We are standing at Go – the Guardian's reception desk – with £200 to spend, and the capital is ready to unfold before us.
My companion in perambulation is London historian Jerry White, and he is preparing to roll the dice to determine the first stop on our journey around the Monopoly board. He shakes, he throws – and it's a three. We are off to Whitechapel Road.
It's 75 years since Parker Brothers, the Massachusetts-based games company, published Monopoly, the property speculation board game that has become one of the enduring staples of toy shops the world over. That first edition used the New Jersey resort of Atlantic City to supply its street names, as the US edition still does, but the game crossed the oceans almost immediately. The first foreign edition was the British game, with London streets, followed swiftly by versions in France, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and Austria, before it spread around the world. What White and I plan to do is roll our way round the board to discover how some of the areas of the London Monopoly board have changed in the intervening three-quarters of a century.
Strictly speaking, we're cheating. The Leeds firm Waddingtons didn't publish Monopoly over here until 1936. But Victor Watson, Waddington's general manager, got his first copy on a Friday in December 1935, and by the Monday he'd signed a deal with Parker Brothers to license the game for the UK. More to the point, perhaps, Monopoly is celebrating its 75th anniversary around the world this year – and who are we to poop the party?
Our traverse of London is an unconscious echo of how the locations were decided, though I don't discover this until a few days later, in an exchange of emails with Philip E Orbanes, a former executive at Parker Brothers who is also the chronicler of the game's history. "To decide on its street names, [Watson] and his secretary travelled to London and spent a day canvassing the city to pick street names that corresponded in relative worth to the increasing values as one goes round the board," Orbanes writes to me. "Apparently, they did their job well. To this day, I meet people who are convinced the game originated in London."
White and I take a cab to the Royal London Hospital, on Whitechapel Road. We head east, along the blue properties of the board, from Euston Road (originally an 18th-century London bypass), on to unlovely Pentonville Road, past the Angel – a slum when the game was launched, and now the southern border of fashionable Islington. You won't get a house for 50 quid around here these days: the website ourproperty.co.uk lists the least expensive road in the Angel area as Gopsall Street, with the average price of a property being £125,286, and there are no gorgeous period terraces here.
We pass through Shoreditch and Hoxton, where the influx of artists and creative types ratcheted neglected areas into fashionability, and I wonder if there were equivalents in interwar London. "I think that's a pretty recent phenomenon," White tells me. "You would have had artists clustering in areas of low rent but there would be no sense of fashionable legacy from that. You get some sense of legacy from the movement of the bohemians into Notting Hill in the 60s, or artists moving to Hackney and London Fields in the 70s." The only bohemian area 75 years ago, he reckons, would have been Soho.
There's a buzz on Whitechapel Road in the middle of the morning with the street market in full swing, food and brightly coloured clothes and cloths piled high on the stalls along the north side of the road. The faces of both traders and shoppers are brown – we're in the heart of east London's Bangladeshi community. Whitechapel has long been an area of immigrants and, 75 years ago, White says, "this would be an almost entirely Jewish area. But even in the 30s the Jews were moving away. Anyone who made it moved out – east to Romford, west to Golders Green, north to Stamford Hill." And the means of making it out was through the area's dominant industry – tailoring, which supplied the Royal London Hospital, just across the street, with a regular supply of patients suffering from tuberculosis.
"This is the area of the rag trade," White says. "The main wage earner would be making 50 shillings to £3 per week. It's not a desperately poor area; it's a thrusting, thriving commercial community."
Some things never change: just as the last general election saw east London facing the prospect of the BNP, so in 1935 this was an area bordered by strongholds of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. "If we'd been here in 1935 the walls would have been plastered with political posters and graffiti – fascists, communists and Labour were all very active here. There were perils on the street – assaults, broken windows – and this was a beleaguered community, which was another reason people wanted to leave."
No one owned their houses in Whitechapel Road in 1935. Families would rent a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen – perhaps from an unscrupulous landlord. In Monopoly, of course, such unscrupulousness is an advantage: the harder you can bargain and the more you can squeeze out of any exchange, the more likely you are to win. Yet the original purpose of the game was not to encourage players into a lifetime of avarice and property speculation. The earliest form of the game, in fact, was intended as a warning against those very traits.
