About Jerry White

Jerry White London Historian

Jerry White has had an unusual career for a professional historian. After leaving grammar school in Dorset in 1967 he pursued a career in local government until 2009. From 1970 he worked in London, first as a public health inspector at Islington and then in senior positions in the housing and health departments of Haringey and Hackney. From 1989 to 1995 he was chief executive of the London Borough of Hackney, and from 1995 to 2009 one of the three Local Government Ombudsmen for England (with responsibility for South London among other areas). He didn’t realise it at the beginning, but it was all a good grounding for a historian of modern London, especially in understanding its housing problem and the mechanics of local government and politics.

In November 1971 he stumbled across Rothschild Buildings, Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields, and an interest in London history – especially the lives of working-class Londoners – almost immediately turned into a passion. He has written about this moment in the introduction to the Pimlico edition of Rothschild Buildings. But his 'foolhardy' decision to write an oral history of this East End tenement block led him to meet Raphael Samuel, tutor in social history at Ruskin College, Oxford, who singlehandedly gave him the university training as a historian that he had never had.

Rothschild Buildings was followed by an Islington study of a slum street demolished long before Jerry worked nearby, The Worst Street in North London: Campbell Bunk, Islington, Between the Wars (1986), in many ways the most ‘academic’ of his books. There was then a pretty long silence as his local government career left little time for reflection, even peace of mind. But he never stopped reading about London and collecting books about it. And when Jerry was appointed Ombudsman in 1995 he felt he was ready to start writing once more.

From 1997 Jerry focused his history-writing efforts on what became a trilogy on the history of modern London from 1700 to 2000. Working first on the twentieth century and then moving to the nineteenth, by the time London in the Eighteenth Century. A Great and Monstrous Thing was published by The Bodley Head in early 2012 he had spent some fifteen years on the project. It was not planned like this. The twentieth-century volume was projected as a single book and the suggestion that he should write companion books on the earlier centuries was an afterthought of Maggie Hanbury, his indispensable agent since the late-1970s, and Will Sulkin, then his publisher at Random House, who has since retired. However Jerry says he is glad he took on the challenge. All three volumes were remarkably well received by the critics. Since 2016-17, all three volumes have been published in a handsome ‘library’ paperback format that marks their status as the classic modern treatment of London’s history over the past 300 years.

After concluding the trilogy, Jerry returned to projects that focus on momentous events, or significant places, in London history. First, the only modern study of London in the First World War was published as Zeppelin Nights on the centenary of the outbreak of war; it subsequently went on to win the Spear’s Social History of the Year for 2014. And in 2016, he published a book-length study of a notorious London landmark, Mansions of Misery. A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, where Charles Dickens’s family spent some months in early 1824. The book charts the history of the prison – and the careers of its prisoners – over the period from around 1695 till its final closure in 1842. Part of the wall of the ‘New’ Marshalsea (dating from 1812) can still be seen adjacent to St George the Martyr church, Southwark.

Jerry is currently writing a history of London in the Second World War, its publication planned for 2021.

Hon. D. Litt., University of London, 2005
Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, 2008

2020: Emeritus Professor in Modern London History, Birkbeck, University of London, having retired from teaching in September 2020
2009-20: Professor of Modern London History, Birkbeck, University of London*
2008: Visiting Fellow, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, Connecticut
2005-present: Council of the London Record Society; since 2012 Honorary General editor of Modern Records
2004-2009: Visiting Professor of London History, Birkbeck, University of London
From 2003 and at various times since: Member of the Advisory Committees of the Centre for Contemporary British History, the Centre for metropolitan History, and the Raphael Samuel History Centre ( Birkbeck, Queen Mary University of London and Bishopsgate Institute)
1997-2009: Associate Fellow, Department of History, University of Warwick
1976-c1990: Member of the editorial collective of History Workshop Journal

*From 2009 until early 2016, this was a Visiting Professorship in the gift of the Master of Birkbeck; from February 2016 the Professorship has been formally conferred by the College.