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Nights Of Old London

September 30, 2020
by the gentle author

The nights are drawing in 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 into the dark in search of the 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

Frank Derrett’s West End

September 29, 2020
by the gentle author

Cranbourne St

Fancy a stroll around the West End with Frank Derrett in the seventies?

This invitation is possible thanks to the foresight of Paul Loften who rescued these photographs from destruction in the last century. Recently, Paul contacted me to ask if I was interested and I suggested he donate them to the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute, which is how I am able to show them today.

‘They were given to me over twenty-five years ago when I called at an apartment block in Camden,’ Paul explained. ‘A woman opened the door and, when said I was from Camden Libraries, she told me a solicitor was dealing with effects of a resident who had died and was about to throw these boxes of slides into a skip, and did I want them? I kept them in my loft, occasionally enjoying a look, but actually I had forgotten about them until we had a clear out upstairs.’

Later this week, I will publish what we have learned about the life of Frank Derrett.

Charing Cross Rd

Bear St

Coventry St

Regent St

Earlham St

Long Acre

Dover St

Carnaby St

Carnaby St

Charing Cross Rd

Cranbourne St

Dover St

Perkins Rents

Great Windmill St

Brook St

Conduit St

Frith St

Drury Lane

Dean St

Garrick St

Great Windmill St

Archer St

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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The Battle For The Bell Foundry

September 28, 2020
by the gentle author

Rupert Warren QC will be representing us

The Public Inquiry into the future of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry commences next week on Tuesday 6th October at 10am. It is to be an online event for all to see, streamed live for ten days, and we hope as many as possible will watch.

At a Public Inquiry everyone has a right to participate, either in writing or verbally. If you would like to contribute a statement, either on behalf of yourself or your group – whether your community group, your history society or band of bell ringers – you are encouraged to do so. For a link to watch and to request to speak, send an email in advance to

We are delighted to announce that the East End Preservation Society’s petition to SAVE THE WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY as a fully working foundry has reached over 25,270 signatures. Please click here to sign if you have not already done so.

Meanwhile, Raycliff, the sneaky developers who want to convert the bell foundry into a bell-themed boutique hotel, have now launched their own campaign with leaflets and sponsored posts on facebook, inviting people to ‘Preserve the Whitechapel Bell Foundry‘ by supporting their development. Please do not be deceived by this misinformation. Their intention is to reduce bell founding to a sideshow for tourists, making tiny bells in the coffee bar of their hotel, when we all know that cappuccinos and casting are not compatible.

Leaflet produced by the Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry campaign

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Hope for The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

A Petition to Save the Bell Foundry

Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The Stars Are Bright

September 27, 2020
by the gentle author

It is my delight to publish this dazzling gallery of images from THE STARS ARE BRIGHT, an exhibition of artists from Zimbabwe at The Theatre Courtyard Green Rooms, 36 Bateman’s Row, EC2A 3HH until 31st October

A revelatory collection of over six hundred paintings by young African artists of the nineteen-forties was discovered in St Michael & All Angels’ Church in Shoreditch in 1979 and seventy-five are now on display at a gallery nearby. The origin of these pictures was the Cyrene Mission School in Matabeleland, set up by Ned Paterson in 1938. He studied at the Central School of Art before joining the priesthood in Africa, where he encouraged his pupils to paint freely and create personal representations of their immediate world.

A visit from the Queen Mother in 1947 shone a light onto this work and in 1949 a show of paintings from the school opened at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour in London to great success. The acclaimed exhibition toured internationally with works acquired by the Royal Collection and the Smithsonian. Then the Cyrene Collection of paintings were put in store in Shoreditch and forgotten until they were acquired in 2018 by the Belvedere Trust who have organised the new exhibition.

Unseen since they were first exhibited, these paintings comprise a compelling and exuberant vision of the world. As remarkable for their abstract painterly qualities as for their documentary record, they bear vivid testament to the creative potential that can be unlocked by an inspirational teacher.

