Whether you know the history of London or not, I think we can all agree that it’s an incredible city… right? I mean, even if you have no idea what happened in a particular building or why a specific monument was created, you can still appreciate its age and beauty.
But understanding the fascinating, troubling, strange and diverse history of London only makes a visit to the English capital so much richer. When you walk the streets of London, knowing the multitudes of stories each one has borne witness to over the centuries, the city takes on new layers of wonder.
And luckily for us, there are plenty of books about London’s history that can teach us about the city throughout the ages. So whether you’re hoping to learn about London’s bygone days in more general terms, or you’re curious about a specific slice of history – an era, or a topic – these books about London’s history are the perfect addition to your bookshelves!
Non-fiction books about London’s history
London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
If you’re not just looking for a book about London, but the book about London, this hefty classic (it’s over 900 pages, but don’t let that put you off) is the ultimate guide to London’s history, spanning from the age from the Druids all the way to the present (or, at least, till it was published some twenty years ago).
Peter Ackroyd has created a history (he calls it a biography, which makes me love it all the more) not only of the city as a whole, but of specific aspects of its history: gin, childhood, sex and even sewage are delved into, offering readers a broad and deep understanding of all that London has witnessed in its immense lifetime.
Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century by Marc Matera
It’s impossible to look at London’s history without acknowledging the widespread and important contributions that Black people and communities have contributed to the city we know and love.
Part social history, part biography, Black London shares the stories of Black Londoners who were remarkable in their own unique spheres – from political activism to newspaper editing, from jazz performance to sexuality – exploring what it meant to be Black in London in the twentieth century.
In Search of London by HV Morton
A slice of history in itself, as well as a tale of London throughout the ages, In Search of London was written in the 1950s by travel journalist HV Morton. Morton, while walking the streets of his city, recounts the history of his favourite places, many of which are still firm favourites for visitors today. His familiar style of writing feels like you’re being taken on a tour by a friend, and as the blurb states:
“Morton’s quest for the city’s heart reveals how London’s daily life is rooted in a past that is closer and more familiar than we might think.”
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
Sure, Jack the Ripper might be one of London’s most notorious (and nefarious) inhabitants, and the mystery of his identity has undoubtedly endured… but how much do we know about his victims? Jack the Ripper history tends to focus on the perpetrator and the grisly details of his horrific crimes, while the women he killed are relegated to side notes, labelled as prostitutes, and nothing more.
In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold aims to bring these women into the light, sharing their histories, and the society and culture they lived in. The lives of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly are built from the small scraps of history that mention them, and the result is an insightful – and often surprising (for instance, there’s no evidence that some of these women were ever prostitutes at all) – account of five humans who deserve the dignity of being properly remembered.
If you have any interest in the Jack the Ripper case, skip the cheesy tours and read this brilliant book instead.
Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair by Tim Moore
Years ago – well before I lived here – I visited London with a friend, and we spent a full day attempting to stop at every single street or station on the Monopoly board. I can’t remember if we made it to all of them, but I do remember it was a gruelling day of traipsing from one end of the city to the other!
I could have saved myself a whole lot of effort by reading Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair, which takes readers on a tour of the Monopoly board, telling the histories and tales of each of the tiles on the board. Tim Moore spent a little more time than I did on his tour, staying at a fancy hotel in Mayfair, visiting an inmate at Pentonville prison, and discovering the quirks and mysteries of the destinations that ended up making the Monopoly we know today.
Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital by Lloyd Bradley
Written by Lloyd Bradley, a music journalist and author, Sounds Like London is an exploration of Black music since World War I, when the Southern Syncopated Orchestra brought jazz to the city.
From the jazz clubs of Soho to the streets of Notting Hill, and plenty in between, Sounds Like London includes contributions from huge musical names such as Eddy Grant, Osibisa, Russell Henderson, Dizzee Rascal and Trevor Nelson, with an introduction by Soul2Soul’s Jazzie B.
London: A Travel Guide Through Time by Dr Matthew Green
Historian and broadcaster Dr Matthew Green, who also has a PhD in the history of London (from Oxford, no less), brings the past to life by focusing on six very specific periods in time: Shakespeare’s heydey, Medieval London, the plague, the era of coffee houses, the reign of Queen Victoria, and the Blitz.
