A Room to Let in Old Aldgate
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.
Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute