An introduction to London for Christian workers

The geography and history of London

London begins in what we now know as the City. It was a port on the River Thames which disgorged into the channel, a few nautical miles from the continent of Europe. This has remained the significance of London - it is the gateway for the British into Europe and beyond and the entre for the world into the island of Britain.

Over many centuries London developed as a thriving port, a place of commerce and finance - almost a world unto itself. The kings needed London's wealth but kept their distance from it in their palace at Westminster and so developed the twin centre of the metropolis. The city: a chaotic, energetic, multicultural, money spinning entrepot. Westminster: the cultured, fashionable centre of politics and English power.

On the fringe of this London, alternative Londons developed both to service the centre and provide its people lebensraum. To the south, beyond the jurisdiction of the city Southwark with its theatres and brothels developed; to the east Spitalfields and Whitechapel grew as a site for industry and housing for the working classes and between the two cities their grew the slum of St Giles and its notorious rookeries. Beyond the growing reach of the twin cities a rural economy developed to feed and serve the urban appetites - market gardens and watercress beds in Battersea, country houses and taverns for day trippers in Hackney. And perhaps most significant of all eastwards along the Thames the docks continued to grow and spread, bringing the fruits of the emerging empire - first economic, then political - into the mother city. 

And so London grew both as the commercial heart of an emerging empire and the political centre of a developing democracy. It was a cultured, but also a chaotic place. Wren's vision of an orderly enlightenment city was submerged beneath the mercantile realities of 17th century London. But as Victorian London dawned so did London begin to change, slowly and subtly but change nonetheless. Firstly London became the vast conurbation that it has now become - its industry, commercial activity and population exploded and thousands of homes were needed to house the new Londoners. At first they needed to be within walking distance - which for those hardy foot soldiers of capitalism meant as far away as Brixton - but the railways quickly extended their range into what we now recognise as the commuter belt. London therefore became much bigger. Secondly London became more controlled. In 1801 the census was introduced and it is a symbol of the desire for bureaucrats and governors to understand the nation so that they could regulate it better. Gradually police, planning restrictions, public health policies and a hundred other innovations, we now take for granted, were introduced. And no doubt the size necessitated the control, and the control facilitated the size. But it meant that London changed and became the first modern, global city.

It took some time for the consequences of this to work themselves out in the geography of the city but the general trend was towards increasing segregation. Some areas became increasingly fashionable, expensive and select whilst others became caught in ghettos of poverty and stigmatization. Normally wealth moved outwards into the suburbs and an increasingly suburbanized rural hinterland, leaving behind what we now know as the inner city - a ring of severe deprivation around central London. But pockets of wealth remained - often on London's hills such as in Hampstead and Dulwich; but there was also a geographical divide. The west (Mayfair, Belgravia) tended to be wealthier, the east (Stepney, Shoreditch) poorer. The north (St Johns Wood, Bayswater) more genteel, the south (Elephant and Castle, the Old Kent Rd.) rougher and readier. 

Other factors also affected the way London grew. Property speculators built ribbon fashion along roads and around railway stations. Water attracted industry - especially dirty and smelly enterprises, and so the river Lea in the east and the river Wandle in the west became centres for industrial development and, therefore, working class housing. Laterly commercial developments have emerged around the centre of Heathrow - the largest international airport in the world.

But this growth went along with increasing attempts to control the growth - what we know as planning. Planning put in place many of the features which now characterise London - for example the  Greenbelt which restricted the sprawl of London to the area now described by the M25 and the New Towns which sought to ease the population pressure on London and provide people with room to breathe, but which also hastened the decline of the inner city leaving it disproportionately full of the elderly, the ill and the unadventurous. The desire to plan, or sort out the problems of London also led to the creation of council estates. These estates were of two sorts. Firstly there were the cottage estates on the edge of London: Bellingham in Lewisham was one of the first, Dagenham the largest. But the suburban boroughs and counties resisted the invasion of their gentility and it did not prove possible to build the vast ring of outer estates that characterise, for instance, Glasgow. A few were built deep in rural suburbia such as South Oxhey but they were deeply resented. Much of inner London, therefore, was pulled down and rebuilt creating the huge, dense, often high-rise, estates which loom over much of inner London.  

