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London: 2000 years of history (channel 5)

Who let Dan Jones out? At least, as in his last outing, he is accompanied both by a historian (Suzannah Lipscomb) and an engineer (Rob Bell), narrating and illustrating almost two millennia of the city’s past.

In the first episode, we were taken through the walled city of “Londinium” being built and rebuilt after Boudicca’s revolt. Whilst Bell showed us the Kent stone from which the original Tower was built, we were told about the Ampitheatre and the remains, near Spitalfields, that include the “Lamb Street Teenager” and the slaves that helped to build the city, strategically located on the Thames. Some archaeology has resulted from the building of Crossrail.
As Roman Britain ended and the Anglo-Saxons arrived, their original city (“Londonwych”) was on a smaller scale. Viking raids followed and Alfred moved the city inside the Roman walls as “Londonburgh”, as broken glass and pottery found near Covent Garden testifies, with the previous entity further east now being known as Aldwych. Although the Vikings took the city, Ethelred II reconquered it and destroyed London Bridge as well.
The programme finished with William I’s coronation on Christmas Day 1066, followed by his rebuilding of the Tower with Norman stone, not to be confused with this historian, with the domes later added by Henry VIII.

The second episode showed us Westminster Abbey, later to be rebuilt at great expense by¬† Henry III, in a smaller city then separate from London, where every coronation since Harold II has taken place, followed by Westminster Hall, where Wallace, Fawkes and Charles I were all sentenced to death. Half of the evolving city’s population fell victim to the Black Death, after which Richard Whittington, younger son of a Gloucestershire knight, really did serve as Mayor three or four times under Richard II and Henry IV. The population then increased exponentially to the days of the wealthy Cardinal Wolsey, who built Whitehall Palace before falling from Henry VIII’s favour, so Henry and his successors occupied it from 1530 until the fire of 1698. This part ended with Elizabeth I knighting Drake aboard the Golden Hind.

Week three covered the Great Fire, which the trio had previously examined in much greater detail, although they did mention Pepys’ description, the probable origin in a Monument Lane bakery, the timber-framed buildings of the old city and the easterly wind that spread the fire. Although we can see the new St. Paul’s today, Wren’s original plan for the area was even more radical, featuring a Glasgow-style grid of streets. London then expanded to the west for merchants and their imports via the Thames, whilst the poor stayed in the east where gin was popular. In the nineteenth century, industrialisation caused the city’s population to rise rapidly, although smog became a factor.
London Bridge became the city’s first rail terminus, in 1836, before Euston was built and Paddington was soon added to serve Brunel’s Great Western lines. The steep hills of Hampstead were overcome through a man-made valley, as Bell showed by visiting the abandoned Highgate station, allowing London to expand to the north. Poor water hygiene caused a cholera outbreak, which Bazalgette’s civil engineering solved with pumping stations, sewers and the reclaiming of land. Heavy traffic then necessitated the strengthening of the ancient bridges. The reclaimed land (Embankment) and Great Fire site (Monument) are both remembered on the Underground map.

The series concluded by pointing out that road congestion was quite possibly worse in 1860 than it is now, as trains were banned from running within two miles of the epicentre at street level. The solution was to run them underground, with the Metropolitan line being started first by “cut and cover” and the Northern line, authentically bored, to follow. Residents moved out of the first engineered areas to the east, leaving Shoreditch and Whitechapel overcrowded with twice the mortality level of London as a whole. By 1890, the capital had five million residents and Charles Booth’s “poverty map” highlighted a quarter of these, with the worst cases in the East End, where “Jack the Ripper” preyed on some of them. From the maps, living conditions were addressed and the worst slums demolished. Following Edward VII’s accession in January 1901, recognisable modern buildings such as Admiralty Arch, the MI5 building and the War Office arose. Visitors could stay in hotels such as the Savoy and shop at Selfridges as we can do today. Suffragettes were active before the First World War, during which they suspended their activities and many worked in armaments manufacture, for instance at the Royal Ordnance factory known as the Woolwich Arsenal.
Air warfare came to London with Zeppelin bombs in 1915. In the remainder of the conflict, there were thirty raids killing forty thousand people, including thirty children at Poplar in 1917. Armistice Day was followed by the “Spanish ‘flu”, which was generally three times as deadly as the war itself, with some 20,000 deaths in London alone. In the following years, houses were built along the expanded Metropolitan Lane, taking in towns such as Pinner and Harrow, and advertised in a “Metroland” magazine to raise the population to 8.6 million. The Blitz brought the Second World War to London a year after the start but, importantly, after the corrugated tin structures known as Anderson shelters were made available. It happened on fifty-seven consecutive nights in the first instance and a total of two million homes were damaged or destroyed. Replacing these and housing Commonwealth immigration from 1948 was hampered by the Green Belt so that London could no longer expand outwards, only upwards. As freight expanded, containers could no longer fit into the Thames so the docks were less busy from the sixties, in favour of more coastal ports. However, Docklands regeneration was initiated in the eighties as the City was pushed eastwards to Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. In a further effort to relieve congestion, the great Crossrail project opens later this year with twenty six miles of new tunnels, forty-two metres below ground, providing a unique archaeological opportunity to view London’s past.

In conclusion, it is possible to enjoy a history programme with Dan Jones, so long as he has at least two colleagues and cannot simply indulge his prejudices against particular figures. The second half of the series was more a social and economic history, which is a further restraint.

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