This dazzling and yet intimate book is the first modern one-volume history of London from Roman times to the present. An extraordinary city, London grew from a backwater in the Classical age into an important medieval city, a significant Renaissance urban center, and a modern colossus. Roy Porter paints a detailed landscape--from the grid streets and fortresses of Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror to the medieval, walled "most noble city" of churches, friars, and crown and town relationships. Within the crenelated battlements, manufactures and markets developed and street-life buzzed.
London's profile in 1500 was much as it was at the peak of Roman power. The city owed its courtly splendor and national pride of the Tudor Age to the phenomenal expansion of its capital. It was the envy of foreigners, the spur of civic patriotism, and a hub of culture, architecture, great literature, and new religion. From the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, London experienced a cruel civil war, raging fires, enlightenment in thought, government, and living, and the struggle and benefits of empire. From the lament that "London was but is no more" to "you, who are to stand a wonder to all Years and ages...a phoenix," London became an elegant, eye-catching, metropolitan hub. It was a mosaic, Porter shows, that represented the shared values of a people--both high and low born--at work and play.
London was and is a wonder city, a marvel. Not since ancient times has there been such a city--not eternal, but vibrant, living, full of a free people ever evolving. In this transcendent book, Roy Porter touches the pulse of his hometown and makes it our own, capturing London's fortunes, people, and imperial glory with brio and wit.
A University Student's Perspective
By Samantha Peterson on Feb 13, 2005
I want to preface this review by stating that I am in no way an expert on Roy Porter as a historian in general, nor do I claim to have read a plethora of similar books on the history of London. I am merely writing this review as someone who has read Porter's book for a 300-level university course on the history of London. That said, I have to say that if you are looking for a cohesive overview of every aspect of London's history, you may want to look elsewhere. Porter's primary focus is a religious history of London (which would have been a more apt title). He spends too much time describing in detail nearly all of London's churches (and there are hundreds) and talking about the development of the streets. There are paragraphs (and, indeed, the entire introduction chapter) rattling off street names that mean nothing to anyone but native Londoners. I am currently studying in London and have lived here for quite some time, and still the street names do nothing to enhance understanding. It serves primarily to congest and overwhelm the bits of valid information that are thrown in. Porter says little about the evolution of London as it relates to England's history. He does divide the chapters into specific historical periods, which is useful, but for those who want to learn about the more interesting monarchs and their relation to the city, read another book. He barely mentions Henry VIII or any of the more colorful monarchs. His chapter on the Tudor period focuses primarily on the Reformation and the reigns of Elizabeth and Mary. While interesting, there is more to a social history than religious upheaval and trade guilds. I would have to say that Porter's history of London takes a convoluted and dull approach to a fascinating history. The book is by no means bad, but for those who have a choice in what they read and want to spend their time wisely, I'd advise buying a different history of this great city.
London: A Social History
By M. A. Krul on Oct 07, 2010
Roy Porter's bestselling "London: A Social History" provides an interesting but idiosyncratic overview of the history and development of that greatest of modern cities. It is partially an ecclestiastical history of the city; partially a history of social and cultural norms in the 17th and 18th century; partially an indictment of Thatcher's government and her attitude towards London; partially a rehabilitation of private developers in the 19th century; and part popular historical overview. The result is a book full of interesting insights, amusing anecdotes and historical highlights, but it is severely lacking in structure and uneven as to its scope. Porter himself was famous particularly as a historian of medicine and medical practice, in which field he was an uncontested pioneer, but his period specialization in the early modern era puts too much of a stamp on the book. It is fairly common for popular history to spend a great part of the book on the 19th century, especially when it concerns British topics, and so a counterweight in early modern history is not unwelcome. But the book spends 180 pages on early modern history, another 150 or so on the 19th century, and barely even a hundred on the 20th century. There is also unevenness in the range of topics. Since the book is labelled 'a social history', one expects an emphasis on the daily life of Londoners and the development of demographics, of neighbourhoods, and so forth. Much of this is provided, but interestingly it takes the form of mainly tracing social developments in the