Roy Porter’s LONDON: A SOCIAL HISTORY is written from the point of view of London’s present-day crisis and decline, but it depicts the immense vitality that made London the quintessential world city. While acknowledging the city’s history as a part of the larger context of England’s imperial fortunes, Porter focuses on those geographic, economic, and political conditions that have given London its unique character. Ideally situated to be a center of trade, industry, and finance, London’s development as a city of world importance dates from the time of the ascent of the Tudor kings. Although a royal capital since the Middle Ages, London’s relative independence from crown control fostered it’s economic development and at the same time it encouraged a kind of administrative anarchy that hindered serious planning or efficient response to crises such as the devastating fires and pestilence that periodically ravaged the city. On the other hand, London largely escaped the warfare and civil strife that has marked the history of most European capitals.
Porter tells his story with a combination of statistics, historical records, and eyewitness accounts by natives and visitors. Since the sixteenth century, London’s size and complexity have been both a source of horror and bafflement and the key to its effervescent diversity and commercial and cultural vigor. In the process, the Londoner—from the savvy West End financier to the brash East End cockney—has emerged as an enterprising and self-assured actor on the world stage. Porter traces the development of everything from Elizabethan inns to Victorian public works projects, from Georgian church architecture to Edwardian criminal classes. He is particularly informative about London’s diversifying economy and about real estate developments, the stages through which London reached its present configuration of street patterns and architectural styles. As Porter’s narrative reaches the nineteenth century, it is significantly enlivened by a number of first-hand accounts from the middle and working classes. The volume is well illustrated with maps, cityscapes, and selected genre art, and there are essays on further reading for each of the book’s sixteen chapters.