The Centre for Metropolitan History (CMH) was established at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in 1987–8 and began its programme of research and other activities in the autumn of 1988. From the beginning its aim has been to undertake innovative research into the history of London, to facilitate research by others and to promote a wide appreciation of the history of London, especially by considering it as a metropolis. Recently, Time Out identified the CMH website as one of London’s 50 best, evidence that activities described as ‘unashamedly academic’ can reach out to a wider world.
The term metropolis has a particular resonance for London. It has long been used to denote London’s role as a capital, successively, of the East Saxons, the kingdom of England, Britain, the Empire and perhaps now, or until recently, of global finance. ‘Metropolis’ also became a convenient term by which to denote the entire sprawling conurbation with the City of London at its heart, an area that even now extends beyond that of the Greater London Authority (GLA). In the case of London, ‘metropolitan’ came to express notions of ambition and grandiosity, pursued both by individuals and by London as a whole, in a way that has shaped an important modern meaning of the term as denoting a city, not necessarily a capital (and many modern metropolises are not capitals), that has a distinctively powerful, and stimulating or oppressive, impact as a centre of wealth, culture, ideas, beliefs or authority and in that role occupies the top or a nodal position in a hierarchy of cities. This takes us back to the ancient meaning of the term as ‘mother city’.
It also stimulates thoughts as to London’s relations with and impact on its wider territory, within Britain and overseas; its roles in the formation of regions or in shaping and promoting cultural practice and innovation; and the degree to which it resembles or differs from other metropolises around the world. Such concerns distinguish the Centre’s field from that of urban history, being especially concerned with networks of towns and cities and their interaction with the territory. CMH research, conferences and seminars have pursued and developed many of these ideas and in recent years, with the special support of the Leverhulme Trust, it has been able to pursue themes in comparative metropolitan history.
The CMH emerged from a developing concern for London’s history and from a variety of experiences, ideas and projects, several of them conducted outside the university framework. The history of London was a topic of lively general interest as early as the 12th century, and since the 16th century has been the subject of systematic research and publication, though much of that was derivative. Yet in the late 20th century it seemed surprising how little had been done, given (though certainly in part because of) the richness and extent of the archival sources, which made London one on of the best-documented cities in Europe.
This is where the founding director of the CMH (Derek Keene), came in. Nearing the end of a stimulating decade at the Winchester Research Unit researching and writing about the medieval history and archaeology of that city and helping to raise funds to support the work, he began to think what to do next. As a Londoner, for whom the city had been a source of interest and entertainment since childhood, and because of the historic links and similarities between Winchester and London, and because research on Winchester had developed new approaches to urban history (then a rapidly evolving area of study) which offered ways of making sense of the mass of records for London, he set out to establish a new project on the medieval city. Thanks to the support of colleagues and friends (especially Christopher Brooke, William Kellaway, then Secretary and Librarian of the IHR, Michael Robbins, chairman of the governors of the Museum of London, and Caroline Barron), the IHR and the Museum of London agreed to host the project, should the money be found.
The Social Science Research Council (SSRC, which had supported the Winchester project), its successor the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and several institutions and individuals in the City, came up with funding for a succession of projects under the banner ‘Social and Economic Study of Medieval London’ (SESML). A small team of researchers was assembled, for several of whom this was the beginning of distinguished careers as historians. Focusing on a central area of the city and on one of its eastern suburbs, these projects threw an entirely new light on the city’s history, above all through a close examination of its physical form and its economic and social geography. Kellaway had suggested to Keene (a medievalist) that the study be taken up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666. This was a challenging but inspiring idea, which resulted in a view of London’s character and development over half a millennium, generating hypotheses on the size and complexity of early London and on many of its cultural and economic features, such as shopping and the property market, which questioned existing assumptions, especially those made by historians of later periods. Many publications and a variety of substantial research resources ensued.
By 1987 the idea emerged of building on this foundation to establish a research centre within the IHR, which would address the larger subject of metropolitan history. Kellaway’s successor, Alice Prochaska, was especially helpful and creative in getting this done. A member of IHR staff, Heather Creaton, was seconded to the CMH, but otherwise for many years CMH staff continued to be employed out of short-term project funds supplied by research councils and other bodies.