city through the ecclesiastical history on the one hand, and the physical construction of roads and boroughs on the other hand. Each period is given its own peculiar topical emphasis by Porter: the 17th century is mainly described in terms of building projects and expansions, the 18th century history is mainly cultural, whereas the 19th is mainly economic; the 20th century, finally, is where some politics comes in. But although two chapters are dedicated to the political aspects, these get relatively short shrift, as does London in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, one can argue this is fair enough for a social history, as so much has been written on Britain's politics already, but the peculiar disproportions are the more noticable for being uncommon. That is not to say that this is a bad book. On the contrary, its unevenness is almost hidden entirely under the vast scope of the undertaking, Porter's skilled and engaging writing, and his mastery over detail. A 'social history' here seems to mean a history of essentially anything that does not mainly deal with politics and economics, and this leaves a massive wealth of material for a historian to choose from. Porter's selections are excellent, since it allows him exactly the right balance between engaging details and quotations on the one hand and the sweep of the broad brush on the other hand that is necessary for successful popular history. In fact, the wealth of information provided about London's streets, churches, crime, brothels, sewers, governments and immigration is so great that even those familiar with the city and who need no general introductions to the chronology of British history will find many things they did not know. The book is stylistically light enough to attract general readers, but the content is solid enough to make it anything but dumbed down. That is quite an impressive performance in its own right, and combined with the vast scope of topics covered, the book almost succeeds at being an unassailable all-round general history of the city up to the early 1990s. That is doesn't succeed entirely at being the definitive work on the subject due to insufficiently balanced integration of the different periods and topics is therefore certainly no reason not to buy this book. Recommended for anyone interested in London's history outside politics.
Could be even better!
By Silenos on Feb 06, 2008
More illustrations and above all more plentiful and better maps would have made Porter's superlative history of London an unqualified masterpiece. As such, it is still a bloody good book. The late Roy Porter was not only a brilliant historian, above all of the 18th century for which his enthusiasm is nearly overwhelming, but a writer of verve and wit far removed from much desiccated academism. It would be a fitting tribute for Harvard to bring out an expanded edition awash with bells and whistles. Let's hope.
By Allison Cowan on Oct 14, 2013
Bought for a textbook for studying abroad but was never actually required to read it so it just sat on my shelf.
In-depth review: will its good fortune continue?
By John L Murphy on Nov 20, 2013
Although this appeared a few years before Peter Ackroyd's "London: A Biography," medical historian Roy Porter's social history possesses its own many merits, even if Ackroyd's book appears to have benefited more from promotion and sales. Like Ackroyd, Porter looks at the broad evolution; less so than Ackroyd, Porter concentrates on the emergence of The City in the Renaissance, as before that, the enclave remained small and separated for many centuries from its royal neighbor and purported ruler, Westminster, two miles away. Purported because Porter argues for Whitehall vs. Guildhall. That is, the independence shown early by London for much of its dominance enabled its vibrancy, confidence, and diversity. The gravel banks under the Thames, forty miles from the sea, assured a calm waterway for trade. While the Church ruled, with a hundred parishes starting under Norman rule, one every three acres, the mercantile class settled and attracted migrants from the rest of the island and abroad. The Corporation that ran the city began to emerged by Tudor times. "London was on the road to becoming a small, highly regulated corporate city lapped by a turbulent metropolitan sea." The distance between Westminster and the City persisted; during the Great Fire, the King and his brother did not know of the blaze until they were informed. Porter, given his expertise, provides vivid descriptions of the plague that preceded the conflagration, and the Civil War that pitted royalists against Parliament there. After the fire, guided by Christopher Wren, London began to stretch out, and by 1800 a "hierarchy of ranks was stamped upon the topography of the town." The bulk of this book takes place since that period, for after all, more London and more residents means more data and more detail as the city, already the world's largest at a million, kept booming. "Addresses assumed weight." We begin to see the separation of East from West End, and the class connotations that still mark the property of the latter expanse today. 