The Best London History Books

I have an issue with London history books. My issue is my flat is not big enough for my ever-growing collection of London history books.

Now that we are all spending more time at home, I thought it might be helpful to share all my absolute favourites. Here is a (completely biased) list of the best London history books!

All the books mentioned are available to purchase on Amazon at the time of publishing. I’d usually encourage you to go to your local bookshop but with closures and the possibility of self-isolating I thought it might be easier to link direct. They are affiliate links so if you do want to buy the books, Amazon gives me a couple of quid too.

I’d love to hear your suggestions as well so please drop me a comment at the end of the blog with your favourites!

1. London: A Biography

Best London History Books

London: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd, published 2000

We may as well start with the definitive London history book. Yes it’s huge but it’s packed with fascinating tidbits and is a classic for a reason. It’s also nicely split into thematic sections. I listened on Audible which was narrated by Simon Callow, delightful! You can start a free trial on audible here.

2. London

Best London History Books

London: A Novel by Edward Rutherfurd, published 1997

London is a novel, an incredible story of the whole of the city’s history told through a handful of fictional families. From before the Romans arrived you meet the main protagonists and then each part skips to their successors right up until The Second World War.

You live the city’s whole history through the eyes of the characters and have a visceral connection to epic events through London’s story. Instead of reading the book I listened to it on audible (it’s 49hrs 22mins long) and the human stories interwoven with nuggets of London’s past make it a unique experience.

3. London: A Time Travel Guide Through Time

Best London History Books

London: A Travel Guide Through Time by Dr Matthew Green, published 2015

If you love your London history books packed with amazing anecdotes, this is the one for you. I have no idea where Dr Green gets these delicious tidbits but they truly bring London’s history alive.

The premise of the book is that the reader is a time traveller, able to touch an old object in London and be transported into different stages of London’s past. You hurtle into precise moments in time, from the stinking streets of the City in 1390 to the bomb-ravage party scene of the Kings Road in 1957. The descriptions are vivid and the tone is like a chatty and deeply knowledgable tour guide.

4. Everything You Know About London Is Wrong

Best London History Books

Everything You Know About London Is Wrong by Matt Brown, published 2016

What self-respecting London aficionado could resist this click-baity title? Not I!

The Author, Matt Brown, is the editor of The Londonist and is one of the most diligent researchers of London’s quirky history that I know. This book is pretty self-explanatory, working its myth-busting way through plenty of classic London tales; No. There are no old Newgate prison cells under Newgate Tavern; No. Jimi Hendrix didn’t release the first parakeets in London; No. Boudicca is not buried under platform 10 at King’s Cross.

But far from being preachy, the answers are often more fascinating than the myths and Matt charms and rejoices in sharing the truth and debating London’s history nitpickers.

5. Rivers of London

Best London History Books

Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch, published 2011

Another fiction title to add to the list, the Rivers of London series is a joy and perfect for binge-reading. They centre around PC Grant, the likeable Metropolitan Police Officer who is a self-identifying London history geek.

The twist is that PC Grant stumbles upon London’s magical underbelly and is plunged into a world where subterranean ‘lost’ Rivers are Goddesses, an army of trolls live in the Crossrail tunnels and he suddenly has to train to be a wizard! Full of London in-jokes and references, Aaronovitch also doesn’t pull an punches when it comes to descriptions of our Police force and any aspects of London he doesn’t like. I read it grinning from ear to ear.

6. Spitalfields

Best London History Books

Spitalfields by Dan Cruickshanks, published 2016

You may need to clear some space on your bookshelf for Spitalfields, but it’s worth it. Cruickshank’s chunky history of this small area of London is exquisitely detailed and well-researched.

From its very beginnings until pretty much the present day, we become intimately acquainted with the many colourful characters, nationalities and professions that have left their traces on this patch of East London. It is intense and thorough. (I have to admit I skipped over some of the passages that concentrated on architectural details and street plans) but it’s best when focussed on the human stories of Spitalfields, of which there are plenty.

