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London

The city that shaped the world

London is a city steeped in history like few others. The leading city of the British Isles since Roman times, the history found in London's grand monuments, cobbled streets and narrow lanes is in some ways reflective of the experience of all Britons. The United Kingdom was only a middling power on the European stage at the end of the Middle Ages. London bore witness to prolonged religious strife, bloody civil war, regicide, and was utterly destroyed by fire. Yet the city and the nation emerged from these centuries a striving and innovative maritime power, rising to global prominence through naval prowess. The empire created and controlled from London came about essentially by accident, and yet somehow came to be the largest and most successful the world has ever known. It brought undreamt of wealth and glory to a lucky few and by the end of the 19th Century Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace ruled over a bewildering array of peoples and lands. The government at Whitehall held in its hands more power than any in human history. For these reasons the story of London - and therefore Britain - in these centuries is one of the most fascinating and important in all history.

Then and Now Photos

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Celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee, the 50th year of her reign, in Trafalgar Square in the shadow of Nelson's Column.

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Protestants about to be burnt at the stake in Smithfield Market. They would be faced towards the nearby portal of Saint Bartholomew's Priory, giving us the right spot for the Now photo. The Market was the scene of the martyring of both Protestant and Catholic heretics (depending on the predilections of the monarch at the time). William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered here and coin forgers were boiled alive at this spot as well. Today it is a quiet place to have lunch.

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The execution of King Charles I. He was led out the middle window of Whitehall's Banqueting House onto a scaffold that had been erected to allow a crowd to witness his beheading. The scaffolding today is used for a less gruesome purpose.

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People flee towards Tower Wharf on the Thames to escape the Great Fire of London. On the right can be seen the Tower of London, and on the left London Bridge. The bottom of Tower Bridge, which was only built in the 19th Century, can be seen in my photo.

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Pensioners outside the chapel at Greenwich hospital by Henry James Pidding. The Greenwich hospital for seamen was founded in 1692 to care for disabled or destitute Royal Navy sailors. Today this painting hangs in the National Maritime Museum. The chapel itself is a tourist attraction, part of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage site.

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The Old Naval College in Greenwich seen from the Isle of Dogs. A steamship can be seen towing a sailing vessel out to sea, a motif of the time frequently used to symbolize the end of the age of sail. It is most famously depicted in Turner's The Fighting Temeraire.

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The funeral cortege of the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo, departs Trafalgar Square.

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Buckingham Palace before the facade was redone in 1913. At the time this photo was taken Queen Victoria reigned over almost a quarter of the world's landmass and its people.

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Workers building a metro line in front of Somserset House. This was the first underground line ever built anywhere in the world. Initially poor ventilation meant the stations and cars filled with noxious smoke from the engines, though the novelty and convenience of the tube meant this did not greatly impact ridership.

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Another photo of underground construction by Paddington Station. Constructed through the back-breaking cut-and-cover method, the work looks exhausting.

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Another photo of underground construction by Paddington Station. Constructed through the back-breaking cut-and-cover method, the work looks exhausting.

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Here we see welders at work on the SS Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs. Working at night, the scene is lit by gaslight. The Great Eastern was meant to be a symbol of Britain's naval power, engineering prowess and industrial strength. Designed by the legendary Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship was six times bigger than any other afloat at the time of its launch in 1858. It wouldn't be surpassed for another 40 years.

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Workers gather to listen to a preacher speak at the Gatehouse of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Woolwich had been the centre of British armaments manufacturing since the 17th Century, one of the world's largest manufacturing centres. By the First World War, a few years after this photo was taken, over 80,000 people were employed in the sprawling complex. Today the Royal Arsenal is a historic site and hosts the excellent Royal Artillery Museum.

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Regent's Circus, or Oxford Circus as it is now known. Most of the buildings have been knocked down or at least redeveloped in the last 130 years. In the foreground you can see a man pulling an organ grinder, a form of entertainment very popular with the urban poor at the time.

