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The Last Days Of London

July 25, 2015
by the gentle author

At twelve years old, he photographed the end of the trams in 1952 and, since then, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien has become fascinated by recording the ‘last days’ of vanishing aspects of London Life

Thames Embankment, 1952 “When I was twelve, the trams stopped running forever so I took this picture with my box camera while the driver posed for me. I loved going out with my dad on Sunday mornings for a ride through the Kingsway Tunnel and out on to the Embankment. It was even more exciting if we managed to get the front seat on the top deck where I could imagine I was driving the tram.”

Skinner St, Clerkenwell, 1952 “Long since demolished, the Rio Cinema was where we used to go as kids and watch films over and over again until we got bored. Westerns were my favourite and we all loved to mimic the actors and shout and clap at inappropriate moments”

Clerkenwell Rd, 1970s “After more than a century of use by hundreds of families, Victoria Dwellings – once my home – was demolished and I moved with my family to a flat on the twenty-third floor of the newly built Michael Cliffe House on the other side of Clerkenwell”

Covent Garden, 1973 “The fruit and vegetable market moved to the New Covent Garden Market between Vauxhall and Battersea in 1974″

Hackney, early 1980s “One of the last rag and bone men plying his trade by going door-to-door, picking up metal and scrap”

Regent’s Canal, Bethnal Green, 1987 “George Trewby’s magnificent gasometer constructed for the Gas Light and Coke Company in 1889 towers over the frozen canal”

Nightingale Estate, Hackney Downs, 1999 “Hackney Council decided that many of their high-rise blocks were failures as housing and decided to blow them up. Of the six towers that made up the estate, five were demolished. Since 2003, low-rise buildings have been constructed where the blocks once stood.”

Long Acre, Covent Garden, 1986 “The building was being demolished by a crane swinging an iron ball while two men stood on top of the ruin and finished the job with sledgehammers. There must be an easier way to earn a living”

The Griffin, Shoreditch, 30th June 2007 “Three smokers enjoy their last cigarettes on the final day of legal smoking in public places”

Highbury Corner, 7th May 2006 “Three men sit comatose after the last football match at Highbury Stadium before Arsenal moved to the new Emirates Stadium in Holloway Rd”

Chatsworth Rd, Hackney, 2010 “Suleyman bought this shoe repair shop in 1967, when it was like a time-capsule full of old leather sewing machines and calendars from the 1950s. Even pairs of shoes that were repaired more than ten years ago but never claimed by their owners were still lying around. He got up at 4am every morning and opened the shop between 7am and 4pm, until it closed recently.”

Mare St, Hackney, 2009 “I always had a soft spot for Woolworths. The first shop opened on the 6th November 1909 and I took this photograph on 6th January 2009, the last day of trading”

Chatsworth Rd, Hackney, 2008 “A friend took me for a meal one Saturday morning at Jim’s Cafe and it was the best breakfast I had eaten in a long time. I asked Dave, the proprietor, if I could take some pictures and I did shots of him standing in the doorway. When I returned about a month later with the prints, Dave’s wife told me he had died and the cafe closed soon after.”

Chatsworth Rd, Hackney, 2010 “Steve sits on his stock of tyres in the shop that he and his family ran for more than fifty years. It smelled of rubber and the Michelin man in the window was covered in dust. The shop closed on 2nd October 2010, shortly after I took this photograph.”

Clapton Pond, Hackney, 2005 “A group pose proudly to have their picture taken on the last day of the Routemaster buses running on the 38 route, from Clapton Pond to Victoria Station”

Clerkenwell Fire Station, Rosebery Avenue, 2014 “When Clerkenwell Fire Station closed in January 2014 after 142 years, I photographed the fire-fighters on their last day of service at Britain’s oldest operating fire station.”

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

You may also like to take a look at

Last Orders At The Gun

CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY OF COLIN O’BRIEN’S LONDON LIFE

You may also like to read about

Colin O’Brien, The Photographer From Clerkenwell

The Man Who Photographed Car Crashes

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert Green permalink
    July 25, 2015

    Sorry to be a bit negative but I am slightly confused by the 2005 ? Photo with the description of it being the last day of the Routmaster bus as the bus pictured in the photo is NOT a Routmaster, ? ? Good pictures though.

  2. July 25, 2015

    Happy Birthday Leila!
    Fabulous greeting to have Colin O’B's photographs of vanishing London, which we can watch every day now. XxxX

  3. Richard permalink
    July 25, 2015

    Thanks for these great pictures of disappeared London. In relation to the comment about the bus, it looks as if a vintage bus was used on the last day, maybe as a celebration.

  4. Bronchitikat permalink
    July 25, 2015

    Great pictures if sad to see the demise of so many ‘individuals’ in the face of ‘progress’.

    BTW – it’s a gas HOLDER, not a gasometer. But I expect you know that really!

  5. July 25, 2015

    I’m going to have to get the book. Fabulous photos. Melancholic but with a wry smile.
    That corner spot in The Griffin!: I sat in that spot and spent most of my LASSCO wage 1996-2006 … (our shop selling Architectural Salvage was in St. Michael’s Church opposite).
    On Fridays at 5pm, Jim the landlord with the infectious cackle, would permit me to totter back over the road with a tray of pints for the workshop boys (before we all trooped back for a second). He’d get the glasses back. Eventually.
    Ant

  6. Neville Turner permalink
    July 25, 2015

    All good to look at photo’s of real tlme event’s I like the last time smoker’s who look like they are enjoying their last puff.

  7. July 25, 2015

    Wonderful photos which bring back a lot of memories. I remember buying my first lipstick from Woolworth’s in Mare Street. Valerie

  8. Mandy permalink
    July 25, 2015

    The bus is a first generation routemaster RLH61 a low height double decker

  9. Danny McLaughlin permalink
    July 25, 2015

    On the Routemaster Pic, no its not a Routemaster, but neither does the photographer say it is. Presumably a load of preserved buses came out in sympathy on the day concerned to run the Route.

  10. July 26, 2015

    Wonderful photographs from a unique archive.

  11. July 26, 2015

    I remember the night of the last tram. My parents were publicans and we were living at The Gregorian Arms on Jamaica Road. My Mum got me out of bed so I could witness it, about midnight, crammed with merrymakers in party hats ,streamers and whistles.

  12. September 7, 2017

    I really do enjoy these phoros as well, to be honest!

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