At the time of the 1908 Olympics, London was the largest city in the world, sitting at the heart of the largest empire in history; an empire on which the sun literally never set.
Its population had increased sixfold over the previous century, from 1m to 6m. The mood of general confidence as to its future was summed up by the geographer Halford Mackinder, who concluded that “we can hardly foresee any causes, apart from the decay of Britain itself, which shall lead to a
failure... of London”.
The importance of the British Empire to London’s status was written into the very street names of its expanding suburbs: Rhodesia Road in Lambeth; Abyssinia Close in Wandsworth; Ceylon Road in Kensington. It had more shipyards than anywhere else in the world and half a million worked at the docks or in other import-related occupations. As in 2012, the conspicuous consumption of a wealthy elite generated a cottage economy and still more demand for labour: Harrods Knightsbridge, The Ritz and Selfridges opened in 1905, 1906 and 1907 respectively.
The late 1940s and early 1950s have been described by Roy Porter as “old London’s Indian summer, when the docks still thrived and the trams sailed majestically through pea-soupers”. But at the time of the 1948 Games, London’s pride had been physically and psychologically dented, by extensive damage to its housing stock during the Blitz, and by the rapid demise of Empire. The first meeting of the UN General Assembly, in February 1946, took place in Westminster Central Hall, but the meeting itself resolved to locate the UN’s headquarters in New York.
Though London has remained among the most prosperous places in the country, its status as the ‘clearing-house of the world’, as Joseph Chamberlain put it, survives only in its financial services industry. Its port infrastructure has been literally displaced by towering bank headquarters in the regenerated docklands of the south east. As in the rest of the UK, many of its traditional manufacturing firms, reliant on imperial trade preferences, went into decline after WWII. Demand for labour is no longer insatiable, and for quality of life, London faces competition from commuter towns. As its population has stagnated, other cities, especially in the developing world, have seen the same rate of growth as London did in the 19th century. Between 1950 and 1965, London was the third-largest city in the world; today it is the thirtieth, overtaken not just by Delhi and Mexico City, but by Lagos, Shenzen and Lima.
From being the largest city in the world in 1908, London is now the thirtieth-biggest. The chart shows the population of the world’s three largest metropolitan areas currently, compared with London, since 1900.
Yet it is hard to imagine an Olympics being held in Chongqing (China), though it has 10m people to London’s 8m. Size, it seems, is not everything, and London’s successful bid for the Games is a reminder that its history, architecture, culture and diversity still count for something.