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The Nights Of Old London

October 8, 2012
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 copyright © 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

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina B permalink
    October 8, 2012

    Magnificent. The grain is the visual equivalent of an old crackling record player.

  2. October 8, 2012

    just magical, brought back many memories.

  3. girasol permalink
    October 8, 2012

    Spooky, evocative, beautiful photographs. What a wonderful place to walk. Thank you!

  4. October 8, 2012

    Wonderful! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  5. October 8, 2012

    Breathtaking. Thank you!

  6. John Hurst permalink
    October 8, 2012

    Alluring, intriguing and lovely photos. You always are sharing the most wonderful images and thoughts – thank you mille fois.

  7. Chris F permalink
    October 8, 2012

    I love photo number 12. Big Ben in the background and the globe lights illuminating the Thames. I half expect to see Mary Poppins and Bert the chimney sweep gliding down a smoke staircase. Smashing group of pictures. I’ve probably said this before… but I have, in the past, been in the city late at night and been the only person in areas that are normally heaving with life. Around St Pauls, Fleet Street, Oxford Street, South Bank…. All empty….

  8. October 8, 2012

    Me too Chris, especially St James’ Park, and it is a very special experience. I love your anticipation of Mary Poppins and Bert.

  9. frankie permalink
    October 8, 2012

    What is amazing is the depth of field that you get with the old large format cameras that we just can’t reproduce these days. It makes some of the images almost 3-dimensional. Lovely photos.

  10. Chris F permalink
    October 8, 2012

    I wouldn’t admit to hanging around any of the many parks late at night! At least not since the court appearance!! Haha.

    I see what you mean about the 3D effect. The last but one photo ‘Trafalgar Sq’ with the sharp foreground and the misty background is a good example.

  11. October 9, 2012

    Amazing, evocative photographs saturated with atmosphere.

  12. October 9, 2012

    