History of London Course
Learn how London cracked out of its medieval shell, sprawled into the suburbs and blossomed into the biggest metropolis on the face of the earth by the Victorian age on this groundbreaking six-week course in the gorgeous, red-brick church of St James the Less, Pimlico.
- Historian and broadcaster Dr Matthew Green has a PhD from Oxford University in the history of London and is the author of the acclaimed London: A Travel Guide Through Time (Penguin), which the Telegraph has described as ‘fascinating’ and the Londonist as ‘easily the most engaging social history of London for a decade’.
Join us on an immersive whirlwind tour through 1,000 years of London’s history from the Middle Ages to the present day, visiting emblematic sites from Shakespearean bear pits to Georgian chocolate houses, Victorian music halls to Brutalist high-rise estates, and meeting an extraordinary cast of characters along the way, from Chaucer to the Elephant Man, Samuel Pepys to Mary Quant.
Unlike traditional lectures on London’s history, we will eschew dry lectures on civic administration and Whitehall intrigues in favour of the theatre of everyday life, as explored through the places and spaces in which Londoners lived, worked, played, dreamed and died.
With maps, illustrations, photographs and vivid anecdotes, each two-hour session will take the form of a tour through London at a key stage in its overall development, giving you vivid insight into the social, cultural and economic history of the time. Accessible to both novices and those well-versed in London’s history, the course will bring the city’s history to life in an unforgettable way, allowing you to see London in a new light, and teaching you where to discover some of its best-kept historical secrets.
You will also have the opportunity to meet fellow London enthusiasts, over wine.
- Classes run every Tuesday evening, 6.45pm – 8.45pm
Week 1, 17 January – MEDIEVAL LONDON
Week 2, 24 January – SHAKESPEAREAN LONDON
Week 3, 31 January – PLAGUE-STRUCK LONDON
Week 4, 7 February – GEORGIAN LONDON
Week 5, 14 February – VICTORIAN LONDON
Week 6, 21 February – 1940s & 1950s LONDON
More about your teacher…
Dr Matthew Green is the author of the acclaimed book London: A Travel Guide Through Time, which has been described by The Daily Telegraph as ‘fascinating’ and The Londonist as ‘easily the most engaging social history of London for a decade’. Matthew also writes historical features for the Guardian, Telegraph and Financial Times among others, and has featured in many TV and Radio documentaries. He’s the founder of Unreal City Audio, which produces immersive, critically acclaimed tours of historic London.
– “Dr Matthew Green has a knack for revealing the most unexpected details of London’s multifaceted past in fascinating and accessible detail” – Daily Telegraph
– “Green’s vivacious delivery and trickling of trivia really quenches your thirst for knowledge” – The Londonist
– “No-one makes history come to life more vividly than the erudite, acclaimed and all-round impressive Dr. Matthew Green”. Eleanor O’Keefe, co-founder, 5×15
– “Dr Matthew Green is hands down the best storyteller I have ever met” – George Lamb
Detailed Blurb and Testimonials
We will begin outside the City walls of Medieval London as the city broods, silent and black, under her nightly curfew. Venturing in to this stinking, close-knit world of 40,000 souls, we will visit an anchorite, immured for life into a tiny, suffocating cell bulging from a Cornhill Church. From there, we will pay a pilgrimage to Gothic St Paul’s, one of the biggest structures in the world and meet Erkenwald, London’s vengeful patron saint. After a spot of jousting at Smithfield, we’ll share a bed with a stranger in a Southwark inn, then catch a wherry to explore the Tower, the glorious riverside palaces of the Strand, Westminster Palace, and the king’s hawk house on the edge of the city at Charing.
On our next outing, to Shakespearean London, we’ll visit a savage bull and bear baiting arena amidst the marshes and stews of Bankside. Crossing London Bridge, furious currents swirling about its starlings, we will drop into one of the city’s 7,000 tobacco houses, pour some of the “Nicotian weed” into a clay pipe, and inhale this miraculous new drug. Elsewhere, we’ll walk into a universe of knowledge and ideas around the booksellers’ stalls of St Paul’s Churchyard, visit the carcass of Drake’s Golden Hinde at Deptford, and brave the torturous wiles of one of the city’s countless labyrinths in Drapers’ Gardens. We will top off our visit with a trip to the Globe playhouse.
