Like all living things, cities have lifespans. London started as a small Roman settlement along the Thames River. Initially encompassing just a few families, today, more than 8.6 million people call the place home. So take a moment to take a journey. Here are is a series of maps, paintings, and old-time photographs that show the journey of the British capital from the past to today.
Two recent archaeological excavations, in 1999 and 2010, suggest that there were settlements near London’s Thames River as early as 4500 BC. The area saw a widespread adoption of agriculture in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.
The Romans founded Londinium (now called London) in 43 AD. This artist’s illustration of Londinium in 200 AD shows the city’s first bridge over the Thames River.
From the 7th to 11th centuries, Anglo-Saxons moved into Londinium. Their settlement was laid out in a grid pattern and grew to contain between 10,000 and 12,000 people.
Westminster Abbey, built in the 10th century, is a World Heritage Site and one of London’s oldest and most important buildings. Here it is in a 1749 painting.
William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned King of England there on Christmas Day, 1066 — just after it was completed. By the 11th century, London had the largest port in England. In the 12th century, the English royal court began to grow in size and sophistication and settled in Westminster, a neighborhood in central London.
In 1176, King Henry II commissioned a new stone bridge. Finished in 1284, the original London Bridge would stand for over 600 years. It supported homes and shops — which weighed down its arches over time.
The development of the printing press in the early 15th century made news available to the entire city and improved literacy levels. Coffeehouses also became popular spots for friendly debates.
In the 17th century, London suffered from the Great Plague, which killed about 100,000 people. In 1666, the Great Fire broke out; it took the city a decade to rebuild.
The city became a major hub for trade throughout the 1700s, and the Port of London expanded downstream.
During the Georgian era (from 1714 to 1830), new districts like Mayfair formed, and new bridges over the Thames encouraged development in South London.
In the mid-19th century, London overtook Amsterdam as the Europe’s leading financial center…and the Royal Navy became the world’s leading military fleet.
London was the largest city in the world from 1831 until 1925, when New York City superseded it. The growing population and increased traffic led to the creation of the world’s first local, underground urban rail network in the late 1860s. An extensive sewage system was also constructed.
WWII devastated London starting in 1941. As seen below, civilians hid in underground train stations to get away from air raids, which killed approximately 30,000 Londoners by the war’s end. The city then slowly began to rebuild itself.
The city has maintained its place as a center of global power …
… and today, over 8.6 million people reside there.