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'London- The Biography' by Peter Ackroyd (2000)

As a South Londoner and someone proud of his London heritage I had been looking forward to reading probably the best book written on the Capital -Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London -The Biography’ (2000)- a mere 800+ page opus. I recently got a primer for it through the 3 part documentary series that was based on the book that is now available on You Tube – details to view them are at the end of my blog.

Ackroyd is really a cultural and history giant of London- brought up in East Acton and having written biographies of London greats such as Chaplin, Dickens and Hitchcock, he certainly knows his onions.

Unlike other authors, Ackroyd writes in themes rather than in a strict chronology sequence- with the result that he is able to bring together and discuss similar events centuries apart – the Poll Tax riots of 1989 are seen as a modern manifestation of previous violent protests like the burning of Newgate prison in the 1780s as part of what became known as the ‘Gordon Riots’.

To begin at the beginning as they say, Ackroyd is good when he talks about Roman London being attacked by Queen Boadicea (who got as far as sunny Plumstead!) and her armies. She had ruled the Britons in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire around AD 60. She and her armies of around 300,000 took the likes of St Albans, Colchester and then eventually London, but her short reign there was ultra-violent as up to 80,000 people perished in the fighting. A sign of her violence is that female romans were run through on spikes and had their breasts sewn onto their mouths- Boadicea was not a liberal. She was eventually defeated but Ackroyd points out that one reason why so much of the ground and clay around the City of London is red is that was the impact of the burning of iron and metal during the clashes for good old Londinium.

Moving forward, Peter Ackroyd points out how dark and violent London has been down the ages-people attended in their droves to witness executions of thieves and thugs in places such as Tyburn (close to Marble Arch)- and such was impact that it led to affluent Londoners wanting to distance themselves from such acts. So, that led to the creation of convent gardens and squares where people could avoid such decadence.

London has of course seen huge growth over its life – Ackroyd makes the point that in just 100 years its population went from just 1m to 5m-and it could no longer cope, and it took the likes of Henry Mayhew in the 19th century to write his seminal ‘London Labour and Life’ for society to sit up and take notice of the amount of abject poverty in the city. One theme that Mayhew was surprised by was that even though there were ways out of this poverty a number of London families refused to move and preferred what you could call ‘territorial pride’.

One of the points that is made is how certain parts of London have emerged. For example, Anglo Saxons forced Britons to live in East London which was described at the time as “London at its worst” (I'm saying nothing!). Other parts of London came into being of course due to the creation of the railways and the tube- leading to the suburbs being created.

Parts of our history that I was only vaguely aware of are covered in great detail such as the Gordon Riots of 1780 which became a protest about the relaxation of restrictions on Catholics. This led to 10,000 people marching into the central of London shouting “No Popery” and 700 people dying.

The social fabric of London is also covered well. Ackroyd points out that in the 1700s there were around 17,000 Gin Shops that were set up in the capital and where that drink became the scourge of the nation. It was once said of it “Drink for a penny, dead drunk for two pence and a clean straw for nothing”. Mothers would feed their babies on gin and generally the poor of London became addicted to the demon brew.

Ackroyd seems especially good when discussing the dark underbelly of London -he mentions for example the suicide off the Woolwich Ferry in 1948. He has talked openly about London’s “power, majesty, darkness and shadows”.

He also talks and writes especially well about the spiritual connection between Londoners down the centuries. Some years ago, he said this:

I truly believe that there are certain people to whom or through whom the territory, the place, the past speaks…Is it not possible that within London and within its culture are patterns of sensibility or patterns of response which have persisted from the 13th and 14th centuries and perhaps even beyond?”

Well said, Sir!

Please visit these links below to catch the 3 episode documentaries of Peter Ackryod’s important work:


BBC Peter Ackroyd London Part 1: Fire and Destiny - YouTube

BBC Peter Ackroyd London Part 2: Crowd - YouTube

Peter Ackroyd's London - 3/3 Water and Darkness - YouTube

Tags: London, Peter Ackroyd, Biography, Gin, You Tube, Bodicea, Romans