Does London Exist?

We’re having something of an existential crisis here at Londonist Towers. It occurs to us that this city we know and love might be bigger than we thought. Or smaller. Or not exist at all.

You see, we’re not sure that “London”, so-named, is a real place.

It’s a complex tangle of nomenclature. Get yourself a strong cup of tea, and let’s work through this…

The administrative area looked after so ably and faultlessly by City Hall, which comprises the 32 boroughs, is known as Greater London.

There’s also the City of London — the small sort-of-autonomous region synonymous with the Square Mile, which doesn’t count as a true borough.

So which bit is “London”?

The definitions on Wikipedia appear to suggest that “London” is the combination of Greater London plus the tiny City of London. That would mean that “Greater London”, perversely, is actually lesser than “London” (but only by an approximate Square Mile). However, we can’t find any confirmation, beyond Wikipedia, that this definition of “London” is an official one (can anyone help here?).

As a further complication, Inner and Middle Temples, ostensibly in the City of London, are usually treated as “extra-parochial areas” so, in some sense, they are not part of the City and therefore not part of London and certainly not Greater London.

Some other things you should know about our city. It’s not actually a city — not officially, anyhow. It includes the City of London and the City of Westminster, but the wider metropolitan area does not have a city charter. So, if you live anywhere other than Westminster or the Square Mile, you don’t technically live in a city. Also, we’re only the capital of the UK by convention, not by any constitutional or written decree.

All very humbling, and confusing.

Getting back to the “London” thing. There is, you’ll be relieved to hear, one political entity with the official moniker of “London”, and that’s the European Parliament Constituency. According (again) to Wikipedia, this is synonymous with the region of Greater London (i.e. not including the City). However, this appears to be a mistake, or a shorthand for “Greater London and the City of London”, as the City of London does have representation in the European Parliament.

In short, we’ve found an argument-clinching reason to stay in Europe: pull out of the EU and London ceases to exist.

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  • Albert

    London is a collection of small towns – what I’ve always loved about it (as a born and bred Londoner) is that although some of them can be, on the face of it, almost like chalk and cheese, they all have a ‘London’ feeling which makes you immediately identify where you are. As for the politics of the name, that’s exactly that – politics.

  • http://twitter.com/kevplugz Kev

    Don’t forget you also have ‘Inner London’ as well as ‘Outer London’ which together comprise Greater London. Then there’s the ‘London Fringe’ which itself is distinct from The Home Counties though not generally considered to be part of London proper.

    Many of the London Fringe towns could be assimilated in any future redrawing of political boundaries, as most Outer London boroughs are new, formed when the old County of London disappeared in the 60s. The County of London was significantly smaller before being replaced – That said, there is talk of Croydon ‘divorcing’ London and the boundaries getting smaller.

    A city is defined by its infrastructure, the city grew with the railways and expect it will continue to do so.

    • TorC

      Also don’t forget that Stratford is also not a city (Medway Towns must be spitting nails)

  • http://jasonbstanding.com Jason B. Standing

    So would now be a bad time to ask about London being the capital of England? Is it the capital of Great Britain, of England, or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

    No wonder that bloody test is so tricky.

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnhoward87 John Howard

    The post office sort of defines London is people’s addresses

  • http://twitter.com/zefrog Nicolas Chinardet

    On a subjective level there are also all the Londons that are each Londoner’s individual experience of the place.

    People, activities and locations that are part of their lives and others that barely register in the consciousness, if at all, while being central to the life of other londoners.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mjj12 Michael Jennings

    You have had various definitions of “London” that various organisations have made up for their purposes.

    “inner London” of the “Inner Boroughs” seems to be the old territory of the County of London, which ceased to exist in 1965, but was the same area that the former Metropolitan Board of Works had jurisdiction over from 1855 until the County’s creation in 1889.

    There is the London Postal District, which came into being in 1856, which is halfway between the size of the old County of London and modern greater London, and this is what gets you “London” in your address.

    There is the Metropolitan Police District, which is now exactly the same size as Greater London (not including the City) but hasn’t always been, and is much older than Greater London, having existed since 1829 and been roughly the same size as modern Greater London since 1839.

    There is the 020 telephone area code, which was formally 01, which is a little smaller than Greater London on the whole but also includes some areas outside it. (For former 070/081 and 0171/0181 division gives us another way of deciding whether we come from inner or outer London, I suppose).

