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 Continue reading