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Harley Street, an upscale area where many doctors had their practices.

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The swanky Palace Theatre.

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A nanny poses with a baby for a photograph. The photographer has brought along his mobile dark room.

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The Prince of Wales theatre. Home of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the focus of English entertainment throughout the world, London has always had a vibrant and trend-setting theatre scene.

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The Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition in 1851. It was the first large building constructed of walls of plate glass supported by iron struts. This novel building that didn't require any interior lighting astonished visitors and was named the Crystal Palace because it reminded viewers of crystal.

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A sumptuous banquet held in the halls of the Crystal Palace.

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A crowded street in front of Liverpool Station. Only the building on the left survives, the pub owners proudly reminding us that it's still "open as usual." In 1801 Greater London had a population of just over a million. By 1901 this had increased to well over 6 million, the largest surge in population seen anywhere up to that point and making London far and away the largest city in the world. Second was New York (4 million), followed by Paris (3.3 million), Berlin (2.7 million) and Chicago (1.7 million). These people were overwhelmingly concentrated in Inner London and most of them lived in cramped and fetid conditions. This is opposed to today where the majority of London's inhabitants inhabit outer London.

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A crowd watches a Punch and Judy Show in Waterloo Place. On the left can be seen the Crimean War Memorial. Punch and Judy shows are mobile booths where puppet shows can be put on. They were wildly popular with the lower classes.

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Traffic on the Strand.

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Slums on lower Fore Street near Moorgate. These slums, like many slums throughout London, were cleared out early in the 20th Century.

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Women selling flowers in Covent Garden in front of Saint Paul's Church.

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The Clare Market which was once on the edge of Lincoln's Inn Fields. Once a densely populated slum, now the London School of Economics stands on the spot.

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One of Claude Monet's paintings of the Houses of Parliament. He painted these as he sat in his hospital bed in Saint Thomas looking out the window across the Thames. The buildings are shrouded in smog the dense smogs typical of the time that were the origin of the term "London pea souper". The smog was caused by the burning of coal for home heating and cooking, a practice detrimental to the health of all the city's inhabitants.

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Police guarding the prime minister's office on Downing Street during women's suffrage protests in 1908. The fight for a women's right to vote in Britain began as early as 1865, when John Stuart Mill was elected on a platform of women's suffrage. The debate was bitter and divisive and the wheels of history turned slowly. In Britain the struggle continued long after women in some of the dominions, including New Zealand (1893) and Australia (1902), had won their right to vote.

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One of the many arrests of leading suffragette activist Emmeline Pankhurst, this one outside Buckingham Palace. After the government backed down from extending the franchise to women at the last minute in 1912, the suffragettes adopted more aggressive tactics. They chained themselves to railings, vandalized government buildings and even committed acts of arson at night. Many imprisoned activists went on hunger strikes, to which the government responded with brutal force-feeding. During the First World War suffragette organizations rallied behind the war effort and in 1918 women over 30 meeting certain property qualifications were given the vote. Finally in 1928 the franchise was extended to all women over 21.

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Animal rights activists gather at Nelson's Column during the Brown Dog Affair. In 1903 Doctor William Bayliss of University College London vivisected—that is dissected alive and (allegedly) without anaesthesia—a small brown terrier in front of his class. The resulting debate over vivisection led to a series of riots and street battles between medical students defending vivisection on the one hand and feminists and animal rights advocates on the other. If the treatment of animals in classrooms has since improved, the treatment of those in pharmaceutical laboratories has not.

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Detectives cautiously approach the burning building at the centre of the Siege of Sidney Street in London's East End. The Siege began after an anarchist, anti-capitalist gang led by the notorious (and mysterious) "Peter the Painter" murdered several police constables during an attempted robbery. They were tracked back to this house in Stepney and surrounded by constables and the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill, who came to supervise. The well-armed anarchists pinned down dozens of police officers until the building was set alight. Churchill refused to allow the fire brigade to douse the fire until all resistance had ceased. When the fire brigade finally entered the building all they found were the charred remains of two anarchists. "Peter the Painter" was never found.