Story of My Life by Basil Mazibuko, 1947

The Careless Village by Basil Mazibuko, 1947

The Bent Tree by Mhletshwa Msidazi, 1946

Artist Christopher Msindazi, 1945

Artist Simon Hlabate

The Death Of Ananias & Sapphira by Samuel Songo, 1947

The Lonely Man by Ananias Mjuru, 1946

The Draught of the Fishes by Timothy Dhlodhlo

The First Day of Spring by Lever Matiwaza, 1946

Artist Tommy Augustine

The Good Shepherd by Livingstone Sango, 1945

The Raiders by Samuel Menaisi, 1947

Artist Moses Johuma

Tree Flowers by Barnabus Chiponza

Rocks & Flowers by W Nyatti, 1945

Village Horse & Trader by unknown artist

Paintings photographed by Debbie Sears

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At St Michael & All Angels, Shoreditch

John Thomas Smith’s Rural Cottages

September 26, 2020
by the gentle author

Near Battlebridge, Middlesex

As September draws to an end and autumn closes in, I get the urge to go to ground, hiding myself away in some remote cabin and not straying from the fireside until spring shows again. With this in mind, John Thomas Smith’s twenty etchings of extravagantly rustic cottages published as Remarks On Rural Scenery Of Various Features & Specific Beauties In Cottage Scenery in 1797 suit my hibernatory fantasy ideally.

Born in the back of a Hackney carriage in 1766, Smith grew into an artist consumed by London, as his inspiration, his subject matter and his life. At first, he drew the old streets and buildings that were due for demolition at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Ancient Topography of London and Antiquities of London, savouring every detail of their shambolic architecture with loving attention. Later, he turned his attention to London streetlife, the hawkers and the outcast poor, portrayed in Vagabondiana and Remarkable Beggars, creating lively and sympathetic portraits of those who scraped a living out of nothing but resourcefulness. By contrast, these rural cottages were a rare excursion into the bucolic world for Smith, although you only have to look at the locations to see that he did not travel too far from the capital to find them.

“Of all the pictoresque subjects, the English cottage seems to have obtained the least share of particular notice,” wrote Smith in his introduction to these plates, which included John Constable and William Blake among the subscribers, “Palaces, castles, churches, monastic ruins and ecclesiastical structures have been elaborately and very interestingly described with all their characteristic distinctions while the objects comprehended by the term ‘cottage scenery’ have by no means been honoured with equal attention.”

While emphasising that beauty was equally to be found in humble as well as in stately homes, Smith also understood the irony that a well-kept dwelling offered less picturesque subject matter than a derelict hovel. “I am, however, by no means cottage-mad,” he admitted, acknowledging the poverty of the living conditions, “But the unrepaired accidents of wind and rain offer far greater allurements to the painter’s eye, than more neat, regular or formal arrangements could possibly have done.”

Some of these pastoral dwellings were in places now absorbed into Central London and others in outlying villages that lie beneath suburbs today. Yet the paradox is that these etchings are the origin of the romantic image of the English country cottage which has occupied such a cherished position in the collective imagination ever since, and thus many of the suburban homes that have now obliterated these rural locations were designed to evoke this potent rural fantasy.

On Scotland Green, Ponder’s End

Near Deptford, Kent

At Clandon, Surrey – formerly the residence of Mr John Woolderidge, the Clandon Poet

In Bury St, Edmonton

Near Jack Straw’s Castle, Hampstead Heath

In Green St, Enfield Highway

Near Palmer’s Green, Edmonton

Near Ranelagh, Chelsea

In Green St, Enfield Highway

At Ponder’s End, Near Enfield

On Merrow Common, Surrey

At Cobham, Surrey – in the hop gardens

Near Bull’s Cross, Enfield

In Bury St, Edmonton

On Millbank, Westminster

Near Edmonton Church

Near Chelsea Bridge

In Green St, Enfield Highway

Lady Plomer’s Place on the summit of Hawke’s Bill Wood, Epping Forest

You may also like to take a look at these other works by John Thomas Smith

John Thomas Smith’s Ancient Topography of London

John Thomas Smith’s Antiquities of London

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana II

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana III

John Thomas Smith’s Remarkable Beggars

Three Sneaky Developers

September 25, 2020
by the gentle author

Why should I be surprised by developers being sneaky? Yet three recent local examples have caused me to gasp in wonder at the staggering audacity on display. Apparently the words ‘retain’ and ‘preserve’ now mean the opposite of what we thought they meant.