This was all not without its consequences. London lost some of its spontaneity. People had to commute huge, exhausting distances to work. Traffic was regulated by traffic lights, pubs by licensing laws and churches by English Heritage. London could not just be, it had to be made better. Sometimes it was - it's parks are a blessed heritage of sanity, sometimes it wasn't - tower blocks became all too obvious mistakes pointing stubbornly upwards to an empty heaven for their often unfortunate inhabitants.

But London has shifted again. It's geography subtly changed since the war, not by fiat of the planner but by the phenomenon of gentrification. The logic of the dispersal of wealth and activity out of the inner city left it as a zone ripe for exploitation. Property prices were low and there was an increasing body of younger people who could be encouraged to believe that suburbia was an unworthy aspiration and that the renovation of a Victorian terrace or riverside loft a more heroic demonstration of their modernity. Sometimes the gentrification was encouraged by politics as in the Thatcherite exploitation of Docklands and Battersea; sometimes it just happened by stealth, encouraged by a few savvy estate agents, as in Islington. Often politicians and entrepreneurs worked together - it, at least, provided some answers to the problems of the inner city. But the estates, massive reminders of the failures of a more hopeful age, persist and so the present, bizarre mosaic of inner London has emerged - 500,000 town houses across the road from estates sunk in a cycle of decay unchecked by relentless efforts at regeneration, renewal and Sure Starting. 

But we cannot understand London simply by looking at London itself, London began as a port and it remains a portal to the world. The only context that explains London is the global one. As we have already observed Victorian London was rooted in the empire, many of its street names remind us of this -- Khyber, Ladysmith and the four Imperial Courts, for example -- and it retains its international perspective. A significant aspect is an accident of time. London just happens to be situated between the time zones of New York and Tokyo thus making it a chronological staging post between the two largest financial centres in the world. This combined with its financial preeminence in Europe (despite the recurrent fears that Frankfurt will usurp it) securely locks it in to the lucrative global financial merry-go-round, and it is this which is the engine of London's economy. This is what caused Canary Wharf to emerge out of the post Imperial wastelands of the Isle of Dogs. And this global context is also a cause of anxiety, for whilst London's dominance within Britain is unchallengeable, its place in the world is less certain. Traditionally London has subsidised the rest of the country, but now, the new London mayor is calling for London to retain more of its wealth and use this to rejuvenate its ailing infrastructure. Certainly London is booming, if recent trends continue its population of 7.4 million could rise to 8.1 million by 2016, so whilst the rest of the country envies London its wealth and dominance; London is anxiously eyeing the competition of Paris, Beijing and New York.

The question remains: how can we tame and make manageable this leviathan of London which exists almost as a country unto itself? Margaret Thatcher tried by denying it the right to exist as a unified entity, dividing it up into its constituent boroughs. This, however, only produced chaos and the emergence of a typically London antiestablishment hero -- the blessed St Ken of Livingstone. The necessity of a politically unified London has been re-established but that does not solve the problem of how we as Londoners cope with the unmanageable colossus. We end up doing what Thatcher did and divide it into manageable chunks -- the famous London villages. I have lived in five London villages:

West Norwood: a cluster of suburban streets and small estates gathered around St Luke's Church, the railway station and a downmarket high street. It exists obscurely in between suburban Croydon and urban Brixton.

Clapham: bedsit land turned into a fashionable residence by the dubious delights of the northern line and the more obviously appealing space of Clapham Common.

Battersea: a schizophrenic mix of South Chelsea and grim high-rise estates whose gentrification was accelerated by the gerrymandering of the flagship Tory Wandsworth

Bellingham: an urban village built by design in the 1920s to provide clean air and tidy gardens for the respectable working classes wishing to escape Bermondsey

Homerton: genuinely an old village now long consumed within the sprawl of the East End and turned into a choked high street flanked by brick estates and terraced streets