7. The Five

Best London History Books

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold, published 2019

For a lot of visitors to London, a “Jack the Ripper” tour is one of the highlights of their trip. For a lot of Londoners too, it’s the first walking tour that springs to mind. The story is seemingly well known, a Victorian cloak-clad man stalked the streets hunting down the East End’s sex workers.

That was until Hallie published her thoroughly researched, bombshell of a book that for the first time gave the victims the focus they deserve.

The Five is deeply emotional as you walk the lives of the five ‘canonical’ victims. You know how each story ends and so you silently beg the women to avoid Whitechapel as the state, their relationships and often their own actions, fail them again and again. It’s also a rallying call to change our perceptions on these women and above all to remember them; Polly, Annie, Catherine, Elizabeth and Mary Jane.

8. Mudlarking

Best London History Books

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem, published 2019

Mudlarking, if you weren’t aware, is when you search the Thames foreshore in the hope of finding a piece of London’s history. They say one man’s rubbish is another’s treasure, well this book proves there is depth and beautiful stories behind every tiny thing that has fallen into the river.

Mudlarking reads more like a diary, which is a good thing. We hear a personal account of her times down on the foreshore and gain a better appreciate of  the art of mudlarking, from the concentration of looking to the patience of restoring. Apart from her finds, she also shares the history of the River and its relevant areas so there’s plenty of fodder for history lovers.

The one thing readers might miss with the hardback edition is the lack of images of the finds. Happily though, Lara has an accompanying Instagram account with all the images in chapter order for you to peruse! If you prefer the paperback, that does have the images printed.

9. Georgian London

Again, packed with anecdotes, Inglis gives a lively view of 18th Century London. Each chapter focuses on a geographical area and there are loads of fun stories to enjoy. My copy is covered in notes!

Best London History Books

Georgian London: Into the Streets by Lucy Inglis, published 2013

In a similar vein to Georgian London, Liza Picard has a fabulous selection of books and they are also full of juicy stories and give a real sense of what life was like. I’ve read her books on Victorian and Restoration London and can highly recommend them.

Over to you!

So what are you favourites? Are there any others I need to read and have you also read some of these? Let me know in the comments.

More London Inspiration

49 Comments

  • I really enjoyed Ackroyd’s London and Georgian London. Read both of them on beach holidays while surrounded by people reading popular fiction… what a geek I was!

    March 21, 2020 at 7:12 pm
  • Rivers of London is a great series, but fiction. 🙂

    I love Roy Porter’s “London: A Social History.”

    March 21, 2020 at 8:06 pm
      • Adam Walsh

        Reply

        Fantastic collection. Id have to say my fave London book (and like you I have a big collection) is Spitalfields Life by The Gentle Author. So many great stories of the personal and working lives of people living in the East End.

        March 22, 2020 at 10:18 am
  • I have read quite a few of these and am currently reading The Five, the story of the women behind Jack the Ripper. Intriguing.
    I also love anything written by Sarah Wise, my favourite is the Italian Boy (about body snatchers in London).
    Simon Schama – a history of Britain was also very emjoyable.

    March 21, 2020 at 8:16 pm
  • Have you read my book about civil war London? “The civil war in London: Voices from the City”, Pen&Sword, 2018.

    March 21, 2020 at 8:53 pm
  • Gareth Morrell

    Reply

    I read the Ackroyd book and couldn’t get along with it. No accounting for taste, eh? I’m in Thomas Cromwell overload, having just received The Mirror and the Light, which is unbelievably dense (and wonderful!), and the recent Cromwell biography by Diarmaid MacCullough which is just as long. I’m going to take a look at all your other suggestions though – they all sound fascinating.

