RH Books, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs, By Nick Barratt

An epic account of how Britain's capital city became the behemoth of greater London

My copy of Nick Barratt's exceedingly stout book was picked up by a number of my colleagues as I wrote this review. They flicked through the pages looking for mentions of their manor and seemed proud when they came across a line on Muswell Hill's cinema, say, or East Sheen's almshouses. Had they looked beyond their own postcodes, they might have been surprised to learn that the London suburb is really very relative: at the end of the Middle Ages, Westminster was a suburban centre of around 3,500.

The fact that anywhere that wasn't originally encircled by the City walls was a suburb quickly makes you realise Barratt's undertaking. Despite the disclaimer that "this is a history of the suburbs and the capital's relationship with them, not a broadly based history of London", his book does an excellent impression of a far-reaching, in-depth yet broadly-based history of London. Whether you've ever wondered about how Joseph Bazalgette's sewer system was rolled out, or why certain districts of London look the way they do, or how the railways changed the way the capital ate, you'll find the answer here – and a great deal more.

One of the many fascinating things about Greater London is the way it reveals that concepts we might think of as thoroughly modern are anything but. Take commuting. "As London and Westminster grew in size in the centuries after the Norman Conquest, they inevitably acted as a magnet for aspiring artisans and professionals. Many moved within the cramped city walls." Some, by contrast, preferred the open spaces. "These were essentially the ancestors of the modern commuter, and one of the earliest we can trace with certainty is recorded in the Domesday Book".

Similarly, the cycle of people moving into the City, moving up in the world, and moving out had been going on for centuries before the Huguenot weavers of the 18th century were replaced by Jewish immigrants in the 19th and the Bangladeshi community in the 20th. "Ultimately, though, there was a limit to just how far out most people could move if they needed ready access to the City and Westminster". Until the coming of the railways, Londoners relied on the old Roman road system but mainly people let the Thames take the strain.

As his epic account of how the capital became the behemoth of greater London unfolds, Barratt reveals the everyday details that turned a Roman trading post into the place we know. While the Great Fire in 1666 gave the city fathers the chance to rebuild the medieval city, it changed more than the buildings. As the displaced flocked to the slums beyond the walls and as an army of "masons, builders and carpenters" flooded in to repair and rebuild, the East End "was transformed. In came the poor and moderately prosperous; out went the nobility." One poorly extinguished fire and a neighbourhood's social standing was wiped out for generations.

You don't have to be a Londoner to enjoy this heroic tale of people – and bricks and train-tracks – triumphing to the detriment of green space. You might need to be more enamoured than I am of local politics in order to relish the ever-shifting status of the Metropolitan Board of Works/London County Council/Greater London Council, but even with this material, Barratt gives an overview of 150 years of bureaucratic spats with a relatively light touch. You certainly don't have to like the suburbs - they have always divided even as they conquered. One of the book's anecdotes sticks in the mind. "Each evening the children's writer E Nesbit would produce models of factories and suburban villas out of brown paper and cardboard and then ritually set fire to them." What Londoners will enjoy is finding their borough in the historical gazetteer at the end. Despite knocking much of the stuffing out of the old aphorism that London is a series of small villages, a brisk account of one's home turf brings out the territorial feelings in most, I'd wager.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment