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A Room to Let in Old Aldgate

November 5, 2010
by the gentle author

I would dearly love to rent the room that is to let in this old building in Aldgate, photographed by Henry Dixon for the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London. Too bad it was demolished in 1882. Instead I must satisfy myself with an imaginary stroll through the streets of that long lost city, with these tantalising glimpses of vanished buildings commissioned by the Society as my points of reference. Founded by a group of friends who wanted to save the Oxford Arms, threatened with demolition in 1875, the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London touched a popular chord with the pictures they published of age-old buildings that seem to incarnate the very soul of the ancient city. London never looked so old as in these atmospheric images of buildings forgotten generations ago.

Yet the melancholy romance of these ramshackle shabby edifices is irresistible to me. I need to linger in the shadows of their labyrinthine rooms, I want to scrutinize their shop windows, I long to idle in these gloomy streets – because the truth is these photographs illustrate an imaginary old London that I should like to inhabit, at least in my dreams. Even to a nineteenth century eye, these curious photographs would have proposed a heightened reality, because the people are absent. Although the long exposures sometimes captured the few that stood still, working people are mostly present only as shadows or fleeting transparent figures. The transient nature of the human element in these pictures emphasises the solidity of the buildings which, ironically, were portrayed because they were about to disappear too. Thus Henry Dixon’s photographs preserved in the Bishopsgate Insitute are veritable sonnets upon the nature of ephemerality – the people are disappearing from the pictures and the buildings are vanishing from the world, only the photographs themselves printed in the permanent carbon process survive to evidence these poignant visions now.

The absence of people in this lost city allows us to enter these pictures by proxy, and the sharp detail draws us closer to these streets of extravagant tottering old piles with cavernous dour interiors. We know our way around, not simply because the geography remains constant but because Charles Dickens is our guide. This is the London that he knew and which he romanced in his novels, populated by his own versions of the people that he met in its streets. The very buildings in these photographs appear to have personality, presenting dirty faces smirched with soot, pierced with dark eyes and gawping at the street.

How much I should delight to lock the creaky old door, leaving my rented room in Aldgate, so conveniently placed above the business premises of John Robbins, the practical optician, and take a stroll across this magical city, where the dusk gathers eternally. Let us go together now, on this cloudy November day, through the streets of old London. We shall set out from my room in Aldgate over to Smithfield and Clerkenwell, then walk down to cross the Thames, explore the inns of Southwark and discover where our footsteps lead …

This row of shambles was destroyed for the extension of the Metropolitan Railway from Aldgate to Tower Hill, 1883.

Sir Paul Pindar’s House in Bishopsgate was moved to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1890.

At the corner of St Mary Axe and Bevis Marks, this overhanging gabled house was destroyed in 1882.

In College Hill.

St Giles Cripplegate, which now stands at the centre of Barbican complex.

Old buildings in Aldersgate St.

Shaftesbury House by Inigo Jones in Aldersgate St, demolished after this photo was taken in 1882.

Chimneypiece in the Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green, where Dickens was once a cub reporter.

In Cloth Fair, next to Smithfield Market.

At the rear of St Bartholomew’s Church.

In the graveyard of St Bartholomew the Great.

In Charterhouse, Wash House Court.

The cloisters at Charterhouse.

St Mary Overy’s Dock

Queen’s Head Inn Yard.

White Hart Inn Yard.

King’s Head Inn Yard.

In Bermondsey St.

At the George, Borough High St.

You can see more pictures from the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London in The Ghosts of Old London and In Search of Relics of Old London.

Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

52 Responses leave one →
  1. Dorota Los permalink
    November 5, 2010

    What a journey in time!

  2. November 5, 2010

    These are amazing pictures, and such a shame that so many of the buildings are no longer standing. Bermondsey Street retains some of its characterful old buildings, although I’m sure that if Southwark Council had their way it would be lined with blocks of flats and offices…

  3. Jean Weddle permalink
    November 5, 2010

    What a delightful glimpse into history of old London. I love entries on the blog like this. It is sad that so many of these old buildings are now gone. The design details of some of those old buildings are very captivating.

  4. Anne permalink
    November 5, 2010

    Incredible, I love these photos .They are really ghostly.

  5. Margaret Lambert permalink
    November 5, 2010

    Many of us cope with an overlay of memory, even in places without any great length of history. Now there is sometimes more sense of preservation, or at least of recycling materials from what must be removed, but when all these buildings were being demolished in the latter part of the 19th century it may not have occurred to anyone that there would be value in saving antique window glass, exterior ornaments, the mantels, the lantern in the Inn yard. If the building went, it all went. Not all that is old is beautiful, but neither is what replaces it.

