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Room To Let In Old Aldgate

March 11, 2016
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 March 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 courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

20 Responses leave one →
  1. janine permalink
    March 11, 2016

    sitting here looking out at a big blue sky with nary a cloud in site i would very much like to be there to wander the streets of a dark, atmospheric 1870s london.

  2. March 11, 2016

    I’m sure if these buildings still existed, some developer would be willing to save the facade while he tore down the rest :-(

  3. March 11, 2016

    Wonderful photos, so sad that so much has been destroyed. Valerie

  4. March 11, 2016

    We no longer hear the creaking of waggonette wheels or hob nail boots on cobbles but the Gentle Author and Bishopsgate are taking us into that world 19th C London. Most buildings have small window panes such was glass technology then. Some pics show Balcones and Verandas they can still be seen today in Tenerife. I have glimpsed into this world through a shop which carried on well into the 20th C with long drop windows, oil lamps and old style stacking shelves; all gone now. Thank you for this super blog. John

  5. Annie G permalink
    March 11, 2016

    I have spent many happy hours with google and old photos, identifying the sites of these vanished places. The inns especially poignant. Fortunately, you can stand on exactly the same spot as the photographer on College Street and look down to the church today. Only the small building on the left has disappeared, replaced with a small garden. I would have loved to walk down Aldersgate but the Blitz put paid to the work begun by Victorian builders.

  6. March 11, 2016

    Wonderful piece, I really enjoyed reading this as it mirrors my own thoughts as I drift past these old buildings and alleyways

  7. March 11, 2016

    This is an amazing set of photographs; so evocative of a bygone age.

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    March 11, 2016

    GA, thank you for yet another trip back into London’s storied past.

    And so beautifully written – “veritable sonnets upon the nature of ephemerality” – that I could feel the presence of Dickens…

  9. Richard permalink
    March 11, 2016

    Was that really Shakespeare’s house in Aldersgate street.
    The graveyard of St Bartholomew the Great looks much the same now, a rarity. I suppose most people didn’t mind getting rid of the old buildings at the time and welcomed the new ‘Victorian ‘ ones.
    Thanks.

  10. March 11, 2016

    The ‘To let’ sign in the first photo is the second Victorian example I’ve seen recently. It is odd that signage has changed so much since then, except for To let and For sale signs

  11. Sarahc permalink
    March 11, 2016

    The thought of anyone taking a wrecking ball to a structure designed by Inigo Jones is painful. . . .

  12. March 11, 2016

    I’ve been transported. Not only have I enjoyed a mythic stroll past these locations — I climbed the stairs and took a look at the Room To Let…..and found it quite to my liking. Even with the low-slung ceiling, small windows looking out onto the active street (I suspect things might quiet down, after dark? ), and a creaky mattress with rough woolen coverlet and wobbly chair…….It’s exactly what I had in mind. So glad I found it.

    Thank you, Gentle Author. So glad I found you, also.

  13. March 11, 2016

    Miraculous historical photographs with an amount in nostalgia!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  14. Peter Holford permalink
    March 11, 2016

    So institutional vandalism is not just a 20th century phenomenon nurtured by Boris Johnson. I wonder if even he would demolish a building by Inigo Jones. I suppose it would depend on the calculations.

  15. Sue M permalink
    March 11, 2016

    I can never see too many photos of old buildings in London. The city is changing and not for the better. I used to live in the East End which has changed beyond recognition.

  16. Stephen Barker permalink
    March 11, 2016

    I wonder what was standing on the site before the Inigo Jones building was erected? It is interesting to see how extensive the use of timber framing was in London which has virtually disappeared either by demolition or the effects of war.

  17. pauline taylor permalink
    March 11, 2016

    Thank you, these are a fascinating glimpse of the past and so interesting to me. My great grandfather was born in Bermondsey Street and my relative, James Greenwood, the journalist who was a friend of Dickens, wrote about so many of these sort of buildings and streets, so it is really evocative to see what they actually looked like.

  18. Clunking Fist permalink
    March 11, 2016

    Amazing photos. But I’m glad this is not a “scratch and sniff” installation. The smell of the city then must have been terrible. I’m not a fan of diesel fumes, but they are probably better than coal smoke and horse dung.

  19. Jennifer Blain permalink
    March 12, 2016

    Like Victorian postcards, these marvellous photographs ignore the daily realities of living in these streets. But I was truly surprised to see that all of the public streets and private Inn yards were well swept and debris-free. I had always imagined that cleaning the streets was the duty of the property owners, and reluctantly carried out.

  20. Sue permalink
    March 12, 2016

    I temped briefly at Smithfields in the early Seventies and wandered the back streets at lunchtimes and can never forget peering in the window of an ancient, derelict inn that was due for demolition. A lost world that we are lucky to view in these photographs

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