    Then there are the London Transport Zones. You can perhaps say you are in “London” if you are inside the out boundary of Zone 6, but there are various places where Zone 6 goes outside Greater London. (If you want to be expansive, you can include Zones 7, 8, 9, G and W in the places where they exist, or even any place where there is any kind of London Transport service, which lets you count bus services going deep into the Hone Counties).

    And there is the simple “Inside the M25″, which a lot of businesses will offer service to.

    Can anyone think of any more definitions of London like this?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mjj12 Michael Jennings

    My native city of Sydney in Australia is possibly even worse than London. As in London, the City of Sydney is only a small area at the centre of the metropolis, although it does contain significant residential areas. There is no formal definition of “Greater Sydney”, although there is a “County of Cumberland”, which covers what is generally regarded as “Sydney”. However, this is so obscure that most people in Sydney are unaware that it exists, and there is no country government of any kind. (There was one with relatively few powers between 1945 and 1964). Local government areas within Sydney are not “Boroughs” or anything like that – they just have the same status as any other local government areas. Seventeen of them have been granted city status, including the City of Sydney at the centre, but the metropolis as a whole is not a city, and indeed does not have any status at all. People just know where it is. (There are certain vague definitions in terms of transport and telephone codes and the like, but they are even vaguer than in London).

  • http://www.facebook.com/stuart.hardy.9 Stuart Hardy

    Ely Place (off Hatton Garden, near Farringdon) is also not-London: it’s technically part of Cambridgeshire.

    • BJ

      And Old Scotland Yard, originally home to the Scottish Office, is actually still part of Scotland.

      • http://twitter.com/zefrog Nicolas Chinardet

        Pimlico is actually part of Burgundy. It was given to Charles VII, the last Duke of Burgundy, by Edward IV… or so I hear ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/gwoolton Gary Woolton

    As a Kingstonian I was and am miffed when they describe it as being in South West London, It is in Surrey and that is that. It has it’s own post code KT… Often something is defined by pure usage. For years I lived in the Black Country but no one could tell you what the boundaries are you just felt you were living in the black country or not. Ask people in Wolverhampton and they would generally deny it, ask people in Dudley or Walsall and they were firmly and proudly part of it. As such if I lived in Raynes Park, SW20, I would happily agree I lived in London, as I lived in Kingston I live outside of London even if I have red buses and and 020 8 telephone number.

    • http://www.facebook.com/mjj12 Michael Jennings

      Kingston has been part of Greater London for longer than the existence of that KT postcode, however.

    • Spencer

      Hello Gary,

      I believe Raynes Park and Kingston both became part of Greater London in 1965 and were both within the county of Surrey before that. Just that Kingston did not adopt a change of post code to SW.

      Kingston and Raynes Park are roughly two miles apart as the crow flies – you can pretty much draw a line from east to west through them (take a look) geographically they are of the same southern extent from central London. Kingston Vale is SW15 – London or Surrey?

      • Bill Ellson

        Kingston became part of Greater London by virtue of the London Government Act 1963. Post Codes are a matter for the Post Office not local government.

    • Balham

      KT is seen as being in the London postal region. Postal counties not being used since 1996 as they are not a reflection of where a place might be geographically. If you look at a 1857 London postal district map you’ll Kingston is in London south west when geographically it was in Surrey.

      View London as a county rather, as it has been since 1889. Just so happens London got bigger in 1965.

      Other clues, London Ambulance Service, London Fire Brigade both of whom changed their borders in 1965 to reflect London.

  • http://twitter.com/Ashfeldt Lane Ashfeldt

    Love this article (and the photo), but then I love London, although I sometimes get the feeling I need my passport when I stray too far outside my own London zone. I tend to think of London as a collection of villages rather than towns, and yes, the boundaries are always shifting – one of the things that keeps it interesting!

  • Ptarmigan

    Sooo – shall we revert to having Winchester as the Royal Capital then? ;)

    Honestly, I’m not so sure that any of the current capitals of the home nations actually merit their status based on historical status or charter. The Cymraeg definitely had nought to do with the Romans chosing Caerdydd for the capital, and Edinburgh became capital mainly by virtue of its strong strategic castle site – but there are equally strong sites elswhere. Londinium only became capital following a lot of tooing and fro-ing with the Normans, previously Kings only came to receive their coronation from the Bishops, not to take their monarchial seat as it were – really Londinium was just a large, glorified and fortified centre of trade with a good port facility – and the beach-head for the Romans to build access roads outwards from to attempt to conquer these isles – more a provincial trade hub.