90% already lived two centuries ago outside the City, and by 1911 seven million called Greater London home, but the ancient Corporation tended to resist reform, as the medieval guilds which had allowed so many ancestors of the London establishment to gain a steady job and a respected livelihood, turned into gentleman's clubs and privileged livery. The tension never exploded into unrest as it did elsewhere under radicalism in modern times, but the necessity for London to adapt to its own generated, centripetal and centrifugal energy led to rail and then the Tube as methods to balance, to a degree, the influx of the masses with work demands and settlement. While London grew in population 1921-31 by 9%, the land it took up as the megapolis leaped into the outer stretches of Metroland doubled its size, Attempts for Garden Cities and a greenbelt later helped, but this type of planning led to much destruction, of nature and farms for the worse, of slums for the better. Still, London could thrive, for a good long while as the imperial center. Do-gooders of Victorian times might be mocked, but Porter refuses easy stereotypes. He shows how Henry Mayhew's depictions of the poor and of laborers memorably evoke the East End, and he realizes that reformers helped engage all Londoners in creating out of so many peoples from so wide a series of places a common civic identity. The deprivations of the Blitz and the displacement of 40% of Londoners during WWII show how post-war London had to adapt, and how its manufacturing and docking bases soon felt the tug of outer borough relocation and foreign competition. As Porter writes this in the aftermath of Thatcher, and the abolition of the Labour-led GLC, he castigates her and the determined greed that fueled so much of what London looks like now. (I'd like to hear from Porter if the later 90s on have improved this or not...) "The balkanization of the metropolis encouraged rotten boroughs, political localism and extremism of all stripes." Many workers fled for cheaper and healthier suburbs, and he shows how transport allowed this. Congestion, all the same, grew worse, and pollution persisted. Crime was on the upswing, and decay and unrest followed. Immigration altered large parts of the inner ring and older neighborhoods, while others turned gentrified. Porter does not place his hopes for recovery in luring visitors; "tourists are vultures" and the low-wage, often immigrant workers are exploited. Rebuilding in the post-Blitz, capitalist-frenzied contemporary decades, 400 of Richard Seifert's high-rise blocks of "conveyor-belt modernism" failed to beautify the London panorama as had Wren's designs. Traffic, noise, crime, high rents, low quality of life: the new Brutalism left heavy marks. Speculation, it seems, has poisoned London since John Stow lamented it in Elizabeth's era--the first Queen, that is. It can be challenging for a non-resident to follow, but Porter doggedly shows how the urban patterns proliferated. This may be of more use to a specialist or insider or a local, but it's valuable information. Reading lists append this and a good index, but there are no endnotes so his wonderful quotes cannot be traced. The lack of good maps with enough detail to chart the intricate sprawl, moreover, precludes a one-volume understanding of its later growth as told here. He concludes with praising his city as "a muddle that worked." But he is guarded. He doubts "that this good fortune will continue"; again, nearly two decades after this book first appeared, it's intriguing to test his case against what's transpired.
A city and its peoples
By Frkurt Messick on May 18, 2003
Roy Porter, noted and trained as a medical historian, turned his attention to the social development of London, and we are the richer for it. Porter is a Londoner, and has a passion for the city. He is, however, frank in his conviction that London has had it's hour upon the stage: 'London is not the eternal city.... Between the two Elizabeths, between 1570 and 1986 to be more precise, it was to become the world's greatest city.' Porter sees the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC) by Margaret Thatcher as a benchmark to the demise of London as a great city (I happen to disagree; will he change his opinion in light of the upcoming mayoral elections in London?) Porter's current pessimism about London is very apparent from page 1 of the introduction; however, this does not keep him from doing a sterling job with his subject throughout the text. Porter gives brief description to Londinium (mentioning among other things that it was abandoned 'to the dogs' by the Romans in the fifth century), however, begins his history in earnest about the year 1500 because while 'the Romano-British city and its medieval successor have left extensive archaeological remains and chronicles, ...we have no full visual record from before the Tudor age.' Porter examines eras in terms of the history of culture, of commerce and industry, and of population and social changes. The nineteenth century (in which there was practically no urban planning, as any current map will inform you) is described as 'Bumbledom', particularly in the field of London politics. Porter describes the expansion of London as a 'fungus-like growth' in the late 19th/early 20th centuries; he concludes his analysis with chapters on 'Swinging London' and 'Thatcher's London'. Porter leaves us with a question: 'London was always a muddle that worked. Will it remain that way?' In all, a wonderful read, a wonderful story, and a wonderful topic.