Skip to main content
Senate House Library

Walking London: Tracing the Footprints of a City


Written by
Argula Rublack, Academic Librarian: History

Explore the history of London through some of the unique guidebooks in Senate House Library's collections...

Walking the streets of London has become an estranged exercise in the last couple of months. The lockdown in place in the UK since 23 March has disrupted our usual activities, including how we walk. The emptiness of shops lining the streets, the new social rules, the ever-present thread of infection all de-familiarise the streets we once walked so naturally. Our streets are a new territory.


The changing face of the city has been a constant pre-occupation in writings about walking in London. This is not only reflected in the numerous literary accounts about walking in the city but also in the outpouring of publications to navigate it. Senate House Library’s collections are rich in publications that offer to accompany and advise those walking the streets of London in the past centuries. Here are a few guidebooks and walks from different perspectives to celebrate London History Day on 31 May.


The stranger’s companion: a view of London through its guidebooks

From the 18th century onwards and culminating in the 19th century, Britain became a society obsessed with walking. Walking became a pleasurable, cultural activity, especially among the intellectual and elite classes of society. This manifested in the new publishing phenomenon of the traveller’s guidebook. 

The collections at Senate House Library document this increased flood of publications well. In the collections we have two surprisingly similar titles: Ambulator: or, A pocket companion in a tour round London (London : printed for Jane Bew, widow of the original proprietor, 1793) and The Ambulator; or, The stranger's companion in a tour round London  (London : printed for J. Bew, 1774) which both attest to the growing popularity of the format in the 18th century. The guidebook is traditionally a product marketed to an audience unfamiliar with the city but the title page of The Ambulator; or, The stranger's companion in a tour round London tells us that the book intends to be “[n]ot only of use to strangers, but the inhabitants of this capital”. As London expanded further and further, even its own inhabitants became overwhelmed with its size and turned to guidebooks for their own cities. 

Ambulator guidebooks

How To "Do" London in a Day

The further you move into the 20th century, the more guides to London you can pull from the shelves in our library. These historical objects tell us about a publishing and tourist industry of the time responding to increasing economic and cultural demands for travel. Travel guides tell you to “what to see and how to see it” and even “how to do London in a day”. The guidebook turns the experience of walking through a city into a product that it can sell. But it tell us very little about how the individuals walking through the streets of London experienced the city.

How to "do" London in a day by W.E. Hambley (London : E.J. Larby, [1926]):  
London : what to see and how to see it (London : H.G. Clarke, 1859):

How to do London in a Day

Saunters and Rambles: The Writer’s Guide to London

Even if led by a guidebook, individual walkers have their own creative responses to a city and there are numerous famous accounts of walks through London. One beautifully illustrated example from our collection is German writer Max Schlesinger’s English edition of Saunterings in and about London (London: Nathaniel Cooke, Milford House, Strand, 1853). Written “for the profit and amusement of [his] German countrymen”, Schlesinger guides the reader through a crowded and buzzing London which is not only populated by famous sights but comes to life through its inhabitants' habits and customs. 

The life of the London streets held a particular fascination for many 19th century writers and some chose to evoke the darker side of the city when they wrote about their walks. In recounting his famous night walks through London, Charles Dickens (whose walking stick features in our current exhibition Childhood in Dickensian London) reveals a city haunted by ghostly figures, including himself, trying to navigate through the rapidly industrialising metropolis plagued by social inequality. Dickens wanted to bring the less glamorised facets of this new world city closer to his readers, who may not have chosen to walk the same paths he did.


Walking to recover lost cities

Cities contain many layers, bearing evidence to many histories. They have always been contested territories in which different parties seek to lay claim to shape the city in their own image. Operating in the Dickensian tradition of showing the shadow side of progress, Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah (London: Verso Books, 2011) leads its readers through London to unearth the lost landscapes of the mid-20th century bulldozed over by gentrification. In her walks “Canary Wharf, ghoulish needle, Thatcher’s Britain, gleaming obelisk overseeing dilapidated streets” looms as a symbol of how the city’s traditional neighbourhoods are slowly being erased. 

Clare Manifold’s Feminist History of the East End: A Walk (London: Rights of Women, 1979) also seeks to excavate what the city’s mainstream narratives often hide, women and the lives they led on the London streets. These are just two examples of how the act of walking is used to surface another image of the city. The walking guide becomes a way to reclaim one’s territory in a vast metropolis. For the reader who opens these guides, walking literature affords the opportunity to see the city through another’s eyes. We find a city we could not have discovered ourselves.

Feminist History of East London

Explore the history of London further through our online collections of over 45,000 titles on London and as soon as the library is open again, we encourage you to visit and order up some of our special collections items from the Bromhead Library, a unique collection of about 4,000 items documenting London history from the 17th to the early 20th centuries.

Argula Rublack, Academic Librarian: History