Skip to main content  

London 1000 years book cover

London 1000 Years: Treasures from the collections of the City of London

David Pearson, former Director, Culture, Heritage and Libraries writes about a book which was published in 2011, to showcase the holdings not only of London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), but also of Guildhall Library and Guildhall Art Gallery.

The historic collections in the City of London Corporation’s care are truly remarkable and constitute a significant part of the nation’s heritage. The Corporation prides itself on being older than Parliament and the model from which much English local government developed, and its archives go back to 1067. Its oldest document is a truly iconic little piece of parchment on which William the Conqueror recorded his agreement to work with the citizens of London in a framework of mutual respect, but this is only one of a multitude of medieval treasures, which also include a particularly handsome 13th century issue of Magna Carta, illuminated books of statutes and 15th century depictions of aldermen. Over the centuries the Corporation’s own archives have been augmented by deposits from livery companies, parishes, hospitals, schools and other institutions, who recognise the benefits that we can provide by way of stewardship and access, and the absorption of the archive collections from the Greater London Council and London County Council mean that at LMA we now look after a genuinely pan-London resource.  LMA has about 105km of shelving housing what is undoubtedly the most important municipal archive establishment in England outside The National Archives.

Guildhall Library has its roots in what is arguably England’s first public library, founded in the 1420s as one of the charitable bequests of Richard (Dick) Whittington, who may not have been saved by his cat and the sound of Bow Bells, but who was indeed thrice Lord Mayor of London and who left a sizeable fortune for the benefit of his fellow citizens. That first library was probably used largely by priests attached to Guildhall Chapel, but we know that it was freely available to others and that it lasted for well over 100 years. Unfortunately it was dispersed in the 16th century, and only a handful of late medieval manuscripts from that first Guildhall Library now survive. The Library as we know it today was refounded in the 1820s, and opened as a fully public resource in the 1870s. Since then it has built up an important collection of printed material, particularly relating to London and its history, but also including literary treasures like one of the most perfect surviving copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, and a special collection of Thomas More’s works. It has particular strengths in trade directories and poll books as well as collections on food and wine. The London history collections of LMA and Guildhall Library combined were formally designated a few years ago by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council as being of national and international significance.

The Corporation began collecting pictures in the late 17th century when a series of portraits was commissioned of the Fire Judges, the eminent lawyers who helped to sort out territorial disputes after the Great Fire of 1666. Since then the art collection has grown, helped by the founding of Guildhall Art Gallery in the late 19th century, and now includes a number of well known treasures of Victorian and pre-Raphaelite art, like Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata and Millais’ My First Sermon, together with an important spread of London paintings from the early modern period to the present day. We also look after the equally celebrated collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings which Lord Samuel bequeathed to the City in 1987 to hang in Mansion House. Besides the art on canvas, our collections also include over a quarter of a million prints, etchings and engravings, and over 300,000 photographs – which is to say nothing of the maps and the films. If you want an image of London from almost any point in time we are likely to be able to help.

London: 1000 years was published in association with the 600th anniversary of the Guildhall to showcase these collections, to celebrate them, and to bring them more into public view. Its contents were selected and written up by the expert staff who look after the material and it is being produced in partnership with Scala Publishers, whose design and editorial skills have helped to produce a really handsome end product. There are over 130 full-colour illustrations of items which were carefully chosen to provide as wide a spread as possible, to try to give a flavour of the breadth of the collections both chronologically and by way of subject. The contents range in date from 1067 to 2007 – the latest items are the memorabilia left at the 7/7 bombing sites – and they include not only the obviously iconic material like love letters from the dying Keats, or one of the very few documents in the world carrying Shakespeare’s signature, but also less expected, more ephemeral items. All of it tells a story.

You can buy London: 1000 Years from Amazon or all good booksellers (as the saying goes), but it is also available from City Corporation outlets (Guildhall Library, Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London Information Centre) in a special paperback edition for a reduced price.

David Pearson (ed.): London 1000 Years: Treasures of the Collections of the City of London.  London (Scala Publishers), 2011.  160pp. ISBN 978-1-85759-699-1

03 May 2012
Last Modified:
19 February 2019