London History

By White, Jerry | History Today, July 2010 | Go to article overview

London History


White, Jerry, History Today


Do you know Rupert Court? Well, I didn't until a few weeks ago. It connects Soho's Wardour Street with Rupert Street. It's entered through archways under buildings at either end and is a tiny jewel of early 18th-century speculative infill. I took my place among a throng of foreign tourists and stared open-mouthed at just one more humbling surprise that London throws at those who like to think they know it reasonably well. It is indeed unknowable.

That's one reason, I think, why a never-ending stream of books on London leaves the publishers' warehouses each year. Another is the unflagging interest of a city with an unparalleled richness of history to write about: what stories London has to tell; and as the tastes and interests of a contemporary audience are ever changing there will always be new stories to unearth from London's subsoil. Whatever the reasons, the demand from readers appears inexhaustible. That, if you're a London historian, is clearly a good thing. On the other hand, there's an inexhaustible supply of London historians, of every complexion, ready to satisfy a voracious public, which, if you're a London historian, has some downsides.

In recent years the tasks of readers and historians alike have been enormously eased by the democratisation of archival sources available through the Internet. London History Online (go to www.british-history.ac.uk and follow the London link) provides access to much scholarly material published over the past century or so. The maps and police notebooks that underpinned Charles Booth's great 17-volume survey of London poverty at the end of the 19th century are available online at http//booth.lse.ac.uk, so all Londoners can see how their street was viewed from the outside in the 1890s. Most extraordinary of all--so far--is the project to place on the Internet all the printed evidence for trials at the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1913, together with the Ordinary's (or chaplain's) account of the lives of criminals sentenced to death from 1679 to 1772 (www.oldbaileyonline.org). The text has been digitised to make it fully searchable, with the original documents scanned in for comparison. The richness of this material, the foresight and energy of those who made it happen and the public generosity that has rendered it available to the user without charge are all, frankly, remarkable.

What a diversity of London history writing has emerged in recent years. There have been some quite new forms, I think, like the celebrity reflections on London's recent past, with a large slice of autobiography: as in Billy Bragg's excellent The Progressive Patriot (Bantam Press, 2006), a paean to Barking, unlikely though that sounds; and Suggs and the City: My Journey through Disappearing London (Headline, 2009) by the Madness singer, Suggs. Other forms have established themselves over the past quarter-century or so: popular oral histories, often of East End life, have found a recent chronicler in Gilda O'Neill; and 'psychogeographies', laced with arcane anecdote and scholarly antiquarianism, seek to get under the skin of London life by tracing the barely discernible influences of past on present. The work of lain Sinclair is notable here, most recently in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report (Hamish Hamilton, 2008).

On more traditional lines, the blockbuster history of London over 2,000 years has seen a recent flourishing. …

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