The History Of London Course By Dr Matthew Green

Welcome lovers of London! Today we’ll be looking at a very interesting course, all about London across the centuries. It is the History of London course by Dr Matthew Green (same guy from the 17th Century Coffeehouse Tour) and I have to say, it is one of the most enjoyable course setting experiences I’ve had.

The course itself runs for 6 weeks, going through several periods of London’s expansion and touching on some major cultural points of each era, so let’s continue and have a look at a few of them.

Part 1: Medieval London

The course begins at medieval times, transporting you through time with smooth transitions between fascinating panoramas of the city and metaphorical zooming ins to slices of city life. Going through jousting tournaments, the justice system whose punishments meant to publicly ridicule offenders and strange fashion laws, you get to imagine everything from life in the Tower of London to an evening inside a medieval inn. Hint: it was not particularly pleasant.

Part 2: Elizabethan London

Shakespeare’s London was a time when immigration saw the population grow to 200 thousand and as it seems most of them had quite gruesome hobbies. Bear and bull baiting was a very popular passtime, even the Queen would attend, while playhouses were kept outside the city walls to avoid crime, plagues and sacrilege. You will also find out a few more facts about Shakespeare’s life, one of them being that his plays would start at 2pm as well as some of the history around his famous Globe theatre.

Fun Fact 1: The phrase to steal one’s thunder comes from this era, when a thunder sound effect from a play that got shut down (because everyone hated it) was stolen by a rival company and used for their play instead. The horrified writer stood up in the theatre and called them out for stealing his thunder and the phrase stuck.

The era also saw Sir Francis Drake going around the globe on the Golden Hinde, the rise of tobacco smoking which was proclaimed to have various outlandish health benefits (Tobacco Dock has existed since that time), printing around Fleet Street, mainly by Caxton’s apprentice, Wynkyn de Worde, as well as extensive theory behind garden creation; labyrinths were quite popular as they symbolised the path to salvation.

Fun Fact 2: A labyrinth only has 1 path, while a maze has lots of paths and dead ends.

Part 3: Plague London

This week looks into the causes and reactions to the plague, with a look inside an apothecary shop (think of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter) and the birth of the cosmetic industry; makeup and fun shaped patches were popular to cover spots and as odd as you would expect. The prison system at the time is also an interesting topic to look at, including the conditions inside the infamous Newgate prison. Some things that luckily have not made it to the present day include boiling the heads of executed prisoners and placing them on spikes, forcing people to plea innocent or guilty by putting weights on their chest in the pressyard and attending your own funeral before you die in front of an open casket, all of which were popular spectacles for locals and visitors at the time.

On the other end of the city, the west end had started developing, new squares (Covent Garden, Bloomsbury Square, Soho Square and St Jame’s Square) had popped up with big expensive developments around them. Of course those were mainly for the rich, and most of the time so were the chocolate houses, where you could spend your evening gambling your fortune on dice, while sipping hot chocolate with vanilla, cinnamon, hot spices and allegedly human blood. White’s and Berry Brothers were two of the most famous ones.

However, soon 4/5 of the city would be destroyed, due to the great fire that started from Pudding Lane, and, expanding rapidly due to the wind, destroyed around 11 thousand houses. Luckily, only 25% of the population were in the City so not as many lives were lost.

Part 4: Georgian London

This era is my personal favourite, with a lot of interesting cultural developments and dubious ways of entertainment, see the jellyhouses, a place where men paid prostitutes to eat jelly in front of them. The main news of the era however were the coffeehouses. The lapse of censorship laws in 1695 meant that information was now circulating freely and coffeehouses were hubs of new ideas and social interaction. The very first thing you would hear upon entering was ‘Your servant sir, what news from Tripoli?’ or ‘What news have you’ for short [Quid novi? if you happened to walk into the latin coffee house] and you were then expected to share some new piece of information with the patrons before taking up your seat. Coffee houses were also a great place to exchange commercial information, especially those close to the Royal Exchange. You can read my review of the 17th Century Coffee House Tour for more info on the topic.