Sometimes my true village was smaller than these entities which are named on maps. My village in Battersea was really Clapham Junction and the Winstanley estate (which was only the most notorious of a cluster of estates to the north of the Junction). Often people's villages are often not geographical at all. My favourite one is the Ayia Napa village. Ayia Napa is a real village in Cyprus where I lived for six months, I was therefore surprised to see the name appearing all over London a few years ago, advertising Ayia Napa reunions. Ayia Napa has become the next Ibiza, targeted by some savvy London DJs, it was transformed from a relatively tranquil resort into a summer village of love, drugs and extravagant decibels. And this has created its own village in London -- a soft village spread throughout the metropolis and drawn together at clubs and raves. We all have some of these soft villages .  Mine have been churches, which are peculiar amalgams of the soft (gathered churches) and the 'hard' (parishes).  I have also been a participant in the urban mission village which arises out of its more specific locations in particular churches and projects. To live in London is to join a village, to not to have a village is not to live in London at all, but in our own lonely universe.

What makes this London of soft villages possible is the transport system. Bus, car, train, tram, feet and bicycle are the very lifeblood of the city. Transport caused London to grow and now it causes it to live and it also, more grimly, raises the spectre of gridlock, where too much movement creates the reality of no movement. This is why debates about London so often focus on the transport system and why the London Underground map has become a symbol for London itself. It reminds us that London is never static but always in movement, always changing from one form into another. A static London would be manageable but this vastness in movement is uncontainable and the attempt to contain destroys. Here the future London is being created.

Economics -- a city of poverty and wealth

The Imperial city was above all a city of wealth and this wealth was built upon centuries of financial and commercial activity. London is genuinely the cradle of capitalism from the South Sea Bubble through to the credit crunch and recent recession.  The recession and evident competence of the bankers has taken the shine off the city, but the tentativeness with which we are looking at reforming and regulating it indicates its iconic role in our financial imagination.  People like to celebrate this conglomeration of wealth -- the fact that the GDP of London is greater than that of Argentina, Switzerland or Russia, that the London Metal Exchange handles 95% of the world's traditional metal trading and that London is the world's largest fund management centre with nearly $2.5 trillion of institutional equity holdings in 1999. This sounds terribly impressive even if we have little idea of what it actually means. Certainly it means there is plenty of money sloshing around and if you in the right place -- say the boutiques beneath Canary Wharf -- you can see it. It also means that people are anxious to keep hold of it. But whilst this is the engine it is not the only aspect of London's wealth. London has been a key centre of manufacturing and it is still not a completely insignificant sector, the docks were and Heathrow now is a critical source of wealth. What is really booming in London now, are the cultural and creative industries (yes, I'm not exactly sure what they are but I think we can make a good guess) which have an annual turnover of over 25 billion and employ nearly 700,000 people.

I have already touched on how this wealth drives change in London. It creates architecture, pushes forward regeneration programmes and patronises culture and the arts. Its minions gentrify the inner suburbs spreading their Cafe Rouges and Courtney's gyms as they go. But curiously it does not seem to affect poverty. London has the highest percentage of high disposable income households in the country but also the highest percentage of low disposable income households. 43% of children in London live in households below the poverty line and serious mental illness in London, so we are told, is twice that of suburban or rural areas.

Poverty has been an ever present fact of London life and people have not been slow to document it. Hogarth painted the destructive impact of drink, Dickens transformed it into his masterpieces of the grotesque whilst Mayhew and Charles Booth detailed it with a Victorian precision. But the pattern of poverty has changed over time. Now it is defined by three factors:

The decline of traditional industries such as the docks and manufacturing (After 1960 London's manufacturing workforce fell more than twice as quickly as that of the U.K. and its share of that declining workforce fell from 18% in 1961 to under 8% in 1992). This concentrated poverty in the areas of London that had become dependent upon these industries. Thus Docklands and Hackney, peppered with light manufacturing units, found unemployment soar and remain stubbornly high.

Poverty and unemployment is defined ethnically. Unemployment amongst Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities is always higher than amongst white communities (although the same does not go for Indians).  This has led to pockets of stubbornly high unemployment among young black men which continued to cause anxiety amongst planners and politicians. And refugees are a small subset where unemployment remains stratospheric.