It’s told as a guide book of sorts; a time-travel tour, whereby the reader is led to a particular location in modern London, and then, by the flick of a ‘switch’, lands in that same spot in whichever era Dr Green is describing. This book engages all of your senses as London’s sounds, sights, and even smells, are described in great detail.
It might sound silly, but it’s a clever and fun way of learning about different periods in time as though you are a tourist within history itself.
The Diaries of Samuel Pepys
Can you imagine your diary one day being published, and referred to as a guide to history? I somehow can’t picture my teenage crushes and catfights ever making it into print (at least, I hope with all my heart they never are) but Samuel Pepys’ diary entries have become an important insight into Reformation England, giving us a snapshot of his daily life from 1660 – 1669.
Pepys – who was an MP as well as an administrator of the English navy – recorded the intricate details of his life: what time he woke up, his finances, the weather, and what he ate. But he also recorded his thoughts and perspectives on some of the key events that took place in that era (the coronation of King Charles II, the plague, and even the Great Fire of London).
Probably the most unselfconsciously honest insight into a specific period in London’s history, Pepys’ diary is just a straight-up fascinating read.
Shakespeare’s London on 5 Groats a Day by Richard Tames
“I know you’re a fan of Shakespeare.”
“More than a fan. We’re involved.”
If you can relate to this quote from 10 Things I Hate About You, then you need to read Shakespeare’s London on 5 Groats a Day. It’s a quirky, charming travel guide that shows what it would have been like for a budget traveller in Shakespeare’s day.
From things to see and do, to where to shop and stay, and even where to go for the best celeb spotting, this is basically Love and London, but for Elizabethan times.
Beastly London: A History of Animals in London by Hannah Velten
London was once filled with animals, from pigs to horses and even bears and elephants. These days, unless you visit the zoo, the creatures you’re most likely to see are squirrels (cute), urban pigeons (guaranteed to fly at your face at least once per trip) and the occasional rat (ew).
In her history of London’s animals, Hannah Velten shares the relationship between Londoners throughout history and the animals that kept them company. Beastly London offers a glimpse into a side of the city’s past that’s not often inspected, while exploring the ethics of the way many of the animals were treated over the years.
Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem
I’d never heard of mudlarking before I moved to London, but it’s a fascinating pastime, which involves scavenging for items of value on the banks of the River Thames. When the practice began in the 18th century, it was so much more than a hobby – people made their living by selling whatever trinkets they’d pulled from the muddy banks.
These days, metal detectors are used to find treasures (and whatever else lies under the surface!), some of which tell fascinating stories that offer glimpses of the history of London. From brooches to buckles, clay pipes to combs, Lara Maiklem shares some of the pieces she’s found during her 15 years of mudlarking, and the history of the river that washed them up.
Fictional books about London’s history
If you’d prefer to learn your history through fiction rather than pure fact, I’ve included a couple of titles that give readers a taste of London’s history via stories. They’re just as educational as they are entertaining.
London: The Novel by Edward Rutherford
In a story that spans an incredible sixteen centuries, Edward Rutherford brings the lives of Londoners throughout history to life in this epic tale. Based on real events, the story weaves together some of London’s key moments, people and places, in a page-turning book of over 800 pages.
As well as bringing you on an incredible journey, London: The Novel will teach you things you never knew about this city… including how Soho got its name, and the origin of wedding cakes.
Get London: The Novel by Edward Rutherford at Books a Million
The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor
If you love crime novels, and you love learning about London’s history, this is the book for you. Set during the time of the Great Fire of London, The Ashes of London is a fast-paced spy thriller that follows the hunt for a killer through the charred streets of the city.
This fascinating period of London’s history – the Great Fire, the abolition of the monarchy, the execution of Charles I – is brought to life in this pacy, history-fuelled thriller.
So whether you’re after a sweeping overview of the English capital, or you’re more curious about a specific time period, or topic, these fascinating books about London’s history all promise one thing: by the time you turn the final page, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for London than ever before!
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