8 of London’s Most Historic Streets | Historical Landmarks | History Hit

8 of London’s Most Historic Streets

Founded by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago, London is teeming with history. We've selected 8 streets in the city where the past really makes its presence felt.

Nick Funnell

23 Dec 2021

Over two millennia of history throng the streets of London. Many have left their mark since the Romans founded the city of Londinium around 50 AD, and today you can find a story almost anywhere you stand.

Ancient defenses rub up against medieval execution sites, Stuart banqueting halls sit atop state-of-the-art bunkers, and Victorian monuments stand guard over spots of violent rebellion.

Here are 8 London streets where the past has left its deepest impact.

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1. Tower Hill

For 4 centuries, Tower Hill was where nobles imprisoned in the adjacent Tower of London met their gruesome ends. The street hosted its first public execution in 1381, when Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury had his head hacked off by a mob during the Peasants’ Revolt. The last was the beheading of Scottish Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, in 1747.

But there’s more to Tower Hill than gory spectacle. One of the oldest parts of the city, it was the site of a Bronze Age settlement and is also home to remnants of the London Wall, built by the Romans to protect the city around 200 AD.

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2. Whitechapel Road

Part of the old Roman road to Colchester, Whitechapel Road has long been associated with the Whitechapel murders, attributed to Jack the Ripper. In 1888 the body of one of the first victims, Martha Tabram, was found stabbed 39 times in the street’s George Yard Buildings.

Around the same time, Joseph Merrick, known as the “Elephant Man”, was displayed as a freak in the back room of a shop here and later moved into the Royal London Hospital opposite.

In 1936 Oswald Moseley and his British Union of Fascists were blocked from marching along Whitechapel Road during the Battle of Cable Street. The road’s Blind Beggar pub is famous as the spot where both the Salvation Army began in 1865 and where, 100 years later, notorious gangster Ronnie Kray shot rival George Cornell.

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3. Cornhill

The ancient heart of the UK capital, the City of London is brimming with history and Cornhill is one of its most important thoroughfares. At one end sits the neoclassical Royal Exchange building, once a hub for City traders; at the other is Sir Christopher Wren’s 1667 St Peter-upon-Cornhill church, which claims to occupy London’s oldest Christian site, dating from 179 AD.

Running off it, Change Alley was the site of Jonathan’s and Garraway’s coffee houses, where the City’s original traders started in the 17th century. The former was the first place to post share and commodity prices in 1698, while the latter was the first place in England to sell tea.

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4. Tooley Street

Just south of the river, Tooley Street gets its name from the now-demolished St Olave’s church, itself named after Norway’s King Olaf. In the 11th century, the future Norwegian monarch helped England’s Ethelred the Unready against the city’s Danish occupiers by pulling down nearby London Bridge with his longboats.

In 1861 the Tooley Street fire devastated the area. The blaze took two weeks to fully put out and led to the establishment of the capital’s public-run fire brigade. In 1921 Ernest Shackleton’s polar explorer vessel Quest was refitted here in Hay’s Wharf (now Hay’s Galleria).

Famous residents have included romantic poet John Keats, who lived nearby while studying medicine, and George Orwell, who slept in a Tooley Street dosshouse before writing Down and Out in Paris and London.

Image Credit: Eddy Galeotti / Shutterstock.com

5. Trafalgar Square

Not exactly a street, but this London thoroughfare oozes history from every pavement crack. Dominated by the 52-metre Nelson’s Column and flanked by the National Gallery, home to myriad Old Masters, the site was once prowled by prehistoric cave lions, rhinos, elephants and hippos, excavation work has shown.

More recently it has been a site of political rebellion. In 1848 the Chartist riots for social reform started in the square and suffragettes planted bombs here in 1913 and 1914. Anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid, anti-poll tax, anti-war and anti-lockdown demos have all followed.

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6. Whitehall

Whitehall takes its name from the Palace of Whitehall, where Henry VIII lived, died, and married both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Charles I was beheaded outside its Banqueting House, which is the only part that survives after fire destroyed the palace in 1698.

Sir Robert Peel set up HQ at No. 4 when starting his police force in 1829, and the premises later became known as Scotland Yard. Synonymous with UK government and home to numerous ministries, Whitehall has been a target for terrorists over the years. In 1991 the Provisional IRA fired mortars from Whitehall on adjacent Downing Street, one of then exploding in the garden of No. 10. Below ground, a network of secret bunkers built since World War Two are designed to keep the country running in the event of an emergency.

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7. Great Marlborough Street

Developed at the start of the 18th century and named after military commander John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, this Soho road has been home to peers such as Lord Nelson and scientists such as Henry Cavendish and Charles Darwin.

Philip Morris, which opened a factory here in 1881, named its Marlboro cigarettes after the street. No. 20–21, now a hotel, once housed the Marlborough Street Magistrates Court where Charles Dickens worked as a reporter and Oscar Wilde stood trial in 1895. Rock stars John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have all faced a judge there, too.

Image Credit: Kiev.Victor / Shutterstock.com

8. Piccadilly

Further west, upmarket Piccadilly has been a major London artery since the Middle Ages. Its name comes from local tailor and landowner Robert Baker, who made his fortune here by selling piccadills (big lace collars trendy in the 17th century) and lived in Pikadilly Hall.

Over the years, this long, wide street has been home to aristocrats, various members of the Rothschild family, and even Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. St James’s Hall, demolished in 1905, hosted readings by Dickens and concerts by Tchaikovsky. Fortnum & Mason (opened in 1705), the Ritz hotel (opened 1906) and the Royal Academy of Arts continue to provide links to a prestigious past.