    I think, as an outsider that more people would consider themselves Londoners than would be the case elswhere, consider Boltonians in Greater Manchester, they would lynch you for calling them Mancunians, as would folk from Kings Norton if you called them Brummies!

    I find it intriguing that one city is allowed to dominate the agenda of a whole group of nations in the way London does – in other countries regional cities play a much bigger role – e.g. Barcelona for the Catalans. Also, even in France, Paris does draw down so much of the news as representative of France in the way that most UK news seems to be London-centric. I mean no offence by this, I just find it a novel quirk of social, economic and military history which gives me pause for thought and musing.

    • Ptarmigan

      “Paris doesn’t” sorry.

  • http://twitter.com/AndrewHirst1 Andrew Hirst

    This applies to lots of other cities in the country too, surely? The City of Manchester, for example, is a much smaller area than Greater Manchester, and Manchester City Council only manages services in the City area. The City of Salford is a different entity entirely, like Westminster, and managed by Salford City Council. Other borough councils manage the other areas in Greater Manchester, such as Trafford and Tameside. There are, however, Greater Manchester level services, such as Greater Manchester Police and Transport. Greater Manchester itself, like Greater London, is not a city, but a metropolitan county.

    Birmingham is similar. The entire West Midlands conurbation is sometimes referred to as Birmingham, but is technically several different areas linked together by proximity and urban sprawl. The difference here is there is no West Midlands County Council – there used to be, but it was abolished in the 80s. Each city and urban district is managed by separate entities, such as Birmingham City Council and Solihull Council. The West Midlands, like Greater Manchester and Greater London, is not a city, but a metropolitan county.

    Basically, London isn’t really that different to many other places in the country.

  • Guest

    In short, we’ve found an argument-clinching reason to stay in Europe: pull out of the EU and London ceases to exist. Couldn’t then London reinvents itself a city-state?

    More seriously, the survival within London of two cities (Westminster and the City of London), a number of extra-parochial areas, legal sanctuaries and archaic administrative boundaries for so long is more than a kink of history. This fragmentation of power is what gave Londoners the freedom and the chance to grow prosperous, while the competition between different authorities ensured contributed to the quality of rule-making.

  • Andrea Marchesetti

    “In short, we’ve found an argument-clinching reason to stay in Europe: pull out of the EU and London ceases to exist.” Couldn’t then London reinvents itself a city-state?

    More seriously, the survival within London of two cities (Westminster and the City of London), a number of extra-parochial areas, legal sanctuaries and archaic administrative boundaries for so long is more than a kink of history. This fragmentation of power is what gave Londoners the freedom and the chance to grow prosperous, while the competition between different authorities ensured contributed to the quality of rule-making.

  • Bill Ellson

    Not sure how I missed this post last August, but it is time to disentangle some of it.

    Greater London is not looked after, ‘ably and faultlessly’ or otherwise, by City Hall. The main providers of local authority services are the 32 boroughs and the City of London.

    The administrative county of Greater London consists of the 32 boroughs and the City of London. (The City of London is part of the City and East London Assembly constituency currently held by John Biggs.)

    The ceremonial county of Greater London consists of the 32 boroughs. Greater London has a Lord Lieutenant and 32 Deputy Lieutenants (one for each borough). The City has a Commission of Lieutenancy headed by the Lord Mayor.

    The City of London is not ‘sort-of-autonomous’, but is simply a pre-existing unit of government that in 1899 was given the powers and responsibilities of a Metropolitan Borough and in 1963 the powers and responsibilities of a London Borough. The present day boroughs are corporations created by the London Government Act 1963.

    This being England London is not officially defined in the way that an American City might be, but is generally regarded as the 32 boroughs + the City.

    The Inner and Middle Temples are liberties within the City of London that have various local authority powers and responsibilities and, like the City of London, are subject to the Freedom of Information Act in the exercise of said powers and responsibilities.

    The metropolis or urban conurbation, or whatever you want to call it, is geographically a city, but only Westminster and the City of London are Cities. (Capitalisation does matter.)

    Wikipedia has been extensively vandalised in regard to the City of London by conspiracy theorists.

  • Spencer

    Inner London and outer London all possess their own particular charms. It’s Islington and The City during the week – but it’s the ‘riverside’ charm of Richmond and Kingston come the weekend. They compliment each other beautifully!