Also, amongst poorer communities, the dynamic of people moving out remains and, perhaps, has even been increased by gentrification because house prices in the vicinity of inner-city estates are beyond the reach of those living on the estates who have struggled to attain a modest prosperity. Thus more and more estates become open prisons for the left behind, further concentrating poverty into the inner ring. This was not helped by the poor design of many estates, and especially the lack of money put into maintenance and repairs due to the relentless trimming (to put it nicely) of local authority budgets through the 80s and 90s

As I have mentioned previously poverty is not the whole story. Gentrification has brought complexity into areas formerly seen as universally 'poor' and poverty, itself, has many shades. There is a world of difference between a wretched crack-head and a large, stable family making do on an inadequate income. Poverty in London can also be both compounded and ameliorated by the overwhelming presence of London itself. Compounded because poverty can become overwhelmingly extensive and all-encompassing in a borough like Hackney, where every single ward comes out in the statistics as being deprived (it is the only local authority in the country so constituted). In Hackney this relentless poverty seems to have overwhelmed the mechanics of local government and provided a rich breeding ground for the corrupt, the incompetent and the lunatic fringe. But there are also compensations to being poor in London. There are always lucrative opportunities within the buzzing hive of economic, cultural, municipal and charitable activity - the city has never been dependent on one industry. People are drawn to London because of these opportunities and it is even easier for Londoners to tap into the veins of silver which run through London even if streets paved with gold are noticeably lacking.

But now in the managed London of modern times efforts are always being made to treat the cancers of poverty which threaten the health of the city. This began as philanthropy and the edifices of this charity remain at the core of many hospitals and in the continuing presence of Peabody estates and other early experiments in social housing. The organizations also remain - Barnardos, the Salvation Army and the Shaftesbury Society to name a few. Socialism drew the government into the antipoverty operation to such an extent that its instruments - large estates, sprawling social service departments and the huge leviathan of the NHS now seem as much part of the problem as the means of its cure. Central governments have sought to bypass this entanglement of local authorities in the problem of poverty by the concept of regeneration facilitated by bodies free from the dead hand of local government incompetence. Hence the London Docklands Development Corporation, City Challenge, Renaisi and New Deal for Communities ... semi-independent organizations with a remit to facilitate the rejuvenation of problem areas -- who had to compete against each other, parading their communities' wretchedness and their own miracle working competence before the Westminster paymasters. Their success has been debatable, often they seem to have created more disillusionment than hope; putting the emphasis on being seen to do something rather than successfully working for systematic change. Recent government strategies seem to have taken this on board and realised that it is local authorities, however hopeless and incompetent some of them may be, that must be the key to the renewal of neighbourhoods locked into poverty and excluded from mainstream prosperity. It is good basic services that are the key - especially education, and it is through local strategic partnerships which include local authorities, businesses, the voluntary sector (and sometimes the so-called faith communities) that the surgery of cancerous poverty must be achieved. We will see.

A city of the nations

It has become a cliche that there were Africans in London before there were Saxons and that London is a gloriously mongrel city.  London has resident communities of more than 10,000 people from each of 34 different countries and one-third of Londoners are from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities. London is a world port and it welcomes the people's of the world into its complex embrace but this should not obscure the fact that London is not simply a polyglot market place where all races coexist in a whirlpool of equality. London is, foundationally a white English city and it is in the tension between the two realities of English citadel (10,000 incidents of racial violence and abuse reported each year) and polyglot bazaar (over 300 languages spoken) that the true story of London's ethnicity is to be found.

The docks are the location of one important dimension of London's ethnic diversity. The docks drew people into the city and the immediate environs of the docks have always been a place to meet the nations of the world, the Somali community originates from here and the Bangladeshis from Sylhet who were cooks on British merchant ships (hence the fact that most 'Indian' restaurants in Britain are run by Sylhetis). The docks also lead us into the Empire for it was through the docks that the fruits and the fancies of the Empire were brought into the heart of the motherland. Since the decline of the docks Heathrow has become the major entry port into London and although there is a certain amount of settlement in the immediate area the true hinterland of Heathrow is the whole of London.