The new centre moved from accommodation at the Museum of London to the cellar of the IHR’s annexe in Tavistock Square, subsequently moving into higher floors. This site facilitated some stimulating interactions with passers by (the CMH has always welcomed visitors and enquiries), but also in due course a series of night-time break-ins, which, with changes in University finances, prompted the move in 1993 to Senate House, where the Centre interacts more easily with the rest of the IHR but, regrettably for a metropolitan institution, is less accessible from the street.
The CMH immediately began a programme of research that ranged from the 13th to the 20th century. This included Heather’s prize-winning bibliography of London history (1) (the largest and most comprehensive bibliography of a city ever published), which she subsequently pioneered in an online form. Some new projects borrowed techniques from the work of SESML. An examination of the business districts of the city, using methods as applicable to the 19th century as to the 13th, provided a long-run answer to Walter Bagehot’s question as to why the money market, which he characterised as a very concrete thing, came to be situated in the place that it was.
Out of these interests there developed influential studies of the architecture of finance and, more opportunistically in the years following the ‘Big Bang’, an oral history of the jobbers of the Stock Exchange up to 1987, when they ceased to trade in that way. Another project which picked up spatial concerns was the ‘Social Atlas of Metropolitan London in the 1690s’, (2) based on the comprehensive taxation records of those years. It then served as a resource for another project which focused on mercantile culture in London around that time.
At the same time the CMH branched out in new directions. An influential series of projects examined London’s interaction with its hinterland between the 13th and the 16th century, analysing patterns of land use, the distribution and marketing of foodstuffs and other supplies, and wider networks of economic relationships in ways that illuminated London’s role in shaping local specialisms and regional identities. Aspects of this work have proved useful to other disciplines, including archaeology and sociolinguistics, the latter in its concern to explain regional interaction and the processes of levelling and standardisation in the English language.
The CMH became the obvious place at which to base a national gazetteer and study of markets and fairs up to 1516. Connections with archaeologists in the city and elsewhere have always been close. Other new research areas have focused on questions of health and environment, including plague in 17th-century London and Florence and changing patterns of mortality in Victorian London. Support from an imaginative industrialist interested in innovation facilitated a project which investigated the growth of skills in London from 1550 to 1750, and allowed the CMH to take on its first graduate student, who explored the role of immigrants in that process.
Under Matthew Davies’s directorship (from 2002) this pattern has continued and has been taken in new directions, not least through studies of the city livery companies and their records and in developing new online resources for the history of London. A successful series of projects is examining households, health and environment in 16th- and 17th-century London, building on and developing some of the findings of SESML. A study of Londoners and the law has brought to light an important new body of information on the disputes and activities of Londoners in the 15th century. Recently, a founding member of the CMH has returned to undertake a pioneering study of the relationship between population, economy and flooding in the Thames estuary between the 13th and the 16th century, an investigation relevant to the present day.
An MA programme has been established and the number of graduate students has increased, with assistance from the Leverhulme Trust and a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for collaborative supervision in association with the Museum of London. The Leverhulme funding has also supported post-doctoral fellowships, with the result that recently at the CMH there has developed a strong interest in the metropolitan history of the later 19th and 20th centuries, covering London, Paris, Rome, Germany, South America, South Africa, Havana and Malacca, with topics ranging from city railways to futurism, memorialisation after war, museums, and suburban identity. At the same time, as Leverhulme Professor of Comparative Metropolitan History, Derek Keene has been able to pursue a number of long-standing interests, publishing comparative studies, engaging in several trans-European projects and publications, and finding time to organise a new history of St Paul’s Cathedral and plan a new history of London.
The CMH has always benefited from collaboration with outsiders including those from overseas, as co-organisers of conferences and seminars and as advisers, co-supervisors or seconded members of research teams. These contacts have been stimulating and have often led to new initiatives. For many of those who have worked at the CMH their time there has been a formative stage in their careers. The importance of this role of research centres in imparting training and varied experience is not to be underestimated, as the recently retired Leverhulme professor knows from his own life.
Details of the activities of the CMH since 1988, of the progress of its research projects, and of all the people involved are to found in its annual reports, available online.
Professor Derek Keene is former Director of the Centre for Metropolitan History.