    March 21, 2020 at 8:53 pm
  • Sue Waller

    Reply

    Rachel Lichtenstein’s
    – Rodinsky’s Room
    – Rodinsky’s Whitechapel
    – On Brick Lane
    – Diamond Street; the Hidden of Hatton Garden
    – Estuary

    My favourite London history books

    March 21, 2020 at 9:01 pm
  • I loved ‘The London Nobody Knows’ by Geoffrey Fletcher. Not a new book – first published in 1962 – but still fascinating.

    March 21, 2020 at 9:45 pm
  • Great post Katie!

    My favourite book is ‘London Belongs to Me’ by Norman Collins, a gorgeous novel which depicts the London of the late 1930s/early 1940s in exquisite detail. The story portrays a selection of Londoners in the lead-up to WWII and shows how they deal with the conflict when it finally erupts. Surprisingly, it’s also very funny!

    If I may, could I also please suggest my own book- ‘The Knowledge: Train Your Brain Like a Cabbie’ which combines London history & trivia with a series of brain training techniques designed to improve the memory. If you’re self-isolating it’s perfect for giving the brain a workout!

    March 22, 2020 at 1:33 am
  • Necropolis – Catherine Arnold
    City of Sin – Catherine Arnold
    1700 – Scenes from London Life – Maureen Waller
    The Stones of London (a history in twelve buildings) Leo Hollis
    The Plague in Shakespeare’s London – FP Wilson

    … and many others…. I have a big collection!

    March 22, 2020 at 6:55 am
  • Lorna Ashby

    Reply

    A History of London by Stephen Inwood – A large and comprehensive tome.

    March 22, 2020 at 1:06 pm
  • Beate Amberg

    Reply

    Ich finde die Bücher super – leider sind sie alle in englisch und das kann ich nicht so werd ich sie nicht lesen können – und darüber bin ich ganz traurig

    March 22, 2020 at 6:19 pm
    • Kelly Burton

      Reply

      I have a small collection of E. V Lucas travel books all titled “A Wanderer in …..”. One I have is A Wanderer in London” 1921 edition. Fantastic to read about the highlights of the time.

      April 1, 2020 at 9:52 pm
  • I have three that I love: A short history of England by Simon Jenkins, Literary London by Eloise Millar & Sam Jordison, and Londoners by Craig Taylor.

    March 22, 2020 at 11:49 pm
  • Christine

    Reply

    Hello Katie,
    But of a waste me writing this as I can only remember the book I read was about walking the streets of London After Dark.. Actually that maybe the name of the book. It was a fabulous read and bought as a present. Please carry on your wonderful blog, it helps me not to miss London as much until my next trip x

    March 23, 2020 at 8:44 am
      • Christine Dalton

        Reply

        Found my books of London I have.. Here goes
        Lambs of London Peter Ackroyd…Walking Haunted London Richard Jones… Rivers of London Richard Aaronavitch… London Hidden Walks…. A London Home in the 1890’s MV Hughes…. Little Book of London David Long… London from the Thames Angel Hornak… Night Walking David Beumont…Great Fire of London Peter Ackroyd….
        xx

        April 11, 2020 at 9:53 pm
  • Yvonne Bird

    Reply

    The People of the Abyss by Jack London is interesting.

    March 23, 2020 at 9:08 am
  • City of Sin by Catherine Arnold. From the aromas Bordellos to the Molly Houses of Georgian times and Soho of the 60s. Paris is the city of love. London is the city of lust.

    Johnson’s Life of London by Boris Johnson. Bear with me on this! 20 short bios of notable Londoners. Melitas, Richard Whittington, Lionel Rothschild etc. Whatever you think of him as a politician, he is a fabulous writer.

    The Subterranean Railway by Christian Walmar. How the world’s first underground railway cane about

    March 25, 2020 at 8:01 am
  • The Bryant and May detective novels by Christopher Fowler are brilliant.

    March 25, 2020 at 8:03 am
  • Hi Katie,
    I have so many books on London,as I believe any book that is based on truth about our capital city is fascinating. But when all this is over and we can get out again, one of the first thing I intend to do is book a tour with you!