Spinning further forwards in time, we will be harrowed by fear and wonder in the Plague-Struck Londonof 1665 and 1666, sampling the various ungodly unguents, elixirs, and vomit cakes on offer in an apothecaries’ shop, and taking a tour of ‘an abode of misery and despair’: Newgate Prison. As the diseased are shut up in their houses to die, dogs are massacred in their thousands, and corpses swell and burst in the summer sun, we will take a stroll through London’s meridian of fashion in Covent Garden, St James’s, Bloomsbury and other parts of the brand-new West End, drink some luxury baroque hot chocolate, then retire to the Elysian Fields of Hackney for some fresh air, shuffleboard, and pig swinging. Finally, we’ll see the plague-ridden city achieve some form of cathartic release in the flames of the Great Fire.
Early Georgian London was a phoenix arisen from the ashes of the Great Fire, a world of fine brick townhouses and elegant squares but also one of brutality, crime and squalour. We will climb into a sedan chair and whizz through the biggest city in Europe, checking the latest news at Button’s coffeehouse, laughing at lunatics incarcerated in Bethlem (as everyone else is doing), plough through the trading piazza at the Royal Exchange, the epicentre of Britain’s growing empire, and watch the sledgehammer of English justice at work at the Old Bailey. And no trip to 18th-century London would be complete without a visit to Fleet Street, churning out news and influencing how people thought. We will finish at a Tyburn Fair to watch a batch of executions.
Victorian London was the biggest city in the world, and also the most exciting. Finding ourselves immersed in the mist of the Dickensian megalopolis, we will naturally head straight for Holywell Street, the porn hub of Victorian London, and savour some X-rated passages from the anonymously-written My Secret Life, which remained illegal into the 1970s. The juices of our morbid voyeurism flowing, we will take a tour of freak-show booths, including the Elephant Man’s in Whitechapel, then visit Mr Jamrach’s Animal Emporium on the deathly Ratcliffe Highway in the East End. We will tour wharves, warrens of slums, and take a ride on the hellish Victorian Underground. We will end our visit in song, in the Lambeth Music Hall, with salty baked potatoes and gin.
In our final visit, to 1940s & 1950s London, we will see parts of city pulverised by bombs and rockets during the London Blitz, drawing upon vivid, first-hand accounts of the horror. Then, in the 1950s, we will see London resurgent, rising from the craters of the Blitz and reaching for the skies during the Brutalist high-rise mania. Although a drab, downcast world, parts of the city were fading into colour, and we will visit the rock ‘n roll espresso bars of Soho – including Le Macabre, where you took your coffee on a coffin, ashing into candlelit skulls – and the fashion boutiques of the King’s Road, the playground of the bohemian bon-vivants who comprised the original Chelsea set. And there, as London begins to swing, we’ll take our leave of it.
You will never look at the city in the same way again.
Some testimonials from Matthew Green’s History of London course:
“I thought the course was absolutely fantastic – it was really thought provoking, insightful, and endlessly fascinating. I wish the lessons had been longer”
“I really enjoyed the structure, visiting a different ‘London’ each week and using the maps to provide some visual cues really brought each period to life.”
“I am beyond loving your course”
“so much really interesting tactile detail to embellish the facts”
I have thoroughly enjoyed your course! The aspect I have enjoyed in particular is the sense of place that you draw out from the different sources. I’ve tried (largely in vain) to imagine what London may have been like for the average chap centuries ago but your talks have definitely helped me imagine myself walking through the medieval and Elizabethan streets of London.”
“it was refreshing to ignore the great political intrigues and power plays in favour of exploring the lives of every day Londoners”.
Dr Matthew Green
In 2009, Dr Matthew Green completed a PhD in the history of the mass media at Oxford University. Unmoved by the prospect of a cloistered academic life he turned to popular history and now writes for the Guardian and Telegraph, appears on BBC TV and radio, teaches a wide range of historical subjects, and gives sell-out talks at the Idler Academy, 5x15, Port Eliot and elsewhere. He is currently writing a book on 17th and 18th-century coffeehouses.