Best books about London

Although I’m late to the party as ever, I see via Chris Fowler that Londonist editor M@ has come up with his personal list of the 15 best non-fiction books about London. It’s a good list, as you would expect, and has prompted me to come up with my own favourite 15.

1 ‘The London Encyclopaedia’ by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert

The definitive A-Z of London history, fascinating and accessible. I much prefer this to narrative histories like Roy Porter and Peter Ackroyd.

2 ‘In Search of London’ by HV Morton

My single favourite piece of narrative London writing, featuring Morton wandering around the bomb-battered city in 1951, describing what he finds and remembering what it once looked like.

3 ‘Shaping London’ by Terry Farrell

A fascinating look at the tangible forces that have shaped the infrastructure of London, and a welcome antidote to the airy tediousness of so much contemporary psychogeography.

4 ‘The History of London In Maps’ by Felix Barker and Peter Jackson

Excellent and accessible cartographical guide from 1993, divided into sensible sections and well illustrated.

5 ‘Curiosities of London’ by John Timbs

Hefty Victorian guidebook that is an intriguing contemporary reference source.

6 ‘London: The Unique City’ by Steen Eiler Rasmussen

A Danish architect analysis in 1937 why London looks like it does.

7 ‘Subterranean Railway’ by Christian Woolmar

Definitive and readable recent history of the London tube.

8 ‘The Lost Rivers of London’ by Nicholas Barton

The classic guide to the old rivers of London, first published in the 1960s and flawed, but still the best.

9 ‘Violent London’ by Clive Bloom

Superb study of the London Mob through history, recently updated.

10 ‘In Camden Town’ by David Thomson

Gloriously whimsical half-finished diary by a BBC producer from the 1980s, which captures Camden on the brink of gentrification. (See also Jonathan Raban’s ‘Soft City’.)

11 ‘London Under London’ by Richard Trench

To be honest, it’s on a par with the many other subterranean London books, but makes my list because it was written by a bloke called Trench.

12 ‘People Of the abyss’ by Jack London

Wonderful late-Victorian journalism from the destitute East End. I should also include Henry Mayhew’s ‘London Labour And The London Poor’ but shamefully I’ve only ever dipped into it. 

13 ‘Night Haunts’ by Sukhdev Sandhu

Following in HV Morton’s footsteps, Sandhu explores the nocturnal economy of 21st century London.

14 ‘London peculiars’ by Peter Ashley

One of many ‘Secret London’-style books I own, but probably the best looking. See also the fine recent ‘Secret London: An Unusual Guide’,  ‘Eccentric London’ by Tom Quinn and ‘Curious London’ by Robin Cross.

15 ‘The Likes Of Us’ by Michael Collins

A biography of working-class South London.

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12 responses to “Best books about London

  1. Both you and Matt missed off the London as it might have been and London Labour and London Poor. As a quirky snippet “The London spy” early 1970s edition, Patricia Pearce’s Old London Bridge and also the Thames England’s River which is better than Peter Acroyd’s. For sheer silliness The Tidal Thames: The History of a River and its Fishes, by Alwyne Wheeler. Great stink by Stephen Halliday …and oh bah lost thread. With you on Moreton, Barton and Hibbert and would include Acroyd’s Biography and Sinclair’s Light’s Out. Thank you for allowing me to spend a nerdy few minutes .

    I could go one but my London Library has been moved to my brother’s flat for safe keeping ahead of my moving.

  2. Excellent follow-up. I forgot about People of the Abyss, as it’s on my iPhone and not my book shelf – but definitely worthy of inclusion. I have to disagree about In Camden Town. I just found it…well, dull.

    A few books in there I’ve not read, so will have to seek them out.

  3. They all sound great- and now of course I want them ALL

  4. I’m a big secret London girl but I guess once you’ve done it you’ve done it

  5. ‘In Camden Town’ does kind of tail off, but it’s very evocative for the most part for me. Some really lovely bits of writing.

    And some excellent suggestions by Mr Roberts. I should have given ‘London As It Might Have Been’ more consideration, but haven’t read ‘Thames: England’s River’. Will check it out, cos don’t like Ackroyd’s Thames book (whose biography I left off just because I could).

    I like the Old London Bridge book, but the best book on London bridges is obviously Cross River Traffic by some chancer called Chris Roberts.

  6. An interesting list. I haven’t read it but my wife says “London: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd is a great one to whet the appetite for discovering more of the city

  7. Iain Sinclair: Lights out for the Territory (Granta 1997)
    Henry Mayhew: London Labour and the London Poor (4 vols 1861)

  8. This New Year I had resolved not to buy any more books whatsoever unless I moved to a bigger house. Then I visited this page and saw one or two very interesting titles that had slipped below my radar. Plus one or two follow-up suggestions. So it’s off to the bookshop and then the estate agent for me.

    My suggestion for a good London book is Jerry White’s: London In The Nineteenth Century: ‘A Human Awful Wonder of God’ . There are more worthy London books, I know, but I did enjoy reading this one.

  9. I also love the working class oral type history books. I have some from all over London & beyond, the East end is naturally quite strong in this. Though I am south-east London (grew up in East Dulwich, live in Sydenham, but will always be an East Dulwich/London Borough of Southwark boy at heart!) What are peoples’ favourites about these history/life story type books?

  10. You’re a Bad Man: my credit card is now twitching.
    Funnily enough, while driving yesterday, I had a notion to do a book-related blog post, great minds and all that. I think I shall stick to ten, mainly because I’m less well-read, probably.
    Anyway, The London Encyclopaedia by Weinreb et al. Right with you there: an essential piece of kit. I use it all the time. 1,100 pp and a bit of a knock at £30, but worth every penny. Subterranean Railway by Wolmar: agree, excellent. My hon. mentions are Newgate by Stephen Halliday, Whitehall by Colin Brown and Victorian London by Lisa Picard (in fact, anything by her). Other excellent reference tomes are Russ Willey’s two books. And of course, Adrian Tinniswood’s stuff. Somebody, stop me please.

  11. Extremely helpful article. Gives me a hell of a lot reading to look forward to. Thanks!

  12. Pingback: Clippings from the Internet « London, What Are You Reading?

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