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BEF Troops leave Westminster Polytechnic with a carriage mounted machine gun in the first days of the First World War. You can see on the left one of the soldiers is holding a puppy. It looks like a happy occasion. Mountings for machine guns like this were useful for pitched battles of the sort fought in the colonial era, but they were absolutely useless for the trench warfare the Great War would shortly degenerate into.

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The houses of Parliament are lit up by a huge array of searchlights during the German zeppelin raids on London in 1915. I wasn't able to get the perspective just right but it is still a fascinating look into history's first attempt at organized air defense.

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Damage from a zeppelin raid to Moorgate Hall. Though these raids caused comparatitvely few casualties and slight damage compared to the Second World War Blitz, the psychological effect was immense. For the first time in history a civilian population far from the front line became a viable target in warfare.

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More zeppelin damage to the Minories after the raid of October 13 . The zeppelin raids occurred at night, adding to the terror they caused. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, as accurate aiming was impossible, led to the zeppelins being dubbed "baby-killers" in the British press.

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Men work to repair bomb damage to Liverpool Street, just outside Liverpool Station. Throughout 1915 there were 20 zeppelin raids that dropped 37 tons of bombs killing 181 people, mostly in London.

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More bomb damage to the Minories. The zeppelin raids continued in 1916 and 1917, but the introduction of incendiary and explosive bullets in 1916 finally allowed British fighters to shoot down zeppelins. The huge expense of zeppelins, and their sudden vulnerability to British air defenses, made these raids incredibly hazardous for the zeppelin crews. From 1917 the zeppelin raids were phased out, replaced with faster Gotha bombers, ominous precursors to the fleets of Heinkels and Dorniers that would ravage British cities 25 years later.

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A rather quiet and subdued Picadilly Circus in the Summer of 1918. Even at this point the outcome of the war was far from certain. The sudden change in fortunes on August 8, 1918, that led to the Hundred Days and the collapse of the Central Powers, came as a shock to many. Even the generals were busy planning the spring campaigns of 1919 when Germany surrendered on November 11.

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Another photo of underground construction by Paddington Station. Constructed through the back-breaking cut-and-cover method, the work looks exhausting.

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People queue at His Majesty's Theatre near Leicester Square.

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The headquarters of the British Union of Fascists, right behind Buckingham Palace. BUF leadership appear to be inspecting the loudspeaker truck drivers. After the Stock Market Crash and the ensuing Depression people around the world became disillusioned with democracy. Millions flocked to extremist ideologies, both left and right. In Great Britain there were many fascists and communists. The pro-Nazi BUF at one point claimed 50,000 members and influential backers like the Daily Mail.

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Police dismantle a barricade set up by anti-Fascist protesters during the Battle of Cable Street, right at the intersection of Christian Street. Around 2,500 Fascist demonstrators from Mosley's BUF sought to march through the East End's Jewish Quarter. 100,000 anti-fascist protesters turned out, largely organized by the Communist Party. They set up barricades to block the marchers. 6,000 police officers were sent in to dismantle the barricades and allow the march to go ahead. A street battle ensued where protesters hurled stones, furniture and rotten food at the police and fascists. Those in upper windows emptied the contents of their chamber pots on the fascists' heads.

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An anti-Fascist protester is arrested during the Battle of Cable Street. The march ended quickly and the Fascists dispersed, while a number of protesters were arrested and received harsh treatment at the hands of the police. The frequently violent and thuggish tactics of the BUF, and virulent anti-Semitism of many of its members, turned many people off of Fascism and the movement was reduced to irrelevance by 1939. When World War II broke out the BUF was banned and its leadership interned.

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The royal family walks down a collonade towards the National Maritime Museum on the day of its grand opening. The future Queen Elizabeth II is at centre. The royal family would remain in London throughout the Second World War and become symbols of the staunch British determination to resist Nazi Germany.

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