In Search of Relics of Old London
Staple Inn, High Holborn, 1878 & today
Those who have read my stories of A Room to Let in Old Aldgate and The Ghosts of Old London will know that I have become fascinated with the atmospheric detailed pictures taken by the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London over twelve years from 1875, preserved in the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. The original intent of these photographs was to record ancient buildings at risk of demolition, in the hope that their quality might be recognised and they could be saved. Most of the edifices portrayed in these melancholic twilight images were destroyed in the nineteenth century but, becoming familiar with these pictures, I recognised a handful that still stand today. So I decided to set out on a quest to find them and discover some Relics of Old London for myself.
It was a suitably foggy morning when I set out across the city with my camera in hand, in the footsteps of Henry Dixon, William Strudrick and A. & J. Bool, the photographers employed by the Society. My intention was not to rival their exemplary works but merely to take look at these places today. Starting at Queen Anne’s Gate, the most Westerly destination, I walked from one location of their pictures to another, making my way Eastwards back to Spitalfields, and passed a pleasant day in the process.
In Whitehall, Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House is surrounded today by buildings in a similar style, which makes me wonder if any passersby realise that it predates everything else in this street, as the lone fragment of the ancient Palace of Whitehall. I recognised a similar phenomenon in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where Inigo Jones’ Lindsey House is so spruce and clean it is almost indistinguishable from the copy next door, while Newcastle House, also dating from the seventeenth century but reworked by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the nineteen thirties, now looks like a modern pastiche.
In fact, the whole of Central London has been mightily scrubbed up and little of the grime of ages deposited by smoke from coal fires remains now, and the airborne filth which supplied such dramatic patination to nineteenth century photographers has gone. Yet I have clear memories of how black all these buildings were until quite recently, and I recall Trafalgar Sq feeling like centre of a diabolic city when I first visited London and discovered the buildings entirely coated with soot. The outcome of this great clean up is that today the city no longer looks old as it does in old photographs, it has been polished up like new.
I had absurd experiences wandering around Fleet St, Clothfair and Bermondsey St looking for buildings I saw in the photographs which I believed still existed, only to discover they did not. Searching for the reality of pictures that had merged with my own memories, I was confounded. But there were other sites, notably Queen Anne’s Gate, Gray’s Inn and Charterhouse, where little had changed and I was rewarded by the delight of recognition from the photographs.
It was a sentimental journey I made. I knew that the man in the stove pipe hat at the entrance to Charterhouse was not going to be there to grant me a conversation, much as should wish for it, but I still wanted to go and look anyway.
At Queen Anne’s Gate.
The Banqueting Hall, built by James I to a design by Inigo Jones and completed in 1622, is today all that remains of the Palace of Whitehall. Charles I stepped from a first floor window onto a wooden scaffold where he got his head chopped off on 30th January 1649.
This water gate stood at the river’s edge, fifty yards from Samuel Pepys’ house. Built in 1626, as the triumphal entry for the Duke of Buckingham to York House, since the Victoria Embankment was completed in 1870 it has been marooned a hundred yards from the Thames.
Lindsey House, built in 1640 and attributed to Inigo Jones, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – it looked older in the nineteenth century than it does now.
Newcastle House at the corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields was built in the sixteen eighties and remodelled by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the nineteen thirties.
In Gray’s Inn, the Plane trees have grown taller.
St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell. Built in 1504 by Thomas Docwra and restored heavily in the late nineteenth century.
At the entrance to Charterhouse in Smithfield.
Temple Bar, designed by Christopher Wren in 1672, once stood in the Strand as one of the gates to the City of London, but it was removed in 1877 and languished in Theobalds Park in Hertfordshire until it was brought back and installed at the entrance to Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s Cathedral in 2004.
The George is the last of London’s venerable coaching inns – preserved today by the National Trust. Two of the bar staff obliged me by standing in the doorway in place of the couple in the earlier picture.
Archive images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
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