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Londres, la ville-monde


Philippe Chassaigne & Marie-Claire Esposito


Paris : Vendémiaire, 2013

Broché. 462 p. ISBN 978-2363580634. 24,00 €


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London


This book is both more and less than its title suggests. ‘More’ in the sense that it provides a historical digest of ‘London’ from pre-Roman times, for which there is evidence of settlement in the surrounding area but not specifically on the site of what would become ‘Londinium’, rather than focusing only on its ‘world city’ attributes that appeared in recent centuries. ‘Less’ in the sense that the ‘world city’ story, from the late 18th century onwards, occupies only a part of the total text. Its authors have long experience of writing about English history, politics and socio-economic life, with Philippe Chassaigne (Université de Bordeaux III) having published an Histoire de l’Angleterre des origines à nos jours (2008), and Marie-Claire Esposito (Sorbonne-Nouvelle) being the author of Londres, histoire d’une place financière (1993). With the present book, they have achieved a miracle of compression as they cover two thousand years of history in 390 pages of text, which are supported by 544 end notes (40 pages), a comprehensive bibliography (20 pages), and a very useful index of personalities and place names. Unusually, their eighteen chapters are not numbered.

Chassaigne and Esposito present a fairly conventional story to those who are familiar with the growth of London across the centuries and are aware of the main trends of London life from the ‘swinging sixties’ to the riots of 2011. However, such a chronological structure is what a broad audience expects from such a book, since Londres may be read as a work of general interest, whilst its notes and bibliography allow students of London history and la civilisation britannique to delve further into the life of this very cosmopolitan city. Successive chapters deal with the rise and fall of Roman Londinium, the emergence of medieval London as a trading city, the various disasters of the 17th century (civil war, plague, fire, wars), the role of London in the 18th and 19th centuries as capital of Britain and the far-flung British Empire, the impact on the city of two world wars in the 20th century, and the subsequent development of London as a major locus of global financial transactions. Among many interesting points, is their discussion of Madras as the ‘second city of the kingdom’ during the latter years of the 17th century by virtue of the mayor, municipal councillors and courts introduced by the British and its estimated population of 100,000 residents [128].

Among the book’s strong points I would highlight the treatment of banking and financial services both in the 19th century when imperial London affirmed its ‘world city’ status, and again in the past three decades when post-industrial London re-asserted its role as a transactional city of global stature. The book’s bibliography is comprehensive, if not exhaustive, and includes a number of very recent items that appeared in 2010 or 2011. Coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in 2012 demonstrates the freshness of the text, as well as evoking ‘Cool Britannia’. Among the book’s weaknesses are the illustrations that are restricted to a 16-page insert with 36 images, the majority of which are in full colour. Most are valuable complements to the text but a handful are not worth including (for example, the pictures showing workers on the Roman wall in 1882, the coronation of Richard I in 1189, Baynard’s Castle in the 16th century, a very dark Charing Cross Road in the 1930s, and the interior of Victoria Station in 1967). One can only imagine that the images were selected by the book’s designer rather than by its authors. The fascinating illustration of Roman Londinium and the facsimiles of two 16th-century maps of London merit a full page apiece, rather than each being relegated to a third of a page. The lack of a few basic maps showing the extent of London at various dates is to be regretted. Typographic errors are few, but there are some howlers among the place names: ‘Sydhenham’, ‘Christlehurst’ (Chislehurst), ‘Fenchchurch Street’, ‘Greenwhich’, ‘Stevenhage’, ‘Romsford’, the river ‘Ley’ and the ‘Guidhall’ exemplify the point.

Despite these blemishes, Philippe Chassaigne and Marie-Claire Esposito have produced a very worthwhile book that will be of great value to general readers, students and academics with interests in London, ‘Greater London’, and even the ‘South-East’ super-region with 20 million inhabitants whose daily urban system is energised by the wealth, services and employment of the national capital, and its dynamic presence in the global economy.



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