Discover more from Londonist: Time Machine
How Can I Discover More About London History?
The best web resources, archives, blogs, social media, podcasts and more.
In this week’s Londonist: Time Machine, I’ve picked out some of my favourite resources for getting your claws into history. Books, podcasts, blogs, archives, social media accounts, and anything else that helps us make sense of our city’s infinite past. That’s for the main part of the newsletter but, first, an announcement and the History Radar.
📣📣 FIRST MEETUP! 📣📣 I’ve always wanted this newsletter to be more than some words on a screen, and so you’re going to start hearing about meetups and visits to historical sites. To kick things off, we’re going to have a small gathering over some drinks in an historic London pub on 27 September — first round on me! This debut gathering is for paid subscribers only, with more details to come in the Friday paid-subscriber newsletter.
If you’re not already a paid subscriber, have a think about it. It’s good value — cheaper than the price of a pint per month (depending on where you buy your pint). For that, you get access to our meetups and site visits, two additional emails per week (including, this week, “5 quirky bits of history to spot on Fleet Street”), and the full archive. Subscribing also helps us put together this newsletter without advertising or other commercial intrusions. The button below will give you more details.
🐀☠️ BLACK DEATH: We've seen first-hand how the government reacted to and dealt with the Covid pandemic. On 15 September (Friday), the National Archives offers a look at how officials dealt with the Black Death of 1348, from plague pits to labour restrictions, and how those lost were commemorated. The online talk at 2pm is given by Euan Roger, Principal Medieval Records Specialist at The National Archives.
🚌 VINTAGE BUSES: Fancy a free ride on a heritage bus (which looks nothing like the one in the emoji)? Next weekend, 16 September, you can hop on a vintage bus between Victoria and Hackney (route 38) totally free of charge. Buses from the 50s and 60s, including Routemasters and RTs, will run every 10 minutes between 10am and 5pm. No booking possible — just turn up on the route and stick out your hand to hail the bus. Part of Heritage Open Days.
🕍🕋 OPEN HOUSE: This year’s festival of architecture continues over the coming weekend, so do take a look at their programme — some marvellous old buildings to explore. The organisers at Open City have asked me to put out a call for next year’s programme. They’d love to hear from anybody with access to an architecturally interesting building, such as a home or office, which might be made available for tours in 2024. If you live in an historic house or work in a peculiar building and can arrange access — or are interested in giving an architecturally themed tour — then do get in touch with the organisers via their Contributors page.
🏚🎨 SPITALFIELDS HOUSE: You know that ridiculously photogenic rose-hued and battered house on Princelet Street? The one that almost always has a posing model or film crew outside? Well, in October, you’ve got a chance to step inside. The former Huguenot weavers’ house at 4 Princelet Street will host an exhibition of work by artist Christo, arranged by the Gagosian. Whether you’re into his conceptual art or not, this is a rare chance to step into one of east London’s architectural icons.
☠🪦 CROSSBONES: One of London’s more unusual historic sites is the Crossbones graveyard, a little south of Borough Market. It’s an old, unconsecrated burial ground for paupers that had fallen into obscurity until resurrected by a small number of volunteers. It is now a peace garden, where people leave ribbons and other tokens of remembrance. Long-time London chronicler Paul Slade has just updated his book about this enigmatic site. The Outcast Dead outlines the history of the site, and includes interviews with many of the people connected with the graveyard. The new edition contains 40 pages of brand-new material covering developments at the site over the past ten years. You can get a copy from Amazon or direct from the author.
Now, on to the main event…
How to Discover More About London History
Having published a dozen weekly instalments of Londonist: Time Machine, I thought now would be a good moment to pause from the narrative history and take a peek behind the curtain. What are the best tools and resources for learning about London’s history? I’ve been writing about our city now for 20 years, and the following resources have been most invaluable.
1. Walk around with your eyes open
I’m putting this one first because I genuinely think it’s the best way to learn about the city’s history. Reading books or watching documentaries will probably throw more facts at you in quick succession, but the lived experience of ambling around the streets, looking at stuff, is much more gluey on the memory. At least, it is for me.
What to look for? Well, central London is abundantly blessed with information boards, plaques and memorials at every turn. You can learn a good deal by paying attention to these. But there’s more to it. Note the slopes of the streets, and you’ll glean much about where ancient rivers once flowed. An unexpected bend in an otherwise straight road can suggest similar. Royal cyphers on post boxes or the presence of coal holes can reveal the age of a street. A mature tree in an urban setting can hint at a former use for the site. Street names often bear local history connections. And so on. I’m planning a future newsletter where we explore these historical clues more closely. Until then, scrutinise everything!
