The City Essay

The City commonly refers to the City of London (a small district within Greater London), and by way of metonymy, to the financial industry operating there, and the culture thereof—just as Wall Street is used to refer to more than simply the street and what is on it. The City is also home to London’s legal industry, and use of the phrase may sometimes carry that association instead or in amplification—a City lawyer being one who works with the financial industry in some way, for instance. Though the City of London is often called the Square Mile, it is less common—though not quite rare—to also use that term for the financial industry.

Greater London consists of the 32 London boroughs (divided among Inner and Outer London) and the City of London. Unlike the boroughs, the City is governed by the City of London Corporation, which is granted with greater-than-usual powers and authority compared to other local governments. The full name of the Corporation, rarely used outside of official contexts, is the Mayor and Commonalty and Citizens of the City of London and the Court of Common Council. The City is divided into 25 wards, which are used as electoral divisions, the largest of which are Farringdon Without, Farringdon Within, Cripplegate, and Bishopsgate, each of which has 8–10 representatives on the Common Council (most wards have 2–5). Each ward also elects one representative to the Court of Aldermen, who serve for six years.

The Lord Mayor of the City of London and two Sheriffs, along with other city officers, are elected by the Common Hall and serve year-long terms. The Common Hall is made up of liverymen, the senior members of the Livery Companies (of which there are over 100) of the City, trade associations that have taken on political and ceremonial duties over the centuries. The Lord Mayor represents the City to foreign dignitaries, and while that is technically the function of many a local politician the world over, London’s importance on the global stage brings the Lord Mayor out from the wings more often. The Corporation is heavily criticized by reformers for being outdated, a boys’ club with official powers, a single-party microstate that refuses to conform to the practices of the more modern municipal governments surrounding it. This separate administration dates back to 886, when Alfred the Great’s son-in-law was appointed Governor of London—but the City at the time was not surrounded by other small municipalities. Given the nature and value of the businesses in the City, it is also worth noting that unlike the boroughs of Greater London, the City maintains its own separate police force.

In the 21st century, the City has a residential population of less than 10,000, and unlike many cities this is significantly less than it has had in the past. Even in 1700, the City’s population exceeded 200,000. As the boroughs have been developed, though, and as commercial development has become more prominent in the City—since about the middle of the 19th century—the residential population has diminished. It is currently on a mild rise, bouncing back from an all-time low of about 4,200 people in the 1970s.

Important features of the financial industry that so dominates the City include the London Stock Exchange, one of the largest in the world, operating since 1801. The occasional target of takeover attempts, the LSE was most recently subject to takeover bids by NASDAQ from 2005 through 2007, until the latter company finally announced it was abandoning the attempt. Most of the shares NASDAQ accumulated during its takeover attempt—28 percent of the LSE—were sold to the Borse Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The Bank of England is also located in the City, as well as Lloyd’s of London and offices for Bank of America, Barclays Bank, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, HSBC, and hundreds of other banks.

Outside the City, in the Tower Hamlets borough, but sometimes associated with the City in the international imagination, is the business district of Canary Wharf. Built in the 1980s on the site of the old West India Docks that had been bombed during World War II, Canary Wharf developed as a result of financial deregulation in the United Kingdom, which led to the spread and expansion of many banks and financial institutions, which found themselves stifled by the zoning regulations of the City of London—which sought to preserve its historic and widely-recognized look. Twenty years later, Canary Wharf is part upscale shopping district, part supplemental financial district, with tenants including major investment banks and law firms, as well as offices for the media outlets that cover the City.



  1. Alexander Davidson, How The City Really Works: The Definitive Guide to Money and Investing in London’s Square Mile (Kogan Page, 2008);
  2. John Grapper, “Are We No Longer the World’s Financial Capital?” New York (v.40/10, 2007);
  3. Richard Roberts, The City: A Guide to London’s Financial Centre (Profile Books, 2008).

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