Last updated on March 29th, 2022
Oh, give me a good book about London history any day of the week. There’s nothing like it for peeling back the layers of the city and for taking a jaunt into London’s past sights, smells and sounds. The “magic lantern” has always fascinated writers, readers and historians, and for those of us who like to soak in the capital’s theatre of life, there is a wonderful selection of London history books which will tantalise even the most seasoned time traveller. Here are 12 of the best books about London history – I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
You can buy these books direct from one of these fantastic London bookshops, or you can purchase them from my Amazon shopfront (where I earn a small commission with no extra cost to you). Happy reading, and happy time-travelling!
Best books about London history
Dip in, dip out
Let’s start with the bible: Peter Ackroyd’s London, a tome which every self-respecting history lover needs to read at least once. But this isn’t simply a history book about London, it’s a biography of the “fleshy and voracious” city – with all its grisly warts exposed. This juggernaut is one for dipping in and out of with chapters dedicated to theatre, crime, radicals, violence, greed and fire. Ackroyd’s gritty, smelly, incandescent and cacophonous love letter to London will leave you hot under the collar.
Samuel Pepys’s Diary
If ever there was a record of real Restoration London, this is it. The most famous diary in the English language is filled with the mundane record of life in everyday seventeenth century London together with some of the juiciest tidbits in London history. Pepys witnessed everything form the bubonic plague, to the Great Fire of 1666, to Nell Gwynn‘s coming out in Covent Garden.
Georgian and Regency London
Tuck into this delicious romp through Hanoverian London, a time when the capital left her medieval self behind and morphed into a vibrant, modern city, bursting at her baroque seams. Inglis starts and ends with St Paul’s, sweeping over the metropolis in-between and delivering bite-size morsels of each area and the streets within. You’ll meet the people who inhabited Spitalfields, Soho, Marylebone and Mayfair, including Peter the Wild Boy, the Hackney justice Henry Norris, Huguenot silversmith Paul de Lamerie, and the two Billys of Cavendish Square.
Jane Austen’s London
This one is for all Regency, Jane Austen and Bridgerton fans. Through a series of nine separate walks, the reader will follow in Jane Austen’s footsteps around the capital. It’s full of delicious Regency anecdotes and a must-have for all Janeites out there.
Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888
This fascinating dictionary, written by Charles Dickens’s son in 1888, is actually more of a Victorian London guide book. It provides fascinating insight into the city with 700 detailed entries including gentlemen’s clubs du jour, theatres, banks, chop restaurants and railways.
The snippets of advice provided by Dickens are most entertaining. You’ll learn how to detect a confidence trickster, avoid carriage thieves or how American-style “loafing” in the streets should always be avoided. You will also learn how a trip to the zoo on Sunday must be carried out in full dress “with gloves, chimney-pot hat, orthodox morning coat,” and that evening dress at the theatre is only recommended in the stalls. “Do not wear a scarlet opera-cloak however, if you can help it.”
“Amusements: during the season, the West End is gay enough, especially for anyone with influential introductions: mostly London gaieties being of a private character. The early morning begins with an exercise ride in Rotten-row. In the afternoon, grand parade in the same place with splendid show of carriages in the Drive. It is here that a stranger will get his best view of the London “world.’”
The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London
It was the best of times and the worst of times in Victorian London, and no one captured it more masterfully than Charles Dickens. His pages bottled Victorian London’s DNA: the poor, the rich, the slums, the good, the bad and the very ugly. A voracious walker, Dickens would spend hours night-stalking Londoners, only to come home at dawn and start scribbling away.
Flanders’ excellent book takes us on a sensory journey of Dickens’s London: the slums, cemeteries, gin palaces, markets and the teeming streets. Dickens would definitely recommend this one for your next bookclub. (Another good one by the same author is The Victorian House).
London History Guide Books
London: A Travel Guide through Time
Not for the faint-hearted, London: A Travel Guide through Time is no ordinary handbook – it will yank you by the hand and pummel you into the streets of yester-London. You’ll get a taste of what it’s like to live in medieval London with its dark, carnivorous churches. You won’t know whether to fight or take flight in Shakespearian London with its bull and bear fighting. John Merrick’s Victorian London is also on the menu, with its cobbled, shadowy streets. You will also get a taste of London during the Blitz-torn years. This London history book is a corker, and once you go down Dr Green’s rabbit hole, there’s no turning back.
Other notable mentions
London Literary Guide Books
Walking Literary London
Love Dickens, Woolf, Barrie, Eliot, Johnson or Hardy? Get thee to a bookshop and buy this bookish walking guide. 25 perambulations across the city will have you swooning for pubs, restaurants, bookshops, libraries and gardens where your favourite authors of yesterday once stood. A must-buy for all lovers of literature.
If you only buy one book about London
This is my go-to when I’m gifting a London guide book to someone I know who loves London just about as much as I do. It’s one of those dip-in, dip-out books too, and one where you’ll discover some of the most interesting, quirky and “I can’t believe” facts about London. Curiocity travels in and out of London’s past and present, a perfect bookish marriage between contemporary and historical London. You’ll find trivia about the erotic, rules of conduct, subterranean London and the occult. It’s the cat’s pyjamas when it comes to guide books about London.
What are your favourite books about London history? Please leave me a comment below!