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Maintenance Announcement

October 23, 2019
by the gentle author

We are doing some work on the site this week and we hope it will proceed without disruption, but please be patient if it gets a little bumpy and normal service will be resumed shortly

Old East End Bollards

October 23, 2019
by the gentle author

Philip Cunningham sent these wonderful photographs of his favourite East End bollards from the seventies and eighties, published here for the first time today. Can anyone tell us if any of these fine specimens are still in place?

Artillery Passage is famous for its unusual bollards

‘I have always been interested in street furniture and street signs, especially the old ones around the East End. In particular, I became interested in bollards because of their curious design. Originally, many were redundant cannons but later they were produced to look like guns. When I became involved in casting bronze I realised what a task it must have been to manufacture these huge lumps of iron.

I often wonder what they have born witness to through the ages. If they could speak, what stories could they tell? Standing in sunshine, cold, wind and snow, what have they seen? As I saw them get bashed up and sometimes stolen, I realised theirs was a transient beauty.

The design of these artefacts is a genre of its own. Often they display an elegance that is at variance with the tough job they have to do. Sometimes, coming home from the pub and walking down the Mile End Rd I would glimpse one on a corner, like a sentry in perpetual solitude.

I realised these bollards would soon be gone and forgotten. As time passed these lovely monsters would be replaced by concrete posts, uniform in character and of little merit. I decided to photograph as many as I could while they were still there.

In many ways, these lonely bollards were symbolic of the East End and its destiny. Deprived as it was, its soul was second to none.’ – Philip Cunningham

Gunthorpe St


Metropolitan Borough of Stepney

In Bow

In Whitechapel

Photographs copyright © Philip Cunningham

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A Lost Corner of Whitechapel

Philip Cunningham at Mile End Place

The Dead Man In Clerkenwell

October 22, 2019
by the gentle author

This is the face of the dead man in Clerkenwell. He does not look perturbed by the change in the weather. Once winters wore him out, but now he rests beneath the streets of the modern city he will never see, oblivious both to the weather and the wonders of our age, entirely oblivious to everything in fact.

Let me admit, although some might consider it poor company, I consider death to be my friend – because without mortality our time upon this earth would be worthless. So I do not fear death, but rather I hope I shall have enough life first. My fear is that death might come too soon or unexpectedly in some pernicious form. In this respect, I envy my father who always took a nap on the sofa each Sunday after gardening and one day at the age of seventy nine – when he had completed trimming the privet hedge – he never woke up again.

It was many years ago that I first made the acquaintance of the dead man in Clerkenwell, when I had an office in the Close where I used to go each day and write. I was fascinated to discover a twelfth century crypt in the heart of London, the oldest remnant of the medieval priory of the Knights of St John that once stood in Clerkenwell until it was destroyed by Henry VIII, and it was this memento mori, a sixteenth century stone figure of an emaciated corpse, which embodied the spirit of the place for me.

Thanks to Pamela Willis,  curator at the Museum of the Order of St John, I went back to look up my old friend after all these years. She lent me her key and, leaving the bright November sunshine behind me, I let myself into the crypt, switching on the lights and walking to the furthest underground recess of the building where the dead man was waiting. I walked up to the tomb where he lay and cast my eyes upon him, recumbent with his shroud gathered across his groin to protect a modesty that was no longer required. He did not remonstrate with me for letting twenty years go by. He did not even look surprised. He did not appear to recognise me at all. Yet he looked different than before, because I had changed, and it was the transformative events of the intervening years that had awakened my curiosity to return.

There is a veracity in this sculpture which I could not recognise upon my previous visit, when – in my innocence – I had never seen a dead person. Standing over the figure this time, as if at a bedside, I observed the distended limbs, the sunken eyes and the tilt of the head that are distinctive to the dead. When my mother lost her mental and then her physical faculties too, I continued to feed her until she could no longer even swallow liquid, becoming as emaciated as the stone figure before me. It was at dusk on the 31st December that I came into her room and discovered her inanimate, recognising that through some inexplicable prescience the life had gone from her at the ending of the year. I understood the literal meaning of “remains,” because everything distinctive of the living person had departed to leave mere skin and bone. And I know now that the sculptor who made this effigy had seen that too, because his observation of the dead is apparent in his work, even if the bizarre number of ribs in his figure bears no relation to human anatomy.

