A great city is possessed by the men and women who make it so. London, as we know it, would not have transformed from the tiny settlement it once was to the towering metropolis it is today without them. Some on the list were a benefit to the city, while others were a detriment, but these individuals, whether good or bad, are inherently tied to London. They were born there, they shaped it, and many of them died in it.
A great essayist, biographer, and journal author, James Boswell may have been born in Edinburgh, but he earned his fame while a resident of London, first with the biography The Life of Samuel Johnson, in 1791. Another work, Boswell’s London Journal, chronicling his life in the city between 1762 and 1763 was discovered long after his death in the 1920s and not published until 1950. Having gone so long undiscovered, it survived any attempt by his family to censor the journal and it had enough salacious material to be immediately engaging to the public
Prime Minister from 1945 – 1951, Clement Attlee was born is Putnam into a well-to-do family and spent much of his early life with conservative leanings. However, his time spent volunteering as the manager of a charitable club in Stepney, surrounded by poor and working class East Londoners, changed his opinions significantly, leading him to join the Labour Party. Rising through the ranks of Parliament, he became the party leader in 1935 and was the first Deputy Prime Minister under the coalition government formed by Winston Churchill during WWII. He successfully won control of Parliament and became PM himself, implementing many social policies including the creation of the NHS, introducing social security, developing public housing, and other programmes design to improve the lives of the poorest citizens.
One of the greatest British novelists, Dickens’ family moved to London when he was a boy, but his father’s debts eventually landed him (along with his family) in Marshallsea Prison in Southwark. Charles boarded with a family friend and avoided living in the prison himself, but his father’s time there left a distinct impression on the boy and would inform many of his later novels that dealt with poverty and situations of helplessness felt by many of London’s most impoverished residents. Today, his work continues to provide insight into this period of the city’s history, showing the lives of residents across a broad spectrum of the poorest to the wealthiest.
Most of Charles Pearson’s life as the Solicitor for the City of London and a MP for Lambeth was dedicated to judicial reform, but that is perhaps not the most enduring legacy he left the city. For years, Pearson was the chief campaigner for a London railway system that would become the London Underground. Pearson recognised that the city was becoming more crowded and spilling into the suburbs, so much that the city would need a new transportation system to help those suburbanites reach their jobs at the heart of the city. He did not live to see the Metropolitan Railway’s opening, but his mark on the Tube remains.
Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone
When King Richard I was having trouble with the residents of the City of London, he achieved an agreement with the people that, in exchange for higher taxes and loans from London merchants to pay for his wars, he would grant the merchants and alderman some autonomy in the running of the city. This ultimately led to the creation of the Mayor (later, The Lord Mayor). At the time, it was still within the purview of the crown to appoint this position, and so Richard chose Henry Fitz-Ailwin to the first Mayor of London. Henry introduced many reforms to help settle disputes in the city and held the post of mayor from 1189 until his death in 1212.
Daughter of the famed poet, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace would achieve her own notoriety by working with Charles Babbage. Whereas her father was mostly known for his literary contributions, Lovelace’s mother encouraged her daughter’s interest in mathematics. Through her education, she met Babbage, with whom she would eventually collaborate on the Analytical Engine, one of the world’s first computers. Through her life and her work, she put London on the map as one of the most important cities in the history of computing.
The Metropolitan Police is what it is today because of Robert Peel. Creating the force with the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, he instituted the long-standing notion that the police were meant to be members of the citizenry and so be unarmed as to foster trust with the people they were meant to be policing. His involvement with the Met was such that early names for his coppers included “Peelers” and “Bobbies”, the latter of which has stuck with the force for decades. While the organisation has since grown well beyond Peel’s parameters (they were originally meant to observe, not investigate), the Metropolitan Police still work to keep the city safe and serve its residents.
Born in Brixton, perhaps no other musician was as chameleon-like as Bowie, changing styles with each decade just as London did. At the age of fifteen, he knew he wanted to be a pop star and left school to pursue his dream. He adopted the stage surname “Bowie” to distinguish himself from Monkees member Davey Jones and went through a series of looks and musical styles, never staying the same too long before his tragic death earlier this year. In much the same way as this great artist, London is a city that is always changing, never the same, and in some cases, lightyears ahead of its time.
Ronnie and Reggie Kray
Two of the most notorious gangsters in London’s history, Ronnie and Reggie Kray were the kingpins of crime in East London during the 1950s and 1960s. Like some of their American counterparts, they grew so rich, famous, and powerful that they bordered on being outright celebrities. Born in Hoxton, the twins did their national service before turning to boxing and later putting their brutish skills to use in crime. Their connections and penchant for violence made it difficult to put them away for years, but their criminal empire finally came crumbling down in 1968. Having been certified insane, Ronnie Kray died in prison at Broadmoor in 1995, while Reggie was eventually given a compassionate release in 2000 and died later that year.
Perhaps one of the most famous chronicler’s of the London’s history, Samuel Pepys kept his famous diary that recorded many famous moments from 1660 to 1669, such as the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague, and the Second Dutch War. Pepys’ Diary is one of the best first-hand accounts of these historical events as well as giving us insight into his daily life and the lives of many Londoners in the 17th Century. This one work has turned Pepys into one of the most celebrated journal writers in history and given a fuller picture of the period than we would have otherwise.