Top 10 books about Londoners

From its Roman foundation to the 21st century, London has always been a city of migrants, as these rich histories, memoirs and novels show

The people of London have always been settlers from around the world, beginning with the Roman invaders who founded the city. While the growth of the imperial capital until 1945 largely depended on migrants from other parts of Britain, it also included Europeans, especially Jews, Germans, and, above all the Irish.

The multicultural capital that exists today has continued to depend on Europeans but people from the wider world. My own parents moved to the heart of empire in its dying days, from Cyprus, and my interest evolved from this connection to a still great global capital.

Those who have written about the people of London, especially its ethnic diversity, have included authors telling their own life stories, countless novelists, journalists and other observers, a selection of whom I outline below. Collectively, they reveal the modern history of London, providing an insight into its ethnic and social diversity.

1. Memoirs of the Life of Daniel Mendoza (1816)
London has acted as home to countless sportsmen, especially fighters and footballers, many of who have produced autobiographies. Daniel Mendoza, born in Aldgate in 1765, wrote this pioneering account of his life, which involved punching his way out of the Jewish East End to become British champion in an era when Jewish boxers became well-known celebrities, with Mendoza developing something of a cult, partly due to his ability to publicise his activities, especially through his biography.

2. London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew (1861)
It proves impossible to understand the evolution of modern London without reading Henry Mayhew, who interviewed people in the early Victorian streets involved in all types of work and, above all, allowed them to speak for themselves, making him a pioneer both in the history of journalism, as his pieces first appeared in the Morning Chronicle, and in social science research. Mayhew’s interviewees and the detailed research which he carried out, provide us with information on all manner of lower-class occupations, especially on the hawkers selling everything from recycled tea bags to fried fish. Mayhew offers a panorama of working-class life largely as told by the people of London themselves.

3. Life and Labour of the People in London by Charles Booth (1892)
Much more academic in tone and not providing the people of London with the same opportunity as Mayhew does to speak for themselves, anybody trying to understand late Victorian London has to at least dip into this multi-volume survey of the capital, the first research project which used a large team, including Beatrice Potter, to provide a scientific account of the population of London, complete with numerous maps outlining the income of the different areas of the capital, as well as providing an insight into ethnicity and work.

a room at the newly Museum of London, showing Charles Booth’s Map Descriptive of London Poverty in 1891.
 A room at the Museum of London, showing Charles Booth’s 1891 Descriptive Map of London Poverty. Photograph: Sarah Lee/the Guardian

4. Living London, edited by George R Sims (1902-3)
While those interested in Victorian London will certainly know the work of Mayhew and Booth, they may not have come across the magnificent collection of essays brought together by George R Sims and published at the very end of the old queen’s reign. Consisting of a series of short essays about the city, “its work and its play, its humour and its pathos, its sights and its scenes”, reveals virtually every aspect of the life of London at the beginning of the 20th century. The essays range from Waterside London to Underground London and Ballooning London. The book also includes at least one sketch on each of the major migrant groups in the capital.

5. Children of the Ghetto by Israel Zangwill (1902)
This offers a literary account of life in the Jewish East End at the beginning of the 20th century, an alternative view to the antisemitic discourse which blighted early 20th century Britain focusing, in a fictive treatment, on the reality of Jewish life in late Victorian London allowing us an understanding of identity, integration and work.

6. An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile by Donall MacAmlaigh (1964) originally appeared in an Irish version (as the inside front cover of the 2018 edition states) and offers an insight into the life of the hundreds of thousands of Irish males who helped to build London from the Victorian period until the end of the 20th century. While MacAmlaigh moved around Britain, his account of his working life demonstrates precarity for a labourer at the lower end of the social scale, as well as the hard work involved, therefore reflecting not simply the lives of other Irishmen but also the reality of labouring for millions of people in the British capital.

Small Island by Andrea Levy.
 Naomie Harris and David Oyelowo in the BBC’s adaptation of Small Island by Andrea Levy. Photograph: Steffan Hill/Ruby Television

7. Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
One of the best fictional accounts of the realities of life in wartime and early postwar London for West Indian migrants to the heart of empire, tracing racism, which trumped social status with regard to the way in which the white British reacted to the new arrivals, despite the relatively positive reception for West Indian servicemen during the second world war. The novel also offers an insight into the social and economic realities of London life in the 1940s and 1950s for all ethnic groups.

8. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Smith’s novel takes us forward from the experiences faced by first generation immigrants in Small Island to the realities of multi-ethnic London at the end of the century. It is told through the lives of migrants and their children, in which ethnic diversity and ethnic mixing became part of the everyday realities of life for all Londoners, whatever their background, a process which had become normalised by the 1960s and which has roots throughout London’s history. White Teeth offers a brilliant literary account of these processes.

9. One Way Ticket: The Autobiography of a London Cypriot by Fotis Loizou (2019)
This memoir recounts the experiences of a member of one of the largest migrant groups in early postwar London. Fotis moved to the city in 1957 as a child with his parents and sister. The book does not simply tell the story of the problems of assimilation and integration which we might expect from an account of this nature, but also demonstrates the fact that Cypriots could face the type of violent racism experienced by all ethnic groups in London, as happened to his father following the murder of a British soldier in Cyprus. Fotis also recounts his own experiences of facing racists at a bus stop in Camden Town when Enoch Powell reached the height of his popularity.

10. London in the Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God by Jerry White (2006)
I could just as easily have recommended this author’s accounts of London in the 18th century and in the 20th. White’s masterly and well written narratives offer the best introductions to the history of modern London, covering all aspects of the development of the global city before, during and after the age of empire: people, economics, society, culture and politics. They serve as reference volumes for anyone who wants to learn about modern London and its people.

 Migrant City: A New History of London by Panikos Panayi is published by Yale Books (£20).

Source: Top 10 books about Londoners

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