As Orbanes explains in his exhaustive history of the game, Monopoly: the World's Most Famous Game & How It Got That Way, the model for Monopoly was The Landlord's Game, patented by Illinois-born Elizabeth Magie Phillips in 1904. Phillips was a follower of Henry George, an anti-monopolist tax reformer, who argued in favour of a "single tax" on land ownership. Phillips's game was intended to educate its players on the evils of monopoly ownership and the merits of the single tax – it's not surprising it altered in form before it became a bestseller.
Phillips never published her game but she gave a handmade copy to the residents of Arden, an experimental community in Delaware, populated by single taxers, nonconformists and socialists. Among its players there was Scott Nearing, a radical economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who used it as a teaching tool. His students, who nicknamed it Business or Monopoly, were entranced, and made their own copies to take away with them, and so this primitive ancestor of the game – Monopoly Erectus, compared with Monopoly Sapiens, if you like – began to spread.
The crucial moment in its evolution came one evening in Philadelphia in late 1932, when Charles Darrow and his wife Esther spent the evening with a couple named Charles and Olive Todd, who had a copy of The Landlord's Game – by this time de-politicised and simplified in the process of board-game Chinese Whispers over the previous decades. The four of them played and Darrow, an unemployed plumbing repairman, was so taken with it he returned to play again and again before asking if he could make his own copy. But there was one thing Darrow changed when he made his copy: the design of the board. For the spaces, he created rectangles with coloured bands at the top. This was the birth of Monopoly.
Darrow started making the game for sale privately, and by 1934 had persuaded Philadelphia's leading department store to stock it for the Christmas season. Other stores followed, and Monopoly became a popular gift in eastern Pennsylvania that winter. Its success was so noticeable, in fact, that word reached Parker Brothers, who invited Darrow to sell the rights to the game to them for full publication. The rest is board game history.
Back in London, White throws an eight, and we are on our way to Pall Mall. We pass through the City – which I am surprised to hear employed more people then than now, a total of around half a million – and follow the cabbie's dictum that "east to west, the river's best", heading along the Victoria Embankment to Westminster and the first of the pink properties. Grey stone frontages rise to the north and south of this broad street – which takes its name from the game pêle-mêle, played on this site before the street was laid out in 1661. Whitechapel is a distant memory, for this oddly characterless strip is where the rulers of the British Empire came to rest.
"This has not changed since 1935," White says. "This is clubland, where the London rich are always with us. They have been here since the end of the 17th century, when St James becomes an important parish with the development of St James Square." We are standing in front of the stretch of three great members' clubs – the Athenaeum, the Travellers and the Reform, names that summon a bygone age. Their day has surely passed, I suggest to White, and their place taken by the new clubs that have sprung up over the last 30 years or so – the likes of the Groucho and Soho House. He's insistent I am wrong. "These places will endure," he asserts. "There will still be people who want to be members, even though they are not for many."
Our next throw will give us the chance of landing on what serious Monopoly players believe to be among the most lucrative slots on the board – the orange run of Bow Street, Marlborough Street and Vine Street. They're valuable because of their proximity to jail, which means players get more chances to land on them, and because six and eight are two of the three most likely throws, which take you from jail on to Bow Street or Marlborough Street respectively (seven, the most likely throw of all, with six possible combinations, takes you to Community Chest). Conversely, the expensive properties on the fourth side of the board are least likely to be landed on, because they come after Go To Jail. Oh, and another tip while we're on the subject – don't race to build hotels. Get to three houses, because of the huge increase in income between two and three, and stop at four houses, because there are only 32 in each game, and you want to stop your opponents building.
But we miss out on the oranges. Instead, a 10 takes us to the Strand, and another two gives us a walk east as it transforms into Fleet Street. "In 1935 the Strand is still one of the most important streets in London in terms of its perception abroad and its place in Londoners' hearts," White says. One of the Strand's main functions – entertainment – is unchanged today. The theatres host Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest and other musicals, though there seem to be no signs of the prostitutes that White tells me were commonplace in the first half of the 20th century. It's no secret that Fleet Street was the heart of the British newspaper industry by 1935, or that this was and remains where lawyers are to be found thronging and scurrying like ants at a nest. Less obvious, perhaps, is that this being the heart of the printing industry since the 15th century meant a large proportion of the world's banknotes were printed here by the mid-30s.