  6. November 5, 2010

    Another suberb post. I really enjoy reading this blog every day and these photos of buildings long gone are both poignant and thought-provoking. Oh to be able to jump into the scenes and explore all the nooks and crannies.

  7. CornishCockney permalink
    November 5, 2010

    My ancestors have lived and worked in the east end since the late 1700s. I love old photos like these which give a glimpse of what life was like back then.

  8. julie permalink
    November 5, 2010

    The loss, the yearning. Oh for a time machine.

  9. Dee permalink
    November 5, 2010

    The George Inn still exists on Borough High Street. It is now owned by the National Trust and still operates as a public house. It is the last galleried inn remaining in London.

  10. November 5, 2010

    Beautiful images…

  11. November 6, 2010

    I second Julie — oh, for a time machine! While all the photos are amazing (as is your evocative description of a journey into that vanished city), I am particularly taken with the Paul Pindar house in the 2nd image after the text.

    There appear to be two people in that photo, which at first seemed empty of life. One is a London bobby, standing so solidly against the wall that he virtually blends into it. The other looks like a ghostly image of woman in the passage named Halfmoon Street. I know it’s probably a trick of the long exposure time for the photo — someone who stood for a moment and then moved on. But I like to think of her as something else, some spirit of the past that even in these old photos was older still.

    Her long dress could be from almost any era. Her face is turned towards the solid, stolid constable — wary of the law? Or perhaps just longing for a living world of substance and noise that needs bobbies to patrol their beats. Like old London itself, she glances around the corner of time once more before she fades entirely away.

  12. Alan permalink
    November 6, 2010

    It’s easy to view these wonderful images as picteresque and quaint, but look again, through the sepia, and you’ll see that many of these are grim places where appreciating the architecture wouldn’t have been very importanat to people living short, hard lives – and any owners of time machines would soon set their controls for home!

  13. November 6, 2010

    Alan, I heartily agree with your sentiments, but, if only for a short while, join us in looking through our rose-tinted glasses.

  14. the gentle author permalink
    November 6, 2010

    Be assured, with Charles Dickens as our guide we shall not be spared the human reality of squalor and deprivation.

  15. November 10, 2010

    My first job was as a messenger boy for ‘Fleetway Publications’ in the City in 1963. Even then
    there were buildings still left that conjured up images of Dicken’s London in my young mind.
    When walking through the City today, I often see people as characters from the 19th century,
    rushing to their appointments with worried faces like scenes from ‘Little Dorrit’ – “Nobody’s fault Sir, Nobody’s fault”!

    Great post Gentle Author.

  16. BARBARA permalink
    November 12, 2010

    Yes, Nota Bene, such a shame that so many of the buildings have now gone. Gentle Author, you have spread your springs and flown briefly into Smithfield and Clerkenwell. There’s a wealth of interest in these areas too. Barbara

  17. Anne permalink
    November 12, 2010

    No wonder that there are so many comments on this post. We are hungry for more glimpses into the past.
    If we don’t acknowledge our past how can we look to the future?

    More please gentle author.

  18. November 15, 2010

    Awesome photos! Old school style is always best, especially when they are authentic! Photoshop jobs don’t do things justice sometimes…real film always feels different.

  19. November 15, 2010

    Thanks for sharing, this is probably the more inspirational post I’ve read/viewed in the last month… Great photographs, great typography…

  20. Tim Manning permalink
    November 15, 2010

    The White Hart Inn yard is still there as is the Bemondsey Street image!!

  21. Mirry permalink
    November 16, 2010

    I’m always amazed by the beauty of old photography it doesn’t seem to matter about the subject. The time and the effort taken to create these images is very apparent in the comments left. In these days of point and press digital I’m glad I’m still making the effort to produce things the old way. I’m sure these would of been produced using huge cameras and glass plates and lots of chemistry. An art form in it’s self. A joy to see.

  22. Jonathan Leary permalink
    November 16, 2010

    I agree, I really want to go there and walk the streets. Wonderful photos

  23. November 16, 2010

    Love this. Wonderful stuff.

  24. November 16, 2010

    Hi – Great post – I love to see these old photos. The faceade of the Paul Pindar house is good to see, if a little odd. I’ve given a link to my own blog that includes a photo, and I’ve linked that back here – because I’m nothing if not polite!

  25. vitoria lima permalink
    November 16, 2010

    If I had a chance to visit these places I would think I had entered one of Dicken’s novels. I am Brazilian and I last visited London in 1981, and I love it.

  26. Jim Gunnee permalink
    November 18, 2010

    Great post. I visited the Vand A recently – well worth a trip.
    My blog http://jimgunnee.blogspot.com/2010/11/trip-to-v.html has a picture of the Pindar house facade…

  27. December 15, 2010

    Wow, I work in Charterhouse Square now so this is brilliant to see! Many thanks for posting these amazing pictures.