2. Newspaper archives
Imagine you could type in a street address, or person’s name and view every time they had ever been mentioned in the newspapers. Well you can, and it’s a doddle. Scanned, searchable newspapers have been readily available for over a decade now. The best-established is the British Newspaper Archive which, at time of writing, has scanned and search-keyed 70 million pages of newsprint going back to 1700. New, but even bigger is Newspapers.com, which claims a staggering 900 million pages scanned from international newspapers.
Such sites are often marketed at family historians (the two mentioned above are owned by Findmypast and Ancestry.com, respectively), but they’re also superb for digging out tidbits that you won’t find in the history books.
To give just three examples, I’ve used the archives to discover a time the Pope considered moving to London, how Fitzrovia got its name earlier than had previously been acknowledged, and how the first person fined for riding a bike on a pavement was a beadle.
These sites do charge a subscription fee, but it’s more than worth it if you’re addicted to history (family or otherwise). You may be able to access these or other online archives via your local library. Alternatively, there’s the Australian site Trove. It’s free to use, though is naturally focussed on Australian periodicals (which do frequently syndicate articles from the US and UK).
3. Archives and libraries
London contains a bounty of libraries and specialist archives. I’ve only space for a handful here, so I’ve set out those that are arguably the most important for those researching the history of London. For many other suggestions, see this epic list maintained on Wikipedia.
London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell is the well-known but most important archival centre for anybody concerned with London’s history. They’ve got everything from parish records to historic maps, with millions of images and video files, along with collections from external companies and organisations (for example, Olympia exhibition centre). Digital material is openly accessible, but for original documents, you’ll need to apply for a History Card and show photo ID.
Guildhall Library in the Square Mile also holds a stupendous collection of material about London — mostly in book form, but with extensive archives of other documentation. I’ve spent whole afternoons just browsing through their shelves with no real project in mind. While you’re visiting, be sure to pop into the adjacent, and recently opened, London Centre, which is home to three exceptional models of central London.
The Black Cultural Archives in Brixton contains thousands of records documenting the history of people of African and Caribbean descent in Britain (and particularly London). The collection not only includes official documents, but also a wide range of ephemera, photographs, personal papers, periodicals and even objects.
The National Archives at Kew are the place to go for official records pertaining to the UK government and its dealings. That includes legal records, military service records and a huge collection of maps and drawings.
Besides these city-wide archives, each of London’s 32 boroughs has its own local history centre, where you can find detailed records about the people and places of that area. Some have local museums attached, too. GENUKI has compiled a handy list.
4. Web resources
Layers of London: The most important site to know about if you’re interested in London maps. Layers of London, from the University of London, holds a large collection of digital maps, including the John Rocque map of 1746, the bomb-damage maps from the second world war, and excellent recreations of medieval and Tudor London. Each can be overlaid over a modern map, or over each other. Add to this dozens of data sets that place pins over the map (for example, showing the homes of slave owners, or locations from Dickens novels), and you have the best free mapping tool on the web for London. The only downside is that it’s a bit clunky to use, and it doesn’t seem to like Chrome browser for some reason.
London Remembers: This site’s goal is a simple one: to photograph and transcribe every plaque and memorial in London. At the time of writing, London Remembers includes some 7,000 memorials commemorating 70,000 subjects (people, events, etc.). It’s a remarkable tally when you consider the site is put together almost entirely by one person (who wishes to remain anonymous), over many years of walking or cycling the streets. And all this without adverts or any form of commercialism. This remarkable site is very useful for finding out more information about a particular memorial, or searching across London on a particular topic (e.g. show me all the plaques about cricket).
Collage: One of the best photo archives of London, drawn from the collections of London Metropolitan Archives and Guildhall Gallery. It contains a quarter of a million historic images. What sets it apart from other collections is that the images have been pinned onto a map, so you can easily search for images in a particular part of the city.
Londonist and Londonist: Time Machine aren’t the only sites to regularly dip into the capital’s past, of course. Here are a few favourite blogs that you should keep an eye on:
Spitalfields Life: The “Gentle Author’s” daily posts almost always carry an historical theme. One day, he might be publishing the memoirs of an early 20th-century street sweeper; the next he’s taking a photo tour of a derelict East End church. The blog is centered on Spitalfields, but regularly casts its net wider.
Diamond Geezer: Mr Geezer recently celebrated 21 years of blogging. His daily updates mostly concern the minutiae of London (he keeps spreadsheets of everything), often with an historical bent. I’ve read every single instalment since 2005 and I’m pretty confident the site will be compared with Pepys by future historians. It’s that good.
Ian Visits: Ian’s site features regular London news and event ideas. But he also dives deep into London’s history, particularly with regards to transport and historic buildings. (Oh, and alleyways. He writes a lot about alleyways.)
