London History

Over the coming months there will be four blog posts for each city on the Davis High School Baroque Ensemble’s 2020 England-France Tour tour: Place of Interest; Concert Venue; Music; History of the city. This week’s post, the fourth of the series, is on the history of  London.

Standing on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. ‘Londinium’ was founded by the Romans c.47AD and lasted until until around AD 61 when the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudica, burned it to the ground. London was subsequently rebuilt and by the 2nd century, Roman London had a population of around 60,000. The City of London, (known as the ‘square mile’ and distinct from the larger city of London) is London’s ancient medieval core and includes the Tower of London, and St. Paul’s Cathedral). A section of the original Roman Wall is preserved in the grounds of the Museum of London in the City – together with many Roman artifacts including wood-working tools and coins.

London, was plagued by disease in the early 17th century, culminating in the Great Plague (smallpox) in 1666, which killed up to 100,000 people, a fifth of the population.The Great Fire of London broke out the following year, and quickly destroyed over 13,000 buildings, and the original St. Paul’s Cathedral. Christopher Wren proposed a a radical redesign of the City with a grid of roads, but this was never implemented, and the City was rebuilt using the original  layout of medieval streets. He did, however, build the new St Paul’s Cathedral.

The 18th century was a period of rapid growth for London, reflecting an increasing national population, the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution, and London’s role at the centre of the evolving British Empire. Many tradesmen and skilled craftsmen from different countries came to London to trade goods.

One lesser considered aspect of 18th century England, and especially London, is that the rising middle class and the aristocracy were able to indulge their interest in music and art, and build grand country houses largely as a result of their profits from the Slave Trade.

Coffeehouse, London c.1700:

Coffeehouse, London c.1700:

In the 17thc. Coffee appeared for the first time in Europe outside the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and coffeehouses (precursors of Starbucks) were first established in London in 1650’s. They became popular (men only – coffee was not considered a suitable beverage for women), and they began to gain political importance due to their popularity as places of debate. Coffeehouses became popular in other cities, and by 1675 there were more than 3,000 in England. The famous insurance broker ‘Lloyds of London’, had its start in a coffee house in the City in 1686.


A Musical Tea Party - Mid 18th century

A Musical Tea Party – Mid 18th century

Tea from China was first imported to England in the early 17th century by the East India Company. It was an expensive product and often kept under lock and key. Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II introduced the ritual of drinking teas to the English Royal Court, and the habit was adopted by the aristocracy. The first tea shop for ladies was opened in London in 1717 by Thomas Twining (who also sold leaf tea for consumption at home), and slowly tea shops began to appear throughout England.

A Musical Tea Party - Mid 18th century:

Luncheon with Hot Chocolate – mid 18th century

Chocolate was introduced to England around 1600, first and foremost as a drink, and remained popular in that form for over 200 years. 18th-century hot chocolate was more bitter than our modern variations, but still intensely pleasant. Initially made with cocoa liquor (blocks of ground cocoa nibs) and water, it was popularly served with an equal mix of water and milk, spiced with ingredients including cinnamon, sugar, vanilla, chilli, rosewater, honey, pepper, jasmine or even ambergris.  Hot Chocolate, mid 18th century:

River Thames Frost Fair

River Thames Frost Fair

During the 17thc. the River Thames froze sufficiently several times for Frost Fairs to be established on the ice. In 1683/84, the  famous English writer and diarist John Evelyn described his visit to a Fair:

“Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cookes, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water, whilst it was a severe judgement on the land, the trees not onely splitting as if lightning-struck, but men and cattle perishing in diverse places, and the very seas so lock’d up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.”



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