Today and throughout history, when Londoners face challenging times we come together and show incredible resilience.
From the plague, the great Fire, to the Blitz: when times get hard, Londoners unite.
Here we look at eight historic places and sites that tell the story of London’s resilience throughout history.
1. London Bridge
A symbol of resilience, London Bridge has survived several disasters and been rebuilt several times. A bridge has stood in this spot from the late Roman and early medieval times.
The timber bridge of medieval times was replaced by a stone bridge built in 1176, completed in 1209. This London Bridge was the first great stone arch bridge built in Britain and is the London Bridge of nursery rhyme fame. It was rebuilt several times, after a huge fire in 1212 and a collapse in 1282.
The stone bridge stood for 622 years, demolished in 1832 and replaced with a design by John Rennie (pictured), and carried out by his sons. In the late 20th-century, Rennie’s bridge was sold and re-erected in Arizona. The current structure was built between 1968 – 1972.
2. The Ragged Schools
Ragged schools were charitable organisations (ran by volunteers) dedicated to providing free education to poor children in 19th-century Britain. Thomas John Barnardo was shocked to find children living in terrible conditions when he first moved to London in 1866, so set up his first ‘ragged school’ – where children could get a free basic education – in 1867.
Barnardo went on to found many more children’s homes and schools, for girls and boys. By the time he died in 1905, the charity had 96 homes caring for more than 8,500 vulnerable children. The Ragged School Museum opened in Tower Hamlets in 1990.
Barnardo’s work was radical at a time where people saw poverty as the result of laziness or vice. He accepted all children regardless of background or circumstance.
3. Tilbury Dock
Located on the Thames at Tilbury in Essex, it is the principal port for London. Notable people have travelled through Tilbury Docks including Mark Twain and George Orwell.
Most famously, Tilbury Dock saw the beginning of a new chapter in London’s history, with the arrival of the Empire Windrush on 22 June 1948. Onboard were 802 Caribbean passengers who were invited Britain to help rebuild the ‘mother country’ after the destruction of the Second World War.
They were the first of 500,000 Commonwealth citizens who settled in the UK between 1948 and 1971. New arrivals from the Commonwealth faced prejudice and abuse, despite having equal rights to British citizenship.
Many people found a home in Notting Hill and North Kensington, which was also home to a struggling white working class. Tension culminated in the 1958 race riots. Notting Hill Carnival, and other informal events, were created to help bridge the cultural gap and celebrate the collective experience of living together.
4. Hyde Park
Hyde Park has a rich history going back to Henry VIII, who used the land as hunting grounds. It has become a place for freedom of speech and protest since being opened to the public in 1637, with many marches and protests convening or ending their routes in the park.
Speaker’s Corner (in the North-East corner) was designated for meetings after the Reform League riots of 1866. On Sundays it is still a popular place for public oratory. The corner has seen many famous speakers such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, C. L. R. James, Walter Rodney, Ben Tillett, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, and William Morris.
In 1908, the park saw what was possibly the largest demonstration held in the UK at the time: over 300,000 people turned up for what is now known as Women’s Sunday. Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union organised a suffragette march and rally to persuade the Liberal government to support votes for women.
Many Anglo-Saxon and medieval cathedrals have stood on this site since AD 604. There is nothing left of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral but there are records and remains that tell us that the medieval cathedral was probably the largest building in medieval Britain and one of the largest in Europe.
The current St Paul’s Cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren as part of his task to rebuild London after the Great Fire in 1666. It was started in 1675 and completed in 1711. St Paul’s has survived many events, including air raids and the Blitz during the World Wars.
It’s survival was due in no small part to the dedication of the ‘St Paul’s Watch’, a group of heroic volunteers who worked in shifts to make sure the Cathedral was never without cover. Read more about these amazing volunteers here.
6. Princelet Street
The East End has witnessed migration for centuries; becoming home to rural Englanders, Huguenots, Jews, Bengalis and Irish people.
From 1685, Huguenot refugees escaping religious persecution in France began to arrive in England. Many skilled weavers settled in the Spitalfields area of London. Later in 1881, Jewish refugees began to arrive from Eastern Europe, also fleeing religious persecution, many of them skilled tailors and shoemakers.
Some houses on Princelet Street in Spitalfieds retain many features from their rich past. Number 19, built in 1719, was originally home to Huguenot silk merchant Peter Abraham Ogier and aspects of its Huguenot history remain, including the weaver’s attic.
Former residents of Number 19 include Irish and Polish immigrants, and a Polish Jewish family. In 1869, they built over the garden, turning it into the first purpose built synagogue in the East End.
You can visit the building today, as it was founded as the first museum of immigration and diversity in Europe, with stories of the centuries of newcomers who have shaped Spitalfields. It is ran by volunteers.
7. Gay’s the Word Bookshop
Opened in 1979, Gay’s the Word is one of the most prominent LGBTQ bookshops in the world and England’s only LGBTQ bookshop. It is also one of the few to remain. Since its opening, it has been not just a bookshop but a site of pilgrimage, resistance and community building for decades.
In 1984 the bookshop was raided by the police as part of ‘Operation Tiger’ and prosecuted for carrying books by Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and other gay authors. The case went to the European Court in 1985 and the charges were eventually dropped after a major campaign and outpour of support for the community institution.
In 1984 – 85, Gay’s the Word was the headquarters for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. LGSM was a support group that raised funds for miners in South Wales during the year-long strike. In return, miners and their families led the 1985 Pride march through London.
8. The Monument
The Monument marks the spot where the Great Fire of London began on 2 September 1666 at Thomas Farriner’s Pudding Lane bakery. The fire raged for four days and destroyed the City of London, including around 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches and the old St Paul’s Cathedral.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, The Monument is a giant Doric column topped by a golden urn of flames.
London was reborn from the ashes of the fire as a more open and better planned city, with homes built from brick and stone rather than wood. The Monument itself stands as both a commemoration of the devastating fire and a celebration of the city being rebuilt.
31 May is London History Day, join the celebration and tell us about the people and places that inspire you and remind you of London’s resilience in the comments.
Header Image © London Met Archives, ref: 280729.