LOCATED ON THE Thames River in southwestern England in the British Isles, London is the capital of England and the UNITED KINGDOM. The history of London can be traced back nearly 2,000 years to its founding as Londinium in 50 C.E. by the Romans. Much debate has occurred as to the exact type of Roman settlement that originated at the site, civilian or military. Archaeological evidence points to the original settlement starting as a civilian effort. For the next 400 years, the Romans controlled the strategic site on the edge of the Thames but eventually abandoned it.
Later, the Saxons established Lundenwic to the west of what would become the walled City of London in the 7th century. The walled City of London came into prominence during the Norman control of the area beginning in the 10th century C.E. It was at this time that present-day London began to take shape. Norman control of London continued for nearly 700 years, during which time a significant landmark, the Tower of London, was constructed. Stuart control of the city and the whole of England saw London’s importance continue to grow despite some major disasters such as the Great London Fire of 1666 and the previous year’s plague, which wiped out a large portion of the city’s population.
The 19th century saw London obtain the major global city status that it still enjoys today. The population of the city rose from 1 million at the turn of the 19th century to over 6 million at the turn of the next. The city was the largest city in the world during this period, the capital of the BRITISH EMPIRE, and the global leader in politics, finance, and business. This period in London’s history is also marked by extreme social polarization with millions of the city’s inhabitants living in extreme poverty and appalling slums in the innercity areas. Numerous landmarks were constructed during this century, including Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, and the Tower Bridge.
One of the biggest changes to London occurred in the 19th century: the introduction of the railroad, with the first line being opened in 1836 connecting Greenwich and London Bridge. Soon after, a large number of rail stations were constructed linking the city to the rest of the British HINTERLAND. In 1850, the London Underground as opened and soon the outflux of those who could afford to move to the open spaces of the periphery of London left the inner city residents to combat extreme poverty and disease.
The population of London peaked in the 1930s around 8.6 million. The city was heavily damaged by German bombings during World War II. Over 35,000 Londoners were killed during the Blitz and over 10,000 buildings in the city were destroyed. The city was rebuilt after the war and continued to expand, consuming the surrounding landscape. The city added to its reputation as one of the world leaders in finance and banking by becoming a center of Western cultural and fashion change in the 1960s, led by such musical artists as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. This cultural leadership continued into the 1970s and 1980s as the city was the epicenter for the punk and new wave movements.
While the population of the city itself dropped to around 7.2 million, the larger London metropolitan area has a population estimated at nearly 14 million, making it the largest metro area in Europe. London’s diverse ethnic makeup is the result of the city’s role as the capital of the former British Empire that spanned the globe.
Seventy-one percent of the population consider themselves white, 10 percent Indian, Bangladeshi, or Pakistani, 5 percent black African and 5 percent black Caribbean. Over 300 languages are spoken, and the 2001 census shows that 29 percent of London’s population belonged to a minority ethnic group.
London is a leading world city when it comes to banking, finance, and insurance and one of the leaders in business. The city is host to 463 foreign banks, percent of the global foreign equity market, and 429 foreign companies listed on the London Stock Exchange. Seventy-five percent of Fortune 500 companies have London offices. The city is the world’s leading market for international insurance, with the worldwide premium income reaching over £150 billion in 2001.
Transport plays a vital role in the success of London not only internationally (almost £1 billion in overseas earnings are generated by the maritime industry) but locally as well. Heathrow International Airport is the one of the world’s busiest airports serving over 63 million passengers, 90 airlines, and approximately 170 destinations. No fewer than four other international airports also serve the metropolitan area. The London Underground, the world’s first underground rail network, provides transportation for a large number of Londoners. The system serves over 3 million daily, and nearly 1 billion annually, on its 253 mi (408 km) of track. Congestion on the city’s streets and motorways has become so notorious that in 2003 London implemented a £5 per day fee for driving private automobiles in the central area during weekdays, as a way to reduce traffic congestion.
The city is home to five major symphonies, over a dozen major theaters, and numerous art galleries including the National Galleries and the Tate Galleries. A large number of world-famous museums have their homes in London, including the British Museum, the Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Churches and cathedrals are also part of London’s cultural heritage, including Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral.