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City history

Date updated: 14/09/2022

The oldest part of London

There’s nowhere quite like the City. Not only is it the oldest, most historic part of London, it is a leading international financial and business centre with the unusual ratio of 33 times more workers than residents; it also has its own unique system of administration and is not classified as a “borough”, but is a small district at the heart of the capital.

Established in around AD50, seven years after the Romans invaded Britain, the City, or Square Mile as it has become known, is the place from which modern-day London grew.

The remains of the City’s Roman wall can be seen in various locations, the foundations of the Roman Temple of Mithras and Billingsgate Roman House and Baths have been unearthed here and London’s only Roman Amphitheatre was discovered under Guildhall Art Gallery in 1988.

But it’s not just the Roman remains and medieval structures that make the City’s buildings so unique; it is their juxtaposition with contemporary architecture designed to house the global business giants that have located here. This is where ancient and modern sit side by side.

Thriving Londinium

Londinium (as the Romans called this place) was ideally located for business. Situated on the north bank of the Thames, it soon became a bustling port and trade thrived. As business increased, tradesmen came together to form livery companies or ‘guilds’ – bodies that regulated their respective professions to protect both customers and their members. Many of the City’s street names such as Milk Street, Bread Street, Ironmonger Lane, Poultry, Cloth Fair and Mason’s Avenue mark the sites where the companies began.

Ultimately, the guilds came to yield great power and influence and the City developed a reputation as an important centre for commerce. By the early 17th century (when exploration began to open up the world and new markets were there for the picking) many guilds invested money in setting up Merchant Venturer Companies. Seeking exclusive rights of trade with different parts of the world, the most famous of these companies was the East India Company whose power lasted until well into the 19th century.

Coffee House culture

Also in the 17th century, the coffee house arrived and they soon became the place to pick up news and gossip. Different houses began to attract different occupations and some houses became the makeshift offices of the trades they served, giving birth to some of the world’s greatest financial institutions: the London Stock Exchange started in Jonathan’s Coffee House in Change Alley and Lloyd’s of London takes its name from Edward Lloyd, a coffee house proprietor in Tower Street.

This, coupled with the founding by Royal Charter of the Bank of England in 1694, was the catalyst for the development of the City as a financial centre. In 1631, the residential population of the City was put at 130,163; by 1901, it had dwindled to 26,923 with people moving out to make way for the influx of office buildings that still dominate.

Such a unique area needs a unique system of administration and it is the City of London Corporation that provides it. With its constitution rooted in the ancient rights and privileges enjoyed by its citizens before the Norman Conquest, the City developed a form of government which finally emerged as the first independent local authority in Britain.