In other news, the more affluent classes enjoyed visiting the city in sedan chairs carried by Irish men (if the chair was available it would be carried backwards) for the new available entertainments, including shopping. Shops denoted their products by big signs, whose imagery was usually a play on words, as a lot of people would have been unable to read actual writing. For example Adam & Eve would indicate an apple shop, the sun would be selling books, a civet cat meant perfume, a unicorn meant pharmacy and the world’s end showed that the shop was at the edge of town.

Other popular entertainments of the era included Freezeland Fairs, which were set up on the Thames when its surface froze. DOs: Get a memento ‘printed on ice’. DON’Ts: sink and die when the ice thaws (it happened more often than you would hope). A visit to Bedlam hospital, which would only set you back 2 pence, was also considered a fun way to spend your day, laughing at all the mentally ill inmates and marvelling at the great building that housed them, a metaphor for the strength of the fabric of society. For some extra fun there was also the Tyburn fair, located where Marble Arch is today. There you could watch a hanging and listen to what the prisoners would say before they were hanged (speakers’ corner is a remnant of that tradition).

Fun Fact 3: The soon to be hanged had the right to stop at a pub for a free pint, bought by the other patrons. They would then say ‘I’ll buy you one on the way back’ which of course would not happen. The phrase ‘one for the road’ originates from this.

Part 5: Victorian London

With the population growing to 4.6 million people, the rise of anonymity and technological developments, Londoners were suddenly living in a very different world. Railways and horse buses brought even more people to the capital every day for work, and curiosities kept them interested in the world around them. From Mr Jamrach’s exotic animals (lions, tigers, elephants) and freak shows with bearded women and the elephant man to slumming, where the rich would tour Whitechapel to see what the ‘people of the abyss’ were up to, in what could be called poverty porn, and to actual porn in Holywell Street, which had to be entirely demolished to get rid of the porn hub in the area.

The era also saw a reform of education, a lot of it thanks to Dr Barnardo and the introduction of the Underground trains, which ran over 300 million journeys per year. A new form of entertainment were music halls, where people went to drink sherry or gin, have jacket potatoes and watch a variety of shows in the same night, including blackface singing, dancing dogs, cyclists playing music, tightrope dentalists, sword swallowing, ventriloquists, dioramas, ballet, talking ducks, from imitators and stilt walkers.

Part 6: Blitz & Recovery

With 30 thousand civilians lost in the Blitz, out of the 8.5 million London had at the time, and a lot of properties destroyed, the post war years saw a boom in new developments, with a number of housing estates being built to make up for all the homes that were destroyed (their target was 3 thousand new homes per year).

The era also saw the rise of the teenager, with young people having disposable income for the first time. It was the right time for rock ’n’ roll and new coffee bars sprang up, like the famous 2is coffee bar, where David Bowie and Cat Stevens made their early appearances. Surprisingly all you could drink was coffee and milk; no alcohol was available. On the other side of the city, in Chelsea, the hub of the bohemians could be found, with rich extravagant fashions, a lot of it centred around Bazaar, the boutique opened by Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene.

And the story of London goes on…

The most important lesson this course has to teach is not just history; it is London’s mentality and ability to survive, grow and evolve. It is also noteworthy how in every era Londoners thought the city was too big, too chaotic, only for it to grow exponentially to new levels. London’s resilience has made it the city we know (and love) now and taking a look through its history and development feels like browsing a friend’s photo album (or old facebook posts) and finding out what made them who they are.

To join the next History of London course follow this link. You can also read a lot of the info included in the course in Dr Green’s book London: A Travel Guide Through Time or join one of his walking tours focusing on specific topics like coffee houses, gin and medieval wine.

For more fun things to do in London and abroad check out my blog Kristine’s Albion Adventures