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The Dark Nights Of Old London

November 13, 2018
by the gentle author

The temperature is plunging and I can feel the velvet darkness falling upon London. As dusk gathers in the ancient churches and the dusty old museums in the late afternoon, the distinction between past and present becomes almost permeable at this time of year. Then, once the daylight fades and the streetlights flicker into life, I feel the desire to go walking out in search of the dark nights of old London.

Examining hundreds of glass plates – many more than a century old – once used by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society for magic lantern shows at the Bishopsgate Institute, I am in thrall to these images of night long ago in London. They set my imagination racing with nocturnal visions of the gloom and the glamour of our city in darkness, where mist hangs in the air eternally, casting an aura round each lamp, where the full moon is always breaking through the clouds and where the recent downpour glistens upon every pavement – where old London has become an apparition that coalesced out of the fog.

Somewhere out there, they are loading the mail onto trains, and the presses are rolling in Fleet St, and the lorries are setting out with the early editions, and the barrows are rolling into Spitalfields and Covent Garden, and the Billingsgate porters are running helter-skelter down St Mary at Hill with crates of fish on their heads, and the horns are blaring along the river as Tower Bridge opens in the moonlight to admit another cargo vessel into the crowded pool of London. Meanwhile, across the empty city, Londoners slumber and dream while footsteps of lonely policemen on the beat echo in the dark deserted streets.

Glass slides courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Read my other nocturnal stories

Night at the Beigel Bakery

On Christmas Night in the City

On the Rounds With the Spitalfields Milkman

Other stories of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

11 Responses leave one →
  1. November 13, 2018

    Enchanting and evocative….. particularly those scenes of the river bathed in shimmering light which remind me of Whistler’s nocturnes.

  2. Ruth Fleming permalink
    November 13, 2018

    Just loved this blog and the wonderful photos. Like a portal to a past world. If you find the actual entrance door let me know.

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    November 13, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a fabulous collection of old London pics, and kudos to the Bishopgate Institution for preserving them for posterity. Great writing…

    “…[these photos] set my imagination racing with nocturnal visions of the gloom and the glamour of our city in darkness, where mist hangs in the air eternally, casting an aura round each lamp, where the full moon is always breaking through the clouds and where the recent downpour glistens upon every pavement – where old London has become an apparition that coalesced out of the fog.”

    While I always choose June as the month to visit London, with its long summer nights, these photos show me the side of London I am missing…

  4. November 13, 2018

    You had me at: “the presses are rolling in Fleet Street”. These images are so cinematic and atmospheric, I felt like I was right there. Collar up, wishing I’d remembered to bring my umbrella, fumbling for gloves, wisking raindrops off my glasses, a bounce in my step. One of those moments of falling in love with the nocturnal version of a beloved city, regardless of rain-down-my-neck, be damned.
    Thanks for taking us along on your wanderings, as ever.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 13, 2018

    Yes – all very atmospheric… It just needs the added sounds of Big Ben and boats on the river to really take you back into Old London. Great stuff!

  6. November 13, 2018

    Would be fascinating to re-photograph these scenes today from the same vantage points, to see what has changed –and what has not.

  7. Sonia Murray permalink
    November 13, 2018

    Lovely! Thank you, Gentle Author! This is the London my grandparents knew. I’ll be there for a week next month, walking in the rain on the Embankment, my Christmas present to myself.

  8. Deborah permalink
    November 13, 2018

    Thank you so much for these. Especially the ones along the embankment. I was, however, really hoping for one of the Billingsgate porters on St Mary-at-Hill. Does that shot exist—or only in your beautiful imaginings? (I found your reflections every bit as evocative as the photos themselves.)

  9. Gary Arber permalink
    November 13, 2018

    These were the days of my childhood in the 1930′s, the night sky seemed heavy with starlight,with the Milky Way right overhead. I sat tracing the signs of the zodiac that were illustrated in my Children’s Encyclopedia. We had a gaslight lamp post outside which had a bar at the top for the lamplighter to rest his ladder on when he came each week to wind up the clock. Then the war started and they switched them all off and it was really dark.
    Gary

  10. lyn wills permalink
    November 13, 2018

    a beautifully written introduction to some stunning photos. makes me miss london in the dark

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    November 14, 2018

    Wonderful images, and not so different from the early 1950s when I was growing up there

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