A London Inheritance: This weekly blog usually takes an old photograph, leaflet or book as inspiration to explore an area or topic in great depth. Sometimes, we get an essay on just one street, shop or historic plaque; other times, the blog covers bigger themes such as a recent dive into the upheavals caused by construction of the M25.
6. Podcasts and video
Podcasting tech and know-how has now advanced to the point where many shows are as well (or better) produced and researched as mainstream radio. And there’s plenty for history fans to get their teeth into. The best known in the UK is The Rest is History, hosted by seasoned broadcasters Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. Topics are wide-ranging but often have a London interest, such as the recent (and excellent) two-parter regarding the fashions of the Swingin’ 60s.
The Ladies Who London are blue badge tour guides Alex Lacey and Fiona Lukas. Each week they tackle a big story from London’s history in a conversational but knowledgeable style. Recent topics include would-be Crown Jewel thief Colonel Blood, and aviation pioneer Amy Johnson. An impressive archive of 150 or so shows should keep you going for a while.
Of similar vintage is the London History Podcast, at 115 episodes at time of writing. Tour guide Hazel Baker presents well-researched, themed episodes concerning everything from women’s rights activists to Crossness pumping station.
The best YouTube channel for London history is undoubtedly that of John Rogers. For years (and +500 videos), John has ventured out on epic walks around the capital, documenting his progress. His thoughtful explorations offer glimpses into parts of London that most of us will never visit. I once described him as “the Brian Cox of topology, inspiring wonder and curiosity on esoteric subjects (without using complicated words like topology and esoteric).”
7. Social media accounts
The social media landscape is awash with people who are passionate about our city’s history. Two of the biggest include @look_uplondon and @livinglondonhistory, who both dispense delicious snippets of hidden history on their Instagram reels (and Twitter/X). @londonsuburbia and @notonlycentrallondon, meanwhile, seek out the most interesting historic buildings in suburban London and capture beautiful photographs. @london.pubs.of.old does what it says on the tin, sharing archive photos of the (usually vanished) pubs of old London.
8. Member organisations
One of the most rewarding ways to learn more about London history is to join a member organisation. You’ll not only have access to talk and newsletters, but you’ll also get to know a bunch of people with similar interests. Here are three of the biggest:
London Historians has been running now for well over a decade. It’s a small-fee membership organisation for anyone with an interest in the city’s history (including lots of tour guides). They run regular site visits to places of historical interest, as well as talks and quizzes (often hosted by me, as it happens).
The London Society is more venerable, having been created a couple of months before the Titanic’s fateful journey in 1912. It’s another membership organisation, with regular talks and walks, and the occasional behind-the-scenes tour. It’s not entirely historical in its outlook, with a focus on development, city planning and infrastructure. The Society has just published a book, London of the Future, which will appeal to readers who’ve enjoyed this newsletter’s “Past Futures” series.
The London Topographical Society is older still, with roots stretching back to 1880. Members can attend the popular AGM with fellow enthusiasts, and keep up to date with informative newsletters at other times. The biggest incentive to join, I’m told, is the free book sent to members each year, which is often worth substantially more than the £20 joining fee. (Membership comes through the suitably antiquated means of posting off a form to a membership secretary!)
How many books have been written about London? Literally tons. Guildhall Library reckons to hold 200,000 “printed materials” about the city, most of which will be books. If we laid them end to end, we’d be looking at something like 40km. And if each one contains an average of 100 pages, that’s 4,000km of print to read through. Put another way, that enough reading matter to run 21 times around the M25.
So any recommendations I make will be a woefully under-representative of the whole. My best tip is to just read everything and anything you can get your hands on. For me, and many others, a cherished starting point was Peter Ackroyd’s London The Biography from 2000. It’s a masterpiece of history-as-storytelling (even if he does use the word “noisome” a few too many times). Likewise, anything by Iain Sinclair will give you plenty of London succour, though his convoluted narratives and impossible erudition can put some people off. My tip with him is to listen to the audiobooks, where his poetic style shines most brightly.
In terms of reference books, John Richardson’s The Annals of London (2000) has been a constant companion. It’s basically a chronology of the city, but one that throws up some delicious details. For architectural history, the six-volume Pevsner’s guides are as vital as ever, and Ian Nairn’s London books are like Pevsner with a sense of humour.
I could (and perhaps should) write a whole article on London books, with some lesser known recommendations, but I fear this newsletter is already running away from me. If you want one final suggestion then, of course, there’s also Everything You Know About London is Wrong, by a chap called Matt Brown.
We hope you enjoyed this newsletter from Londonist: Time Machine. Please do leave a comment below if you’ve got your own tips on learning more about London’s history. And feel free to contact Matt on firstname.lastname@example.org (or @MattFromLondon on the service formerly known as Twitter) with any feedback or suggestions. And remember to tell your history-loving friends all about us. Next week: The man who discovered a quarter of the universe from Finchley Road.