The newspapers are long gone, of course, all scattered to Canary Wharf and King's Cross and Victoria, but if Fleet Street is no longer the Street of Ink, it remains the Street of Drink, with Ye Olde Cock Tavern and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese battling it out for the title of Ye Oldest pub on the strip. I laugh at the late 20th-century enthusiasm for Ye Olding things, but White puts me right. "Pubs were probably trying to be Ye Olde even then," he says. "The 18th century was rediscovered towards the end of the 19th century, so the tradition of this area would have been revered even 75 years ago. It's not a new invention."
The next throw is the one I'm dreading. From Fleet Street a five takes us to Water Works. I have no idea where we should go – but I reckon without White's knowledge. He suggests we travel north-east to an elegant 1920 redbrick building on Rosebery Avenue. Behind the building, now flats for rich people, is an old reservoir, which stored the water brought to London by the manmade New River from Amwell Springs in Hertfordshire – and for which the neighbouring Amwell Street must be named. In 1935 this building, New River Head, was the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board. It wasn't just an administrative building: the board's 1936 report notes that it is building new laboratories at New River Head, "at an estimated cost of £75,116". That's around £4m at today's prices.
Clerkenwell these days is a typical fashionable district. Chic restaurants and grimy boozers stand feet from each other, and loft-dwellers share the streets with council tenants (this was one of the earliest areas of London to have municipal housing). Seventy-five years ago it was, White says, "solidly proletarian, an entirely indigenous area – not just English, but cockney", despite the existence of London's own long-established Little Italy just a few hundred yards south. The presence of Finsbury town hall across the road locates it as a heartland of the Labour party. Indeed, in the 1935 election, the National Government lost the seat to the Labour opposition.
"By the 70s this had become a stronghold of old-fashioned Labour and it was one of the early areas that went over to the SDP in the 1980s," says White. "The old radicalism had pretty well petered out across the 1940s, in favour of workers' rights and a very traditional view of the world that doesn't really welcome newcomers."
As we talk, we are watching kids running about in the playground of a school a few yards away. None is white – so newcomers came, whether the previous generation of residents wanted them or not. "The transformation was from 1950 to 1965, and they came from all over the world – Cyprus, Malta, Nigeria and the rest of Africa, the Caribbean, with people coming from Asia a bit later."
We are by now flagging – and a couple of pints in a Clerkenwell pub have probably done nothing to lift our energy levels – and we cheat the end of our round of the board. First, though, a four takes us to Oxford Street. It made its first step towards becoming London's high street, White says, when Harry Gordon Selfridge established his great department store in 1910. "Oxford Street became the place to go shopping 'up west', because the stores could grow in size. The high land values in the Strand prevented redevelopment for department stores, so they came to Oxford Street, and its place in London's imagination is not vastly altered." A photo of Oxford Street in 1935, hung with decorations for George V's silver jubilee, shows it as crowded as it is now, buses clogging the road, pedestrians packing the pavement.
We agree without rolling that our next throw would have taken us back to Go, and our journey is over. Monopoly's, however, shows no signs of abating. In addition to the 110 countries around the world that play the game, in recent years, Parker Brothers has licensed dozens of "affinity" editions, commemorating everything from the US Marines to Lord of the Rings, from Elvis Presley to corporate editions for firms such as the QVC shopping channel. There's a Monopoly world championship (current champion: Bjørn Halvard Knappskog, from Norway), and an actor, Merwin Goldsmith, who makes part of his living playing "Mr Monopoly" – the caricature from the box, modelled on real-life monopolist JP Morgan – at such events. And this year a documentary about the game, Under the Boardwalk, won the audience award for best documentary at the Anaheim film festival. It is all but inescapable, the one board game you will find in every department store.
And it's all a very long way indeed from what Elizabeth Magie Phillips had in mind when she was granted a patent back in 1904.
• London: The Story of a Great City by Jerry White is published by Andre Deutsch, £30.
• This article was amended on 7 January 2011. The original said that in the 1935 election the National Government lost the Clerkenwell (Finsbury) seat to George Lansbury's Labour opposition, and also referred to Alfred Selfridge. These have both been corrected.
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