A Brief Introduction
London is the capital and largest city of the United Kingdom. The city (coterminous with the county of Greater London) covers 1,580 sq./km (610 sq./mi.) and has a population of over 8,000,000. The first settlement, the Roman Londinium, was founded in AD 43 on a terrace near the north bank of the River Thames, 64 km (40 mi.) from its estuary on the North Sea. The river is tidal, and London has been a port for seagoing vessels since the Roman period. London's size and population mirror the city's economic importance; it is one of the world's leading financial and insurance centers, as well as an important industrial city.
London's climate is one of mild winters and cool summers. Rainfall is heaviest in the months of October and November. The city has a reputation for severe fog as a result of the damp air combined with atmospheric pollution. The pollution, however, has been much reduced in recent years.
The Contemporary City
London is a multiracial city, with a large immigrant population from Britain's former colonies, especially from South Asia and the West Indies. Some quarters of the city are dominated by specific ethnic groups - for example, Paddington, Notting Hill, and Brixton.
Economy and Transportation
London is Great Britain's foremost manufacturing center, with light and consumer-goods industries predominating. Food processing is important, as are electronics, light metals, pharmaceuticals, and printing. Most branches of heavy industry are located to the east, near the docks, and include petroleum refining and metalworking. London is also the country's main banking and financial center and contains the chief commodity markets. London is one of the largest ports in the United Kingdom. The docks formerly were located near London Bridge in the city center. In recent years these inner docks have been replaced by larger and more modern facilities to the east. The important Tilbury docks are located more than 10 km (6 mi.) outside the city limits. London attracts millions of visitors each year, and tourism, especially in the summer, is a major industry and contributor to the economy.
London is linked with all parts of the country by roads and railroads that radiate from the city. Transportation within the city is by means of a complex but efficient subway system - the Underground - and by an even more complex surface system of bus routes. The principal airport is at Heathrow, 26 km (16 mi.) to the west of the city center, although it is supplemented by Gatwick to the south and Stansted to the north.
Since 1965, the city of London has been coterminous with the county of Greater London. Thus the city is composed of the Corporation of the City of London (the historic core of the city covering only 2.6 sq./km. = 1 sq./mi.), the 13 inner boroughs surrounding the City, and the 19 outer boroughs. Each borough elects its own government council, and, until March 1986, the elected Greater London Council (GLC) coordinated regional planning and services. With the abolition of the GLC, many of its functions initially went to centrally appointed boards, but by 1990 borough councils had assumed most functions.
Education and Culture
Because of London's long history as Britain's leading city, it abounds with major educational and cultural institutions. The University of London is the largest institution of higher education in the United Kingdom. Its 14 colleges, scattered throughout the city, enroll more than 88,000 students. The British Library houses one of the finest general collections in the world, and many specialized libraries contain significant collections. Museums and galleries are of exceptional importance, notably the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. London also contains the headquarters of most of the United Kingdom's learned and cultural societies. Several orchestras and other musical groups as well as ballet, opera, and theater companies perform in the city's many halls, including Covent Garden and the modern Royal Festival Hall (built 1951). London is no less a center of sports, especially tennis (the famed Wimbledon championships are played in the city), soccer, and cricket.
One of London's oldest landmarks is the Tower of London. The former royal residence located along the Thames was begun by William I (the Conqueror) about 1079 and later served as a prison. Tower Bridge, a distinctive Victorian structure, crosses the Thames beside the Tower. To the west lies the City, the heart of London and its financial district. The 17th-century Saint Paul's Cathedral is located there, as are the Bank of England, Mansion House (residence of the lord mayor), and many other landmarks. One of the bridges flanking the City is London Bridge; the original wooden bridge (built 963-75) has been replaced many times, and it is now a six-lane concrete structure.
West of the City, the Thames bends about 90 degrees to the south, where the borough of Westminster is located on the west bank. The Houses of Parliament are topped by the famous clock tower, Big Ben. Westminster Abbey stands beside them. Many government buildings, including 10 Downing Street, the residence of the British prime minister, are nearby. Trafalgar Square contains the famous statue of Lord Nelson, commemorating his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. The Mall, a long road cutting through Saint James's Park, ends at Buckingham Palace, the residence of the royal family. Soho, where many of London's restaurants and nightclubs are located, is near the main shopping district of Regent and Oxford streets and Piccadilly. North and east of Piccadilly Circus lies the theater district. Regent's Park (the site of London Zoo) is located to the north of this general area, and to the west is Hyde Park, where the Marble Arch and Speaker's Corner are found; Kensington Gardens adjoins Hyde Park on the west. To the south lie Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Kensington, and Chelsea, all fashionable residential areas. The last also became famous in the 1960s as a center of bohemian life.
London was founded as the Roman town of Londinium in AD 43, and the Roman wall, patched and repaired, continued to protect the medieval city. The importance of London declined following the 5th century, during the period of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions. Gradually, however, the importance of the city's site along the Thames reasserted itself, and it became a prosperous trade center. In the early 11th century London became the seat of government of the last Anglo-Saxon kings, and in 1066, when the Normans invaded Britain, William the Conqueror granted London its charter and made the city his capital.
Throughout the Middle Ages, London was the political center, largest city, and chief port of England. New palaces replaced the Tower as the royal residence - notably Westminster, Whitehall, and St. James's. The royal court was located in London much of the time, and the city became a great cultural center. London reached a new level of preeminence during the reign (1558-1603) of Queen Elizabeth I. William Shakespeare's plays were first performed in the Globe Theatre, book publishing began, and London became the center of England's newly emerging foreign trade.
By the 17th century, London was a crowded city of narrow and twisting streets. Outbreaks of the plague between 1625 and 1665 claimed more than 75,000 lives. Buildings were largely of wood, and a disastrous fire in 1666 consumed much of the city. The rebuilding of the city was distinguished by the work of the architect Sir Christopher Wren. He rebuilt Saint Paul's Cathedral and more than 50 city churches.
In the 18th century, the city again began to grow. Elegant housing was built to the west and northwest of the old city, and London became the focus not only of politics but also of literary and artistic society.
During the 19th century, building activity continued, especially in the inner boroughs, with industrial suburbs spreading to the northeast and east of the city and the docks and dock-related industries spreading downriver. At the same time, straight, elegant streets were constructed through the congested inner city and open spaces such as Trafalgar Square were created. The 19th century was also a period of reform and establishment of municipal services: in 1829, Sir Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force, whose "bobbies" were named after him; in 1890 the world's first electric underground railroad was built.
During the 20th century, the suburbs continued to grow until 1935, when a Green Belt law was instituted to control further growth beyond a ring of parks. During World War II, London suffered heavy bombing, resulting in about 30,000 casualties and destroying entire sections of the city. The greatest change of recent years has come from the subsequent rebuilding; the London skyline is today one of tower blocks rather than of spires and church towers. In 1963 the Greater London Council was established, with governmental jurisdiction over Greater Metropolitan London, newly created from the former London and Middlesex counties. This elected unit was abolished in 1986.
Norman J. G. Pounds
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© 1997 Grolier Interactive Inc.