A large and very detailed book about the history of London, its character and its people.
It is a history of London – but it is also much more than this. It is not just a straight-forward chronological history, starting at the beginning and following the history in a linear fashion. Ackroyd makes the city of London come to life by focusing on particular aspects of London in each chapter and giving us the history of this aspect. For example, there are chapters on trade, law, theatre, noise, light, women and children, etc, etc. Yet, the chronology shines through, from the earliest prehistorical settlements to the development of Docklands and beyond.
Of course all the major events – such as the Plague and the Great Fire of London – are explored in great detail. However, each such exploration draws in certain characteristics of London people and life. For example, in the chapters describing the Plague of 1665, he includes sections on Londoners’ attitude to health and healing – its superstitions and rituals. Thus, not only do we get a picture of the events of that year, but we get a feel for the reactions of the people and the atmosphere of the times.
Some chapters focus on a particular locality: for example, there is one chapter that focuses totally on the neighbourhood of St Giles (roughly between Seven Dials and New Oxford Street), where he describes how this has been an area occupied by the poor and vagrants for centuries. St Giles was the patron saint of lepers and for beggars, cripples and the lonely. The church itself was originally a hospital for lepers and later became a refuge for the poor and homeless. This area has attracted such people ever since.
In a similar way, Ackroyd describes how various parishes – and even individual streets – in London became known for certain types of trades (e.g. silversmiths in Cranbourn Street) – and this still continues to a certain extent today, for reasons that are difficult to explain. Throughout the book this element of continuity within certain localities and communities is one that he returns to with a sense of fascination and wonder.
There are certain events and traditions that have become a part of London’s character, even if they no longer exist. A whole section is devoted to crime and punishment, and this includes chapters on the infamous Newgate Prison, and the regular hangings that were a public spectacle for centuries.
Ackroyd relies on a vast array of primary and secondary sources for his evidence and material. He particularly makes use of artists and writers of the times, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Thackerey, Dickens, Hogarth, Frith, Moore etc, etc. Diarists such as Pepys and Evelyn are of course used, as are memoirs and newspapers.
Subject matters that Ackroyd covers in minute details include the law, noise, trades guilds, tradesmen, darkness, maps, neighbourhoods, theatre & theatricality, fairs, music, language, plague, fire, architecture, crime, punishment, murder, hanging, food, drink, sex, smells, crowds & mobs, flower-sellers, fog, night & day, magic, building, rivers, the underground, houses, outcasts & vagrants, women & children, war, fashion, cockneys etc.
By structuring the book in this way, the reader gets a real sense of the diverse character of London. The tone of the book is often dark and sometimes melancholy – details of abject poverty and oppression are a necessary part of this history – but it is never dismissive, and Ackroyd leaves no stone unturned. We see London in all its delapidated dreariness, yet even through all the darkness, you get a sense of a writer who loves the place – and we as readers come to the end with a greater respect and understanding of our capital city.
This is a large book, and may look an intimidating read at first, but the minute you enter its pages, you will find it almost addictive reading. It is an excellent secondary source for anyone who wantsto research London as part of their work or studies, and a definite must for any Londoner, ex-Londoner or would-be-Londoner!