs of London

Over the past fifteen months, I have been exploring, with any who choose to follow me, the Wards of Old London: beginning at Newgate Street, in the Ward of Farringdon Within, back in November 2015; and ending at Fleet Street, in the Ward of Farringdon Without, in January 2017. This journey has taken us through all of the intramural and extramural wards of the City of London. There is, however, more to London than just "The City," and it is now time to begin a broader exploration of the Boroughs that make up the modern metropolis.

When Geoffrey Chaucer thought of "London," he would doubtless have had in mind "The City," an entity defined by already ancient walls and gates, with a Lord Mayor, a Guildhall, and a well-developed system of civic governance. From the window of his lodgings in Aldgate, he might have observed friars, knights and merchants leaving the City on their way to Colchester or Ipswich; and men of law, physicians and clerks entering the City, having journeyed from Norwich or Thetford. When he placed his pilgrims in Southwark's Tabard Inn, he would have understood that they had already set out on the road to Canterbury, the gates of the City shut behind them after the ringing of the curfew bell.

When William Shakespeare walked the same streets, the "London" of his imagination would have been an altogether bigger place. Whilst he may have lodged, worshiped, shopped, and had his shoes repaired in the City, most of his working life was spent beyond its limits, in the theatre districts of Southwark and Shoreditch. Samuel Pepys's London extended from Greenwich to Whitehall and Covent Garden; and for many modern Londoners, the metropolis is bounded by an orbital motorway, the M25, completed during my lifetime.

London from Space (the M25 is the outermost band of light. Photo: NASA/Cmdr Chris Hadfield (image is in the Public Domain).

The greatest expansion of the metropolis took place during the Nineteenth Century, and was observed by Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son:

"The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre ... Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood ... Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height ... fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing ... "

He was writing of the construction of the London to Birmingham Railway through Camden in the 1830s, but the "March of Bricks and Mortar" had begun before the railway age had been conceived, which is by no means to deny the role that the railways had in accelerating the process in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

"The March of Bricks and Mortar," by George Cruikshank, 1829 (image is in the Public Domain).

Throughout and beyond Dickens's lifetime, new metropolitan boroughs were established until, by the 1880s, it was clear that a new overarching system of governance was required. The London County Council was established in 1889, and functioned until 1965, when it was replaced by the Greater London Council. Abolished by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986, the demise of the GLC left "Greater London" (an entity, the reality of which was, by then, recognised by virtually all Londoners) without a political framework, until the current Greater London Authority was established in 2000, under a directly elected Mayor (not to be confused with the Lord Mayor, whose writ runs, as in Chaucer's day, only within The City).

Spring Gardens, close to The Embankment was the headquarters of the London County Council from 1889 until 1921 (image is in the Public Domain).  
Old County Hall, headquarters of the London County Council from 1921 until 1964, and of the Greater London Council from 1965 until 1986. Photo: gailf548 (licensed under CCA). 
City Hall, headquarters of the Greater London Authority. Photo: Carlos Delgado (CC-BY-SA).
The Boroughs of London. Image: LondonMapper.

There are currently thirty-two London Boroughs (not including The City), so where to begin our exploration of them? For me, there can be only one answer to that question: let us begin by retracing our footsteps through The City to the junction I described as the "Crossroads of England", and heading south from there, across London Bridge, into London's oldest suburb: Southwark.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Does this mean that the exploration of London is going to continue? I hope so.

  2. Very much so, although it will probably take some years!