The majestic city of London, with its grand architecture, iconic landmarks, and intertwining streets, whispers tales of centuries gone by. Delving into books about London history isn’t merely about understanding the past; it’s an immersive journey through the very soul of the city. Such literary explorations offer travelers a rich tapestry of stories, from the Roman establishment of Londinium to the dynamic multicultural metropolis it is today.
By acquainting oneself with its history before setting foot on its cobbled streets, one gains a deeper appreciation for every corner, seeing beyond the mere physical structures to the sagas they’ve silently witnessed. After all, to truly experience London, one must first meet its ghosts, heroes, and legends through the pages of its chronicles. If you’re keen to brush up on London history before
London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
London: The Biography is one of the best books about London history if you’re looking for a history book that spans as wide a time period as possible. It describes London in detail, from way back in the Upper Jurassic period all the way up to the 21st century!
However, the book is divided by themes, such as “London’s Rivers” and “Crime and Punishment” instead of chronologically. This is a refreshing take for a history book but can make the book a bit hard to follow for some.
In Search of London by HV Morton
If dry history books give you the jitters but you want to learn more about London, this personal travelogue – In Search of London – by Morton is one of the best books about London history for you!
Morton will regale you with stories of London’s past, all the way back to Roman times, when Emperor Claudius led “his war elephants across the Thames” to the more recent Blitz years.
London: A Travel Guide Through Time by Dr. Matthew Green
As its name suggests, London: A Travel Guide Through Time is a London history book written in a “time traveler” style.
By means of a person who travels back in time, readers are transported to London in six pivotal years (1390, 1603, 1665, 1716, 1884, and 1957.) Through the journey, you’ll learn about life in London during the plague, medieval London, Shakespearean London, Victorian London, the Blitz, and the swinging Sixties.
Do keep in mind that this fascinating book takes some artistic license. An example is when the time traveler interacts with historical figures from the past. If you want a purely factual history book, I suggest considering the other books about London history on this list instead.
Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now by Craig Taylor
If you’re looking for London history books with a more modern perspective, try Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now which tells the story of 21-Century Londoners.
It contains 80 different stories of ordinary people with a connection to London, from rich to poor, native-born Londoners to “new” Londoners… You’ll hear from a guardsman at Buckingham Palace, a lady who does the station announcements on the Tube (London Underground), a Wiccan priestess, a refugee, and more. There’s even a lady who commutes to London from Norwich!
This book is rather divisive as some find all 80 stories fascinating, whilst others feel like it is a little tiresome and needs more editing!
Everything You Know About London is Wrong by Mark Brown
Have you always thought that the Union Jack flag only flies over Buckingham Palace when the Queen is home?
Well, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re wrong – or rather, that’s what you’ll learn by reading Everything You Know About London is Wrong.
To find out what else you’ve gotten wrong about London, you have to read this book! However, this may not be the ideal book to give to someone new to London. Some of the London myths that get busted are relatively esoteric and would only resonate with people familiar with the city.
London Under by Peter Ackroyd
The 2nd book by Peter Ackroyd on this list, London Under tells you all about what happens under London’s busy streets.
From underground rivers to gang hideouts, the book will take you briefly through London’s past, present, and future.
You’ll read about many different aspects of what happens under London, from how the Tube was used in World War Two to the sewer system!
Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason
Just when you think there’s already a book for every possible angle on London history, a book like Walk the Lines will prove you wrong.
This book documents Mark Mason’s attempt to walk the entire Tube (London Underground) network. We see the Tube from a different point of view: above ground.
This attempt will see him walk several hundred miles. Unfortunately, not every tube station has an interesting story behind it, so some of the information presented may be dull for a few readers.
Nonetheless, it makes for a good companion book to “London Under!”
Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem
Lara Maiklem is a mudlark: someone who scavenges the River Thames for historical artifacts, which can be anything from a “worthless” pin to an expensive jewel.
In her book, Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames, Maiklem follows the River Thames from its origins in West London all the way to where it meets the sea in the East. Along the way, she documents the lost treasures she’s found, such as Neolithic flints and even plastic cotton buds, and pieces together the local history.
(Unfortunately, “Mudlarking” doesn’t publish photos of all the finds Lara mentions but you’ll find her Instagram account a wonderful pictorial companion to the book.)
With its innovative take, this Sunday Times bestseller is one of the best books about London history. It may even inspire you to take up a new hobby!
Shakespeare’s London on 5 Groats a Day by Richard Tames
Shakespeare’s London on 5 Groats a Day is another time-traveler’s narrative but illustrated this time and complete with (some) archaic terminology.
Written by a lecturer of London history (to Blue Badge guides), it’s the equivalent of an Elizabethan London Lonely Planet guidebook. A would-be time traveler can find all the information he or she needs about the best places to stay, the must-watch plays of the day, and more. It even goes into the details of what people of different social classes wore, ate, and did for entertainment!
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
Hallie Rubenhold’s book, The Five, brings to life the five women killed by Jack the Ripper in the 1890s: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane. Instead of simply labeling them as “victims” and prostitutes, the book gives us much more information as it transports us back in time, to the seedier side of Victorian London.
Whilst riveting, the book, unfortunately, has had to gloss over a lot of the women’s life stories. As we don’t have enough concrete information about these women, much of their story is presented as a guess: “She could have…” Nonetheless, it is one of the best London history books to learn more about the life of the poor in Victorian London.
Have a question about these books about London history, or have you read another good one I should add to the list? Let me know in the comments below!