How we built this City – Part One

The CityUnited Project presents a stimulating two-parter by the City of London’s Mark Wheatley

In Part One, Mark explores some of the fundamental building blocks and principles which have made our modern City of London so successful and so respected around the world.

Listening to the radio over the weekend, I heard Ladbaby’s charity single “We built this city on sausage rolls” which sparked some thoughts.  [For the purists, here’s the original by Jefferson Starship – Ed.]

Whilst even the most obsessive fan of Greggs or Ginsters would not really takes those lines literally, what did we actually build this City on? That backward glance might usefully guide us as we face the challenges of today.

 Of course, the prosaic ‘GCSE Geography answer’ is:

“We built this city on the bank of a river, beside a deep pool, useful for harbouring ships, at the first fordable point the Romans encountered as they moved inland”.

This helps us understand a little about the creation of London but, as we shall see, it is far from the whole story. 

The earliest days, carved out and preserved

The earliest preserved use of the name ‘London’ can be seen on a delicate sliver of wood displayed at Bloomberg’s Mithraeum museum in the Square Mile. Whoever carved it, sometime around 63 AD, wrote ‘Londinio Mogontio’. It was addressed to a Celt called Mogontius – possible even a Brittonic ancestor of our own Jacob Rees-Mogg, sage defender of ancient liberty?

From such snippets, we learn that the early City was a Roman construct, sited for practical reasons and home to a mixed population of soldiers, administrators, traders, continentals and locals. Like other settlements, it could have become a fort, a village or a town settled in foggy obscurity. 

Instead, London rose to global power and vast wealth – the beating heart of a vast Empire. Even today, it remains at the very centre of international trade and leads the world in financial services. 

Why?   (Spoiler alert – the answer does not involve sausage rolls)

What can we learn from that? Why does it matter? Let’s start with the last question first.  We need to recognise the importance of cities here (and anywhere) through history. 

A world-leading thinker on international trade, Shanker Singham, has recently written about Global Economic Neural Networks. He observes that cities are key nodal points for global economic progress – they stimulate prosperous hinterlands. They draw together talent and enterprise to enrich the city itself and the area around it. That is what London has done over centuries. It is clear, therefore, ‘why’ the City is important. 

So, that leaves two questions. The first is – what made London rise?

We’ve had some challenges. Under the Romans, London was sacked and burned by Boudicca. It rose again protected by sturdy walls. Those walls were a haven for all here, so our City grew. They enabled us to withstanding plagues and pestilence, fire, famine and war. They forged a resilient mindset. 

Our forebears faced challenges even worse – if you can imagine it – than Brexit and darker than Covid.

Let’s be robust and resilient. Let’s recall the word engraved in St Paul’s Cathedral – ‘Resurgam’. We will rise again.

The first building block is resilience

Nonetheless, such resilience is not a ‘given’ without trade. When the Romans left, London was abandoned. For years the streets were just as quiet as they are in our present Covid nightmare. The site of our current civic centre, Guildhall, previously the Amphitheatre, was a deserted swamp. Commerce stopped and buildings fell apart.

Many years later, the Anglo Saxons, having established a town beside the ruins of Londinium, started to occupy the old centre again. By then, the City sat at the intersection of a patchwork of Anglo Saxon Kingdoms – Wessex, Kent and Essex. That was important because London was not entirely beholden to any King. An overbearing Monarch would not hold the City. Londoners needed to be wooed a bit and they needed to see promises delivered. (Take note: Sadiq Khan, Shaun Bailey et al).

Authority here was a lighter impost than elsewhere – we had walls and a tough independently minded population.

With those qualities, our forebears were able to ensure the burden of tax fell relatively lightly here. Some monarchs did “raid the City” from time to time – to fund military adventures or colonial schemes – but our ancestors were assertive. They usually got something in return.

The second building block: a light tax touch

King Charles I ran up against the City traders of his day – challenging their freedoms and imposing upon their finances. Famously, he lost his head.   Most monarchs realised the good sense in ensuring London – and other trading entrepôts – enjoyed tax breaks. With those they prospered. Second building block: (suitably) light tax.

The next building block is also about resisting excess external control. This time, ensuring security of our property and persons. When King William drew his army to London, he realised it was better to affirm our freedoms – in his William Charter of 1067 – than to try and storm our walls.

Admittedly, some of the (brief) wording was even vaguer than an EU drug purchasing contract but he explicitly declared something about our freedom:  “Every child will be his father’s heir” and “I will not suffer any person to do you wrong”. The key phrases are about heritability of private property and personal security under the law. They inspired the confidence – enshrined in law – which enabled London to prosper. 

Third building block: our common law

So, our third building block is a common law framework which guarantees our freedoms and security over private assets. Without those, our forebears would not have had the confidence to plan. 

Those principles made London attractive as we pushed onwards into the Middle Ages. Our streets became a refuge. A runaway from his feudal master who remained here for one year and one day without being caught was entitled to the freedom of our City. Such enterprising folks could then be drawn into commerce through the self-regulating trade and mutual support bodies – our livery Companies. With such a trade they could prosper. As ever, enterprise was the great driver for social mobility and prosperity. 

Fourth building block: openness

Still, the fourth building block – openness – has other aspects.

As a city, through the centuries, we’ve welcomed refugees. That is both morally good and enriching.

Think of the Huguenots, the Kindertransport, Ugandan Asians and now the BNO of Hong Kong. Being relatively and reasonably open (with some gruesome exceptions) our ancestors prospered.

  • By Mark Wheatley, member of committees including the Policy & Resources and Finance Committees of the City of London, writing in a personal capacity, 04 April 2021

Coming in Part Two:  How do we draw on the lessons from all of this?