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I picked up a copy of this successful reference book in a charity shop for £3.50. It was the first edition, from 1983 and there have been at least two subsequent editions, but the concept and coverage are unlikely to have changed (too expensive to reset the entire book). I don’t know of any comparable historical companion to London.

How big? A quick estimate suggests 450,000 words, 6,500 articles, at an average of around 66 words per article. Around 300 interesting historical photos and figures. There is a very detailed index,

  • Scope: never defined. Appears to include districts that are completely outside London, such as Epping Forest, Downe and Keston, which suggests it covers the Greater London area and beyond.
  • Editorial policy: not stated, although there must have been one. Given the potential vast scope of London-related topics, which could easily amount to several volumes, it was essential for this book to concentrate on just one or two aspects. Accordingly, the coverage is historical, concentrating on places (especially good for streets), institutions, companies (Burberry),  and buildings, as well as some fascinating general articles on wide-ranging topics such as “drains and sewers”, “glasshouses”, “regiments”, “water supply”, and “cholera” (the editors are very keen on cholera-related topics). There are no entries for people associated with major changes in London, such as Joseph Bazalgette or Samuel Pepys. Hence, there is an entry for “Dickens [sic] House”, but no entry for “Dickens”; “Linley Sambourne House”, but no entry for Linley Sambourne.
  • Coverage of minority ethnic groups: looks very sparse. I searched in vain for people with blue plaques on their homes, such as Learie Constantine, who brought the first prosecution against racial discrimination in the UK (although there Is an entry for Constance Spry Cookery School). Nor is there an entry for Bob Marley. Similarly, there are entries for Kettners Restaurant, and Scott’s Restaurant,  but not Blooms Restaurant, nor for the Daquise Restaurant, Schmidt’s in Charlotte Street, or the Bar Italia in Frith Street.
  • One fascinating aspect of the work is entries for demolished buildings, or no-longer-existing groups, such as the “Somerset Coffee House” frequented by Boswell, and “Vauxhall Gardens”.
  • There is a slight tendency for articles of national relevance to be included because of some small association with London, for example “National Trust”, or “Roman roads”. These are interesting, but hardly very relevant.
  • Entertaining and readable style, and great for dipping into, for example, the fascinating articles for “watermen and lightermen”, “New River Company”, and “Hunterian Museum”.

In other words, this encyclopaedia is good for places and for traditional historical details, such as “Philharmonia Orchestra”, “Great Globe”, or “Italian Hospital”,  topics in outer London. Don’t expect to have your horizons broadened with a broader range of cultural references; but expect to be entertained and informed about topics you were familiar with by name but without any historical background. It would be great to have it digitised and made available at a suitable aggregated site, for example, British History Online.