There is a polished area on the brow, upon which I instinctively placed my hand, where my predecessors over the past five centuries had worn it smooth. This gesture, which you make as if to check his temperature, is an unconscious blessing in recognition of the commonality we share with the dead who have gone before us and whose ranks we shall all join eventually. The paradox of this sculpture is that because it is a man-made artifact it has emotional presence, whereas the actual dead have only absence. It is the tender details – the hair carefully pulled back behind the ears, and the protective arms with their workmanlike repairs – that endear me to this soulful relic.

Time has not been kind to this figure, which originally lay upon the elaborate tomb of Sir William Weston inside the old church of St James Clerkenwell, until the edifice was demolished and the current church was built in the eighteenth century, when the effigy was resigned to this crypt like an old pram slung in the cellar. Today a modern facade reveals no hint of what lies below ground. Sir William Weston, the last Prior, died in April 1540 on the day that Henry VIII issued the instruction to dissolve the Order, and the nature of his death was unrecorded. Thus, my friend the dead man is loss incarnate – the damaged relic of the tomb of the last Prior of the monastery destroyed five hundred years ago – yet he still has his human dignity and he speaks to me.

Walking back from Clerkenwell, through the teeming city to Spitalfields on this bright afternoon in autumn, I recognised a similar instinct as I did after my mother’s death. I cooked myself a meal because I craved the familiar task and the event of the day renewed my desire to live more life.

Visit the Museum of the Order of St John, 26 St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell, EC1M 4DA

A Facade In The Borough

October 21, 2019
by the gentle author

My GHASTLY FACADISM lecture is at 7pm on Monday 4th November at The Wash Houses, The Cass, London Metropolitan University, 25 Old Castle St, E1 7NT. Click here to book your ticket

I undertook a melancholic pilgrimage down to the Borough to take this photograph of the grade II listed St George’s Presbyterian Chapel of 1846, currently being demolished apart from the facade and the side wall that you see in this picture.

As I stood in Borough Rd to take my photo, passersby halted in wonder to take their own pictures of this poignant spectacle, which is being disassembled before our eyes. All were astonished that an historic building of such grace and dignity should be subject to this fate. It was a sight which suited the grey autumn day.

St Georges Presbyterian Chapel began with elevated aspirations, opening on 7th June 1846 as the first Presbyterian church south of the river. The Presbyterian movement welcomed lay preachers, democratising the church, and in 1844 a committee was formed led by Rev Joseph Fisher ‘to keep the cause alive’ by raising funds and commissioning a purpose built chapel. It offered capacity for 800 worshippers plus a school room, ‘thoroughly repaired and beautified’ at the cost of £161 in 1862.

Yet the spiritual flame of Presbyterianism wavered in the Borough and by 1869 there were no more than 140 members, 130 by 1890 and only 54 in 1899. The congregation was dissolved in 1901 and the lease of the chapel sold to R Hoe & Co, printing machine manufacturers who operated there until the nineteen-eighties.

The choice of a stucco facade in the classical style with four Doric pillars was adopted by the Presbyterians as an alternative to the gothic which was associated with the Church of England. Apart from this grand architectural gesture, the chapel was unadorned and utilitarian in its construction, with the interior stripped out in 1901 when it became a factory for printing machines.

In recent years, the chapel stood derelict until it was acquired by London South Bank University. The current demolition is in preparation for integrating the facade into their extended campus, which LSBU claim will be ‘worthy of their newly enhanced academic status.’

A glance at their plans reveals that the facade will serve as the rear of a new theatre, completely ignoring its architectural form which serves to create a grand entrance. There are many precedents where chapels have been repurposed as performance spaces and where new theatres have been constructed within existing structures, offering a charged space, rich with historical context.

Such a decision would have preserved the form of the grade ll listed chapel intact, avoided the environmentally destructive and wasteful demolition and construction of a new building, and – most importantly – maintained a connection between the nineteenth and twenty-first century congregations on this spot.

Missing this opportunity and rejecting the opportunity of a conversation, LSBU’s new building turns its back on the past, rendering the beautiful old facade empty and redundant. It is a disappointing decision by an academic institution which you hope would show more respect to its immediate environment and historic context.