  28. December 15, 2010

    Awesome post.
    Would be interested to know if you have ever come across any old photos of Printing House Yard or Perseverance Works – lies betwix Kingsland Road and Hackney Road?
    Siobhan

  29. Chris McGovern permalink
    December 15, 2010

    I love these photos, and your writing perfectly summed up what I feel about looking at photos like this. Thank you!

  30. December 15, 2010

    Fantastic evocative images of old London. Thank you, and looking forward to others to come.

  31. December 15, 2010

    A beautifully-written post. Look out for the mention on our Facebook fan page!

  32. Vivian Thomas permalink
    December 15, 2010

    My fox family lived in this area so it was lovely to see the old photos

  33. January 6, 2011

    Incredible and fantastic photos, many thanks for posting them! I, like you, wish I could wander those streets then too…

  34. January 18, 2011

    i especially enjoyed seeing the ghost-like images in these photographs of discken’s london

  35. Peter permalink
    January 22, 2011

    Nice article. Whilst wandering around the Charring Cross road I saw an old brass microscope in an antique shop and had to buy it. An inscription on a small brass plate fixed on its base shows that it was sold by J & C Robbins, Aldersgate Street. This must be the John Robbins mentioned in your article and shown in one of the photos. I’ve al;so found the shop in census records.

  36. D J Richert permalink
    October 31, 2011

    These pictures are really old! How did they make them? Did they use a pair of baby pterodactyls like they did in the Flinstones?

  37. julie permalink
    December 17, 2011

    I think most people would like a time machine. I don’t think many people are happy around glass buildings and office blocks. What makes the town/city planners want to destroy these old buildings. I live in a town once full of lovely old buildings, now derelict and due to be pulled down to be replaced by buildings no-one will want to view in the future. Thank you for finding these.

  38. Clif permalink
    January 21, 2012

    I went to London, around Holborn on Boxing Day this year…No Cars, no people , .absolutely great..you could almost cross the main roads with your eyes shut !!.if I had known the non tourist shopping party of London were so void of modernity I would have made it a special ‘ visit London day’ years ago with Camera. Highly recomended day out !!

  39. Josie permalink
    April 7, 2012

    Very interesting pictures.I was surprised to see the yard of the Queen’s Head Pub as that belonged to my gt gt grandparents in the 1850′s Joseph and Jane Jarmain.Have never been in London so will need to visit one day.

  40. lawrance permalink
    June 20, 2012

    excellent window into the past of late victorian london

  41. Bob Land permalink
    July 31, 2012

    Absolutely fantastic.

  42. Lauren permalink
    September 9, 2012

    How wonderful; thank goodness someone had a camera even back then and foresight to take these pictures. Thank you Gentle Author for showing them again

  43. October 14, 2012

    Especially love the inn yards. It’s easy to forget about the need for them in horse-powered days, although the phrase “inn yard” immediately takes me to the poem,”The Highwayman”. You can see back to the 18th century and even before in some of these dilapidated old scenes.

  44. October 14, 2012

    If we could just learn a few lessons from the past and preserve our heritage we could bring value to our lives as these photographs have done for me. We are grateful for all our modern comforts but we do not have to destroy the buildings which housed people and the way they lived.

  45. susan permalink
    October 31, 2012

    thank you for posting these fantastic old photos, so full of character , and very spooky, would love to have lived then and seen the way of life, where else can i find these piccys please . thank you sue.

  46. Janet Bunworth permalink
    October 31, 2012

    Brilliant photo’s!! My Great Grandmother Maria Elizabeth Bunworth (nee Richards) was born in Cloth Fair, Smithfield in 1863.

  47. Jane permalink
    February 23, 2013

    Fantastic photography that really captures London as was…can almost imagine walking down those streets.

  48. Lin permalink
    October 30, 2013

    I love these prints they not only capture the architecture but a way of life that inspired many great writers.

  49. Single Aspect permalink
    December 9, 2013

    @vitoria lima: The back streets of Salvador and the city of Ouro Preto are as beautiful to me as anything we had in the C19th.

  50. January 10, 2014

    Great pictures, so much to see in each pic

  51. Martha Pike permalink
    February 11, 2014

    Do you have any information about 54 London Street (Strit), Fitzroy (Fitrray) Square (Squir), London in 1832? A letter in my possession addressed to Ms. Peter at that address was never mailed. The square has disappeared from current maps. I would like to know where in London it was. Thanks for any help you can provide.

  52. Barry permalink
    December 3, 2014

    Great pics. Love the way the long exposure creates ghostly images of moving people. Did anyone else spot the policeman standing below Sir Paul Pindar’s house in the second photograph? A masterly bit of camouflage from the old bill.

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