Refugees are another important aspect of London's cultural variety. The Hugenots seem to have an almost iconic status as the first identifiable group of refugees to settle in London. Having a silk-weaver from Spitalfields as part of your family tree is a true sign of being ethnically a Londoner. The next important group of refugees were the eastern European Jews who again settled in Spitalfields. There are now only a few signs of them left in the area but their offspring have colonised Stamford Hill and Golders Green in north London. Fear of the Jews initiated the first modern controls on immigration but this has not stopped the continuing arrival of refugees in London. The Second World War is an important point in the history for it both saw the arrival of new groups of refugees - the most numerous being Polish, and the drawing of commonwealth soldiers into London, but also led to the United Nations refugee charter which has created the legal space for refugees to continue to arrive despite growing resistance to immigration. Since the war many different groups of refugees have made an impact on London's ethnic canvas - the Cypriots following the Greek/Turkish conflict, Ugandan Asians in consequence of Idi Amin excesses, Ghanaians in the aftermath of Ghana's political turmoils and Kurds, Bosnians and Kosovans in response to the newly labelled anathema of ethnic cleansing. Refugees have created immense consternation despite the evidence which suggests that they bring a much needed youthful entrepreneurialism to our aging and increasingly pensionable population.

The dividing line between economic migrants and political refugees has become a contentious one but there is no doubt that the largest groups of settlers in London - the black Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani communities are here for economic reasons. And the economic reason is that the London economy needed them here. In the post war period it was decided to fill the gap in certain sectors by recruiting workers from selected regions of the Empire. The Caribbean and the Punjab were selected and so London's 'multicultural richness' was intensified 200%. Since 1962 when legislation brought an end to open commonwealth immigration the inflow declined and in recent years there has been a marked reverse flow of original Caribbean settlers back home. But the legacy of a strong Black and Asian London remains - and aren't London's churches glad of it... well they should be, for without Caribbean Christians inner city Christianity might well have disappeared. Neither has planned economic settlement ceased. A significant Korean population has settled in the suburbs of south west London and in my small patch of Hackney we have encountered a group of Keralan Christians from south west Indian brought in to work at Homerton hospital. The city still needs its workers[1]. 

Students are also an important sector. This draws in a huge range of nationalities but particularly important has been the west African students. These have a long history stretching right back into the 18th century and the flow has gradually increased since then. London, ironically, educated the elite group who were the leaders of the independence movements, but independence has not stemmed the increase. Since the 70s and the increasing problems in many African states the numbers have been swelled by refugees and others wanting to get out of Africa. This has created a black African community which rivals and merges with the Caribbean community to create the modern black culture of London. The African community has made its biggest impact on the religious life of the city, proliferating churches throughout inner London, covering minicabs with religious slogans and creating numerous businesses which both seek and promise divine favour through their shop front signs - who can resist the postmodern delights of Alpha and Omega Electronics or Divine Grace hairdressing?

Tourism adds to the diverse backdrop of London living. Tourists are ephemeral, perhaps but they are an important part of the economy of London, especially when combined with business visitors (They number 30 million and spend 9 billion a year). They can also make a more substantial contribution to the life of London, say when they come to engage in voluntary work (e.g. Operation Mobilisation teams) or when they use London as a base for a long-term tour of Europe (as many Australian, South African and New Zealand young adults do). These young antipodeans are able to work in London because of the patriality rule and other family links keep enriching the ethnic diversity of London - most Caribbean families for instance have kin in America.

Europe is a growing source of new cultures and languages for London. The European community obviously encourages economic migrants whether they be German musicians or Portuguese cleaners from Madeira. Eastern European refugees, overstaying young people on tourist visas and nannies have also been an increasingly important reality. And, of course, we must not forget (as it is easy to do) the single greatest source of immigration into London which is Ireland.

London has more or less avoided ghettoization. Certainly groups have concentrated in certain areas and at times ghetto-like situations have developed as with the Bangladeshis in Spitalfields and the Hasidic Jews in Stamford Hill but it is not the general pattern. Generally certain areas have become the focus for communities - often round a market such as Brixton or Ridley road in Hackney. Notting Hill has also been a centre for Caribbean people particularly because of the carnival even if gentrification is reducing the local black community. Generally immigrant communities gather in a less desirable area where house prices are lower and it is easier for them to get a foothold. Once settlement produces the commercial and cultural resources to support the community it develops a particular ethnic identity. Key areas for Asians include Southall, Tooting and Manor Park. Peckham seems to have developed as a centre for West Africans. Smaller centres are also discernible - Columbians have developed shops and restaurants in the Elephant & Castle shopping centre and the Portuguese community has focused on Kennington. As time goes on the residential focus of these communities tends to shift outwards so the Greek community has moved from Hackney out towards Enfield and the south London black community is spreading into Thornton Heath and other parts of Croydon. The ethnic map of London is always shifting.

