By Chet Yarbrough
London: A Short History of the Greatest City in the Western World)
By: The Great Courses
Narrated by: Robert Bucholz
Robert O. Bucholz (Professor at Loyola University in Chicago, Graduate of Oxford and Cornell.)
Robert Bucholz’s brief history of London walks the curious through ancient and modern streets of London. Like John Wayne in “True Grit”, this history shows what grit means to British Londoners. Possibly as far back as 1750 BC, archeological remains show evidence of a community on the Thames that later becomes the site of London. Around the year 43 AD Londinium was founded by the Romans. It became the capital of Roman Britain with a population estimated at 60,000 inhabitants.
King Aethelberhtl (589-616AD.)
The Saxons displace the Romans in the 5th century AD. An Anglo-Saxon (mixture of German and British descendants) was established as King. His name is Aethelberht (spelling varies). He was the first Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity.
Bucholz notes Saint Mellitus is the first bishop of London appointed when a Cathedral is dedicated to St. Paul in AD 604. Though the site (the highest point in the city, Ludgate Hill) is the same today as then, the original cathedral evolved and was replaced four times.
It was destroyed in the “Great Fire of London” in 1666 and soon after rebuilt to its current form at the direction of Christopher Wren.
In 1066 the Saxons are replaced by the Normans (mixture of Vikings and French). They rule into the 1400s when the Tudor’ monarchs (a mixture of Welsh and English) come to power. King Henry VII, and then Henry VIII take charge.
King Henry VIII (1491-1547, Coronation 1509)
It is the reign of Henry VIII that is most well-known, in part, because of the split that occurs between the Roman Catholic Church and England’s Protestant Anglican Church. The other reason Henry becomes well-known is because of his future wife, Anne Boleyn, whom he has beheaded. The consequence of church schism reverberates through the rest of London’s history.
Bucholz gives a brief history of Chaucer who is born around 1340 and lives until 1400. Chaucer lives in the heart of London. Though Chaucer is known to most as the author of the Canterbury Tales, he is an important servant of the crown as comptroller of customs at the Port of London.
Bucholz reminds his audience of the first Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She is shown as a consummate politician by opening herself to the London public.
The wealth of the empire was diminished by the devaluation of money and profligacy of King Henry the VIII. Elizabeth’s political skill replenishes the royal coffers. London grows to an estimated 200,000 residents. Though the wealth of the royal coffers improves, poverty rises dramatically. Bucholz notes the population increase in London rises faster than the economic benefits to its people. The increase is not from natural births but from the country people moving into the city in greater numbers than can be handled by the local economy. Bucholz notes more babies die than needed to replace the population that dies from natural causes.
Bucholz briefly recounts the unsuccessful gunpowder revolution during James I’s reign (1601-1625). James I is not a popular King. Though he manages to bring Scotland into the empire, the rift between Catholics and protestants continues to roil the country. At the same time, poverty increases as London’s population expands.
Jumping to the 1800s, Bucholz addresses the consequence of London’s rapid growth. Now the population is nearing a million. Pollution, crime, and poverty are aggravated by industrialization. Crime is an everyday reality ranging from pickpockets to, to prostitution, to the infamous “Jack the Ripper” murders. The Thames is a running sewer, streets are spottily paved, the city is dark or poorly lit by candles, burning torches are carried by guides who will pick your pocket as often as guide you through the city.
The infamous London fog is caused by coal burning factories and home heating demands. This is the London which Charles Dickens writes of in “A Christmas Carol”, “Oliver Twist”, “Great Expectations” and “A Tale of Two Cities”.
Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850, Home Secy, Chancellor of ther Exchequer, Prime Minister served from1828-1846.)
Each 19th century problem is attacked by London’s leaders. In 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel forms a municipal police force. Initially, it was formed for the countryside on the outskirts of London but became institutionalized and eventually adopted within the London city boundaries. Those who were employed in these new police wore uniforms, including distinctive hats. They became known as “Bobbies”, possibly because of Peel’s first name. By 1851, there were 13,000 police across England and Wales.
Cholera infected the London’s population because of Thames’ pollution.
By 1858, the stink from the Thames was so great in the summer that one had to hold their nose. Cholera and the stink of the river dropped dramatically when a large system of sewers was built. It was commissioned by the Metropolitan Board of Works which became the London County Council in 1889. It was designed by Joseph Bazalgette, an English civil engineer. It took 9 years to build with future repairs and improvements as the years passed and the population continued to grow.
Its estimated length is around 82 miles of brick main sewers and 1,100 miles of street sewers.
Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891, English Civil Engineer.)
A British Clean Air Act was passed in 1956. The key to its abatement was the reduction of coal burning particle emissions. Of course, pollution remains a worldwide problem.
London fog worsened through to the 1950s. In December 1952, the pollution level grew so dense, 150,000 people were hospitalized and an estimated 4,000 died.
Bucholz reminds listeners of Londoner’s grit during WWI and WWII. WWI introduces the reality of war to every 20th and 21st century human. The consequence of war never leaves those who experience it. PTSD is not diagnosed in WWI but found as an incurable disorder in all subsequent wars. It is never cured but many have learned how to live with it. With the help of friends and medical assistance, PTSD is managed by many but not all.
Visiting London today is a great pleasure. It has some of the greatest theatres, museums, and entertainments of the world. Bucholz’s history of London shows political unrest, pollution, poverty, and crime are killers but there are solutions.