    March 25, 2020 at 8:09 am
  • Bruce

    Reply

    Nairn’s London by Ian Nairn: a classic if dated (and opinionated) guide to London’s architecture; you might not always agreee with his views but they’re always thought provoking.

    March 25, 2020 at 9:15 am
  • Terry Pipe

    Reply

    I have so many books about London that it is difficult to know where to start. For a general read, I found Jerry White’s book “London in the Eighteenth Century” very informative. For dipping into for odd snippets, I have found many interesting facts in “The East End: An illustrated A-Z historical guide” by Richard Tames.

    March 25, 2020 at 10:44 am
  • Thank you for this Kate, and thanks for all the other suggestions in the comments. I am researching for a novel set in 1910-1920 London – can anyone recommend either fiction or non fiction set in this period?

    March 25, 2020 at 11:14 am
  • Patrick Keep

    Reply

    London under London its about tunnels etc.
    Child of the Jago by Henry Morrison (or Arthur…was out of print, now can get it on Kindle. There’s a compendium of his stuff on Kindle too. Absolutely fascinating, and includes south essex, round Hadleigh castle. He writes in the vernacular and its clear that in victorian times essex folk talked with an east anglian accent, not the current estuarine one.

    March 25, 2020 at 11:57 am
  • Libby

    Reply

    “Citadel of the Saxons” by Rory Naismith is an excellent choice for the post-Roman and pre-Norman era.

    March 25, 2020 at 12:41 pm
  • Judith Barnett

    Reply

    Hi Katie
    Thanks as always for your virtual tours, your photos and blog. You bring London right to my living room and it brings me so much joy.

    (Did you receive the email I sent to you with the photo attachments. It was only of a children’s pop-up book of London but it’s so very beautiful and just the one in the Paddington 2 film)

    In other news I am reading Rivers of London now.

    April 1, 2020 at 11:37 am
  • David Bird

    Reply

    An expensive one but worth it bought for me by my children is Panoramas of London, Work, Wealth, Poverty, and Change 1870- 1945 by Philip Davies. It came to me with London the Information Capital by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti ( 100 Maps and graphics that will change how you view the city). London’s Underworld by Henry Mathew 1862 , the Face of London Harold Clunn 1832, and one of my favourites written by two Swedes in 1952 when I was 13 living in Holborn is The Tourists’s London which has many photos taken at the time. I have quite a few more.

    April 1, 2020 at 12:27 pm
  • Jo Evans

    Reply

    Try these, folks:

    – Peter Ackroyd (again): Hawksmoor; Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem
    – anything by Iain Sinclair

    and I echo the mention above about the Spitalfields book by the Gentle Author – don’t be put off by it’s size, it’s divided into bite-sized morsels; one for the smallest room in the house!

    April 1, 2020 at 6:12 pm
  • Neil Paterson

    Reply

    In Search of London by H.V. Morton

    April 2, 2020 at 10:39 pm
  • Peter Gudge

    Reply

    Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair by Tim Moore is a very enjoyable read.

    Lots in your list for me to catch up on!

    April 8, 2020 at 8:50 am
  • chris savory

    Reply

    hi katie

    i support terry pipe re jerry whites books.

    look out for rothschild buildings-specifis to a late 19th century block of flats.

    best.

    chris savory

    April 22, 2020 at 9:39 am
  • Elin Murphy

    Reply

    I highly recommend One Man’s London: Twenty Years On. I admit to a bit of prejudice here; the author was my late husband, N.T.P. Murphy. But it really is a wonderful book that takes you on 17 information-filled walks through parts of central London, detailing much of the city’s social history, fascinating characters, and architectural features overlooked by so many. The musician Frank Turner recently raved about the book in an interview on Channel 4′ Sunday Brunch. This is not your typical touristy guide book – it is a real London adventure and well worth having in anybody’s collection. It is available on Amazon.

    May 1, 2020 at 12:37 pm

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