This might all give the impression that London is a multicultural mosaic of undiluted richness and complexity. Well complex it certainly is but that complexity is increased by the prejudice of the white majority that still dominates all aspects of London life. Racism has been a painful reality for immigrants and settlers. Despite the long history of London as a global and multicultural city and the very foundation of its identity as a place to which people come in order to improve and enrich themselves (see the story of Dick Whittington) and so enrich London in the process, resistance to the perceived outsider can still be strong. This is encouraged by the villagisation of London where people come to distrust anyone from outside their immediate neighbourhood but the issue is also more profound. Racist attitudes are woven into English culture. This is undoubtedly linked to the legacy of Empire whereby races were stereotyped in order to make them conform to the role that the dominant white race had assigned them - thus Africans were brutes fit only for manual work, whilst Asians were more evolved and suitable as a kind of middle management buffer between the white elite and the lower races. Unsurprisingly the arrival of the imperial subjects in London in increasing numbers has caused this imperial rationality of evolution to be challenged. This challenge has taken many forms.

The leaders of independence movements, as we have previously seen, completed their education in the higher levels of imperial control in London and took back their learning to enable an effective revolution in the imperial periphery. But resistance also took place within London, characters such as the remarkable and unacknowledged Trinidadian Celestine Edwards articulated an anti-racist message which contradiction both official jingoism and liberal paternalism in the darkest days of late Victorian imperial expansion (and he did this whilst being an evangelical employee of the anti secular society!). Others took up the baton and the resistance to racism now has its famous landmarks: Cable Street, the Notting Hill riots, the New Cross fire, the Brixton uprisings, the GLC campaigns of the 80s and, most recently, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. Of course these have been controversial, especially if the Broadwater Farm/ PC Blakelock affair is included in the equation. The debates carry on - multiculturalism vs. anti-racism, separatism vs. partnership and it is important for us to be able to engage with these debates. But resistance to racism does not only occur at a political level many resist the destructive pressures by continuing to survive and flourish - thus even the most staunchly other wordly church by maintaining black culture and encouraging its young to have ambition and get educated resists the stereotype of black failure. In a similarly unobtrusive manner people are redesigning the ethnic map of London. Marriages and other sexual liaisons produce people who do not fit into narrow racial stereotypes. Street culture mixes and matches the multiplicity of London ethnic traditions and creates something new. And it may well be in this bottom up redesigning of London's ethnicity that the resolution of the problem of racism is to be found rather than in the proliferation of equal opportunities policies and hand wringing repentance.

For the church ethnicity and racism is a key question. It is reckoned that over half of London's churchgoers are black and the African dimension, especially, has kept Christianity vibrantly alive in recent years. There are also particular issues for churches in coming to terms with the presence of strong and confident religions in the very heart of the Empire which brought civilisation and Christianity to the world. In particular groups such as the Nation of Islam and the growing influence of Buddhism has challenged the spiritual dominance of Christianity, and it is in London that these challenges are strongest and most persistent. London has exported its spirituality to the world, whether that be Christianity or capitalism, now it is receiving it back with many added twists and downright contradictions.


A brief bibliography

A Guide to Ethnic Christianity in London.  James Ashdown Zebra Project 1992

A History of London.  Stephen Inwood Macmillan 1998

Gentrification -- so what is a yuppie?.  James Ashdown.  UTU 1994

Investing in London: the case for the capital.  Greater London Authority 2001

London -- a biography.  Peter Ackroyd Chatto & Windus 2000

Soft City.  Jonathan Raban Fontana 1974

Towards the London plan.  Greater London Authority 2001


[1] Since I wrote this, of course, Eastern Europeans have become the new immigrant workforce