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The Origin of London's Success
The fame and fortune of London is based quite simply on its position along the Thames. The foresight of its founders gave London several advantages. Firstly, it offered an ideal route into the heart of Britain for sea borne trade. Here boats could shelter from storm, and can take advantage of the tides to float up and down the Thames without being dependent on the vagaries of the wind. The cost of transporting goods by boat before the 19th Century was considerably cheaper than by land and so the extra miles of sea transport were valuable.
Secondly, the City was the furthest downstream that it was practicable to build a bridge. On the North Bank was high ground and although the South Bank was prone to flood, there were two eyots (islands) of sand and gravel for the approach road to the first London Bridge across a generally marshy area.
Thirdly, the two hills on the north bank, Cornhill and Ludgate offered an ideal site for a City as it was south facing, well supplied with water, had good supplies of local building materials, and was above the flood plan.
Once the bridge was put in place it became a natural centre for the road system and roads from all the great towns in all corners of Britain headed to London. The combination of a port, bridge and centre of the road system was a winning combination.
The Thames Highway?
But the history of London shows us that it is not a totally infallible recipe for success because these geographic advantages count for little if the country is disunited. For the broad highway that is the Thames has another face. In times of strife, the Thames becomes a highway for seaborne raiders into the heart of the land or a defensive border in a war zone.
These facts explain much of London's history. For example in the prehistoric period the Thames was for long periods the boundary between tribes and although the Thames was still an important trade route it did not lead to the development of a great City. There were important trading posts strung out along it and such places as at Egham, and Brentford. But in the absence of a unified communications network no one site had a monopoly of geographic advantages and therefore did not develop into an international City.
Egham was, for example, a riverside settlement, which flourished for a few centuries around 800 BC, with a substantial timber wharf and settlement. Archaeological excavation revealed finds which indicated trading contacts with the continent. Concentrations of coins also suggest an important centre around the Brentford area from about 100 - 60 BC, but no trace of it has yet been found. Even when the north and south banks were united, probably under the Catevallaunian tribe, immediately before the Roman Conquest, London did not emerge.
The first genuine historical description of the London area does not mention the presence of a town, and suggests that the Brentford settlement had disappeared. The author is Julius Caesar who made two armed reconnaissances of Britain and who fought a battle over control of the Thames with the leader of the British: Cassivellaunus. The area of the crossing has not been identified for certain but is possibly in the Westminster area. These events took place on his second visit in 54BC:
'When I discovered what the enemy's plans were, I led the army to the River Thames and the Territory of Cassivellaunus. There is only one place where the river can be forded, and even there with difficulty. When we reached it, I noticed large enemy forces drawn up on the opposite bank. The bank had also been fortified with sharp stakes fixed along it, and, as I discovered from prisoners and deserters, similar stakes had been driven into the riverbed and were concealed beneath the water'.
Caesar was seriously misled by enemy misinformation because archaeology has discovered a number of fords in such places as Brentford, Wandsworth, Battersea, and Westminster, and the natives obviously sought to lead Caesar to where the defenses were strongest. Caesar crossed the river success- fully and went on to 'win' the submission of the British and returned to Gaul. His so-called 'invasions' came to nothing as is attested by the fact that the Romans left Britain independent for another 90 years before Claudius completed the conquest in 43 AD.
The above is an updated extract from Kevin Flude and Paul Herbert from 'The Citisight's Guide to London' Virgin Book 1990, Reprinted by Author's Choice 2001.
The Origins of London
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