Book Review: ‘London- A Social History’

The 2000 edition of 'London- A Social History' by Roy Porter.
The 2000 edition of ‘London- A Social History’ by Roy Porter.

Porter, Roy. London- A Social History. London: Penguin, 2000 [1994]

“the physical fabric [of London] engages in endless dialogue with the inhabitants; the townscape shapes them, while they reconstruct it. Factories and flats, railways and roads outlive individuals. People make their own cities, but never under conditions of their own choosing.”

(Porter, 2000; p. xvi)

When he set out to write London- A Social History, Roy Porter (2000; p. xvi) aimed to write “a substantial account and analysis of the making of the metropolis in terms of its people, economy and buildings.” He has achieved this, frequently going beyond descriptions to consider why London is the way that it is. The book is arranged chronologically, but the Georgian, Victorian, and post-War London periods (from chapter 5 onwards) receive significantly more attention than others; each has multiple chapters devoted to them, divided thematically. This can be little confusing; you finish chapter 8 in 1890, then chapter 9 begins back in 1820.

For Porter, London is a city past its prime. The metropolis is “aged and ailing” (Porter, 2000; p. 445), deprived of the empire which Porter argues was the driving force behind its success. In the preface, he looks back on his childhood in 1950s New Cross with nostalgia, and he is quietly critical of Thatcherite policies and a lack of public investment. Porter passed away in 2002, but I do wonder what he would make of London in 2015- somehow, I can’t imagine he would be very impressed. His criticisms feel informed and considered, unlike A.N. Wilson in London- A Short History, Porter explains what he doesn’t like about modern London without making me strongly dislike him.

One of the things that London- A Social History does really well is highlight the continuities of London. Sometimes London at different periods of history can feel so diverse that it calls into question the wisdom of treating it as the same city, but Porter connects Tudor, Georgian and modern London together into a narrative that make sense. For example, the book’s descriptions of housing demonstrate that good quality, affordable housing for the city’s working class has been a constant problem since the Georgians. Porter also does an excellent job of explaining the reasons behind London’s particularly ad-hoc structures of local government. The rivalry between the national government in Westminster and the City goes back centuries, and Westminster has long feared the potential power of a comprehensive pan-London authority.

The book does have some weaknesses. Some chapters, particularly those that describe the massive growth of London during various periods of the last few centuries feel a bit list-y, and are tedious to read. He gives disproportionate space to London since Georgian times, with much less about the preceding history. This is not uncommon in histories of London, perhaps just because the further back you go, the harder it is to find reliable sources. Finally, the book was written 20 years ago, and his assessment of London feels out of date (for example, Porter complains about the lack of ruling authority in London- the Greater London Authority was established in 1999, after the book was written). However, all books age, some better than others, and the past 20 years have not detracted from the rest of Porter’s thoughtful analysis of London history.

The subtitle of Roy Porter’s 541-page epic does not do it justice. This is not just a social history, but also an economic, political, demographic, and cultural history. Despite minor weaknesses, it is a good introduction for those who know little about the city, or a useful addition to the bookshelf of any London connoisseur.

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