St George’s Chapel, 1935 (photo courtesy of Southwark Library Archives)

St Georges Chapel, Borough Rd, in the sixties

The facade of St George’s Chapel as the back entrance of the new building – white lines indicate the existing trees.

The original sketch for the LSBU campus shows the chapel intact – so what went wrong?

London South Bank University’s final plan for their new campus with the new theatre building and the facade of St George’s Chapel (in pink) serving as the back entrance.

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The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism

My Ghastly Facadism Lecture

October 20, 2019
by the gentle author

Cover design by David Pearson

To celebrate the forthcoming publication of my new book THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM, I am giving an illustrated lecture showing some of London’s worst cases of facadism and explaining why it is happening and what it means.

I am especially delighted that this lecture will be held behind one of the facades in my book, the former Whitechapel Public Baths of 1846, Britain’s oldest purpose built public baths which were facaded in 2002 and are now part of London Metropolitan University.

The lecture is at 7pm on Monday 4th November at The Wash Houses, The Cass, London Metropolitan University, 25 Old Castle St, E1 7NT.

Click here to book your ticket

This event is presented with the gracious support of The Cass, London Metropolitan University

Whitechapel Public Baths, 25 Old Castle St, E1

Following Edwin Chadwick’s sanitary report of 1842, a Committee for Baths for the Labouring Classes was formed in October 1844, spurred on by concern to prevent further outbreaks of cholera. The Committee agreed to make their first intervention in Whitechapel and subscriptions were sought.

Inspired by the 1846 Baths & Washhouses Act, this pioneering facility where people could wash themselves and their laundry was designed by Price Pritchard Baly and completed in 1851. Its construction was utilitarian, combining brown brick walls with an iron roof. The Builder lauded its ‘useful’ design but described the scheme as entirely devoid of the ‘beautiful,’ noting that its appearance was ‘not simply plain and unpretending, but downright ugly.’

Lack of funding forced the Committee to abandon its ambition to build four bathhouses of several storeys each and the single storey Whitechapel Baths was their only success.

The bathhouse closed in the nineteen-nineties and was rebuilt as The Women’s Library in 2002. Since 2013, it has become an events space for London Metropolitan University.


“As if I were being poked repeatedly in the eye with a blunt stick, I cannot avoid becoming increasingly aware of a painfully cynical trend in London architecture which threatens to turn the city into the backlot of an abandoned movie studio.”

The Gentle Author presents a humorous analysis of facadism – the unfortunate practice of destroying an old building apart from the front wall and constructing a new building behind it – revealing why it is happening and what it means.

As this bizarre architectural fad has spread across the capital, The Gentle Author has photographed the most notorious examples, collecting an astonishing gallery of images guaranteed to inspire both laughter and horror in equal measure.

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The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism

A Walk In Walter Thornbury’s London

October 19, 2019
by the gentle author

Golden Buildings off the Strand

There is the London we know and the London we remember, and then there is the London that is lost to us but recalled by old photographs. Yet beyond all this lies another London which is long forgotten, composed of buildings and streets destroyed before the era of photography. Walter Thornbury’s ‘Old & New London – how it was and how it is‘ of 1873 offers a glimpse into this shadowy realm with engravings of the city which lies almost beyond recognition. It is a London that was forgotten generations ago and these images are like memories conjuring from a dream, strange apparitions that can barely be squared with the reality of the current metropolis we inhabit today.

“Writing the history of a vast city like London is like writing a history of the ocean – the area is so vast, its inhabitants are so multifarious, the treasures that lie in its depths so countless. … The houses of old London are encrusted as thick with anecdotes, legends and traditions as an old ship is with barnacles. Strange stories of strange men grow like moss in every crevice of the bricks … Old London is passing away even as we dip our pen in the ink…” – Walter Thornbury

The Four Swans Inn, Bishopsgate – shortly before demolition

Garraway’s Coffee House – shortly before demolition after 216 years in business

Roman wall at Tower Hill

Dyer’s Hall, College St, rebuilt 1857

Old house in Leadenhall St with Synagogue entrance

Yard of the Bull & Mouth, Aldergsgate 1820

The Old Fountain, Minories

Demolition of King’s Cross in 1845

Clerkenwell in 1820 before the railway came through

Middlesex House of Detention, Clerkenwell

In the Jerusalem Tavern above St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell

Cock Lane, Smithfield

Hand & Shears, Clothfair

Smithfield before the construction of the covered market

Last remnant of the the Fleet Prison demolished in 1846

The Fleet Ditch seen from the Red Lion

Back of the Red Lion seen from the Fleet Ditch

Field Lane 1840

Leather Lane

Exotic pet shop on the Ratcliffe Highway with creatures imported through the London Docks

Sir Paul Pindar’s Lodge, Spitalfields

Room in Sir Paul Pindar’s House, Bishopsgate – demolished for the building of Liverpool St Station

Kirkby Castle, Bethnal Green

Tudor gatehouse in Stepney

Boar’s Head Yard, Borough High St

Jacob’s Island, Southwark

Floating Dock, Deptford

Painted Hall, Greenwich

Waterloo Bridge Rd

Balloon Ascent at Vauxhall Gardens, 1840

House in Westminster, believed to have been inhabited by Oliver Cromwell

Old shops in Holborn

Mammalia at the British Museum

Rookery, St Giles 1850

Manor House of Toten Hall, Tottenham Court Rd 1813

Marylebone Gardens, 1780

Turkish Baths, Jermyn St

Old house in Wych St

Butcher’s Row, Strand 1810

The Fox Under The Hill, Strand

Ivy Bridge Lane, Strand

Turner’s House,  Maiden Lane

Covent Garden

Whistling Oyster, Covent Garden

Tothill St, Westminster

Old house on Tothill St

The Manor House at Dalston

Old Rectory, Stoke Newington 1856

Sights of Stoke Newington – 1. Rogers House 1877 2. Fleetwood House, 1750 3. St Mary’s Rectory 4. St Mary’s New Church 5, New River at Stoke Newington 6. Queen Elizabeth’s Walk, 1800 7. Old gateway

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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A Room to Let in Old Aldgate

The Ghosts of Old London

The East End In The Afternoon

October 18, 2019
by the gentle author

There is little traffic on the road, children are at play, housewives linger in doorways, old men doze outside the library and, in the distance, a rag and bone man’s cart clatters down the street. This is the East End in the afternoon, as photographed by newspaper artist Tony Hall in the nineteen sixties while wandering with his camera in the quiet hours between shifts on The Evening News in Fleet St.

“Tony cared very much about the sense of community here.” Libby Hall, Tony’s wife, recalled, “He loved the warmth of the East End. And when he photographed buildings it was always for the human element, not just the aesthetic.”

Contemplating Tony’s clear-eyed photos – half a century after they were taken – raises questions about the changes enacted upon the East End in the intervening years. Most obviously, the loss of the pubs and corner shops which Tony portrayed with such affection in pictures that remind us of the importance of these meeting places, drawing people into a close relationship with their immediate environment.

“He photographed the pubs and little shops that he knew were on the edge of disappearing,” Libby Hall confirmed for me, ‘He loved the history of the East End, the Victorian overlap, and the sense that it was the last of Dickens’ London.”

In 1972, Tony Hall left The Evening News and with his new job came a new shift pattern which did not grant him afternoons off – thus drawing his East End photographic odyssey to a close. Yet for one who did not consider himself a photographer, Tony Hall’s opus comprises a tender vision of breathtaking clarity, constructed with purpose and insight as a social record. Speaking of her late husband, Libby Hall emphasises the prescience that lay behind Tony’s wanderings with his camera in the afternoon. “He knew what he was photographing and he recognised the significance of it.” she admitted.

These beautiful streetscapes are from the legacy of approximately one thousand photographs by Tony Hall held in the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute.

Three Colts Lane

Gunthorpe St

Ridley Rd Market


Stepney Green

Photographs copyright © Libby Hall

Images Courtesy of the Tony Hall Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute

Libby Hall & I would be delighted if any readers can assist in identifying the locations and subjects of Tony Hall’s photographs.

You may also like to read

Tony Hall, Photographer

At the Pub with Tony Hall

At the Shops with Tony Hall

Tony Hall’s East End Panoramas

Libby Hall, Collector of Dog Photography

The Dogs of Old London