George Orwell would not be surprised by this doublespeak. In his book ‘Beyond Hypocrisy,’ Edward S. Herman outlines the principal characteristics thus, ‘What is really important in the world of doublespeak is the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it, and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program.’

Three Regency canal-side cottages dated 1828-31 in Bethnal Green

Cottages demolished

Developers’ visualisation of the future scheme

These three bow-fronted Regency cottages, built between 1826 and 1831 and facing the canal in Corbridge Crescent, Bethnal Green, were an attractive local landmark and beloved of many.

In the planning application of November 2019 for their housing scheme the developer, Aitch Group, requested permission for ‘retention, restoration, external alteration and residential conversion of the existing Regency and Victorian Cottages.’

Yet now they have demolished the cottages  – presumably to be replaced by replicas – and no-one can get to the bottom of whether this was lawful or not.

Rex Cinema opened in Bethnal Green Rd in 1938

Facade demolished

Developer’s visualisation of the future scheme

Originally Smart’s Picture House in 1913, this was remodelled in a magnificent Art Deco style by architect George Coles for Odeon impresario Oscar Deutsch as the Rex Cinema in 1938, becoming the Essoldo in 1949 and latterly Fankle Trimmings. Now it is to become a ninety-three room budget hotel developed by Accor in partnership with Keys Asset Management.

The developers’ ‘façade retention’ proposal of 2017 includes the sentence: ‘The façade restoration works will include a measured survey of the existing Bethnal Green Rd façade elevation to ensure the features of this element are maintained in the design.’

Even the councillors who approved the application did not understand that ‘façade restoration works’ meant demolition and construction of a new one.

Raycliff, the developers who plan to turn the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a bell-themed boutique hotel, have flooded Whitechapel and Spitalfields with these leaflets encouraging local people to support their development as a means to ‘Preserve the Bell Foundry ®.’

In Raycliff’s original proposal, the old foundry buildings were to become an upmarket restaurant and private members’ club, but when UK Historic Building Preservation Trust challenged this by offering to buy the buildings at market value and re-open them as a fully working foundry, then Raycliff announced they would continue the tradition by casting bells in their hotel coffee bar.

We hope the Inspector at the Public Inquiry into the future of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry will recognise that bell founding and cappuccinos are not compatible.

The Public Inquiry into the future of the WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY is to be an online event, streamed live commencing Tuesday 6th Oct for 10 days. For a link to watch or to request to speak, send an email in advance to

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William Whiffin, Photographer

September 24, 2020
by the gentle author

William Whiffin (1878-1957) is one of the great unsung London photographers, which makes it a rare pleasure to present this gallery of his pictures from the collection of his granddaughter Hellen Martin. Born into a family of photographers in the East End, Whiffin made his living with studio portraits and commercial commissions, yet he strove to be recognised for his more artistic photography.

Lion Brewery and the Shot Tower, South Bank

The photographer’s son Sid Whiffin at Cooper’s Stairs, Old Queen St

Off Fetter Lane

The Pantheon, Oxford St

In Princes Sq, Stepney

Figureheads of fighting ships in Grosvenor Rd

At Covent Garden Market

Jewry Street, off Aldgate High St

Milwall & the Island Horse Omnibus, c.1910

St Catherine Coleman next to Fenchurch St Station

In Fleet St

In Buckfast St, Bethnal Green

At Borough Market

In Lombard St

Rotherhithe Watch House

Wapping Old Stairs

Junction of Cambridge Heath Rd & Hackney Rd

Ratcliff Stairs, Limehouse

Ratcliff Causeway, Limehouse

St Jude’s, Commercial St

Farthing Bundles at the Fern St Settlement, Bow

Houndsditch Rag Fair

At the Royal Exchange, City of London

Weavers’ House, Bethnal Green Rd

Off Pennington St, Wapping

Borough of Poplar Electricity Dept

Pruning in the hop gardens of Faversham

Photographs copyright © Estate of William Whiffin

Hellen Martin & I should be very grateful if readers can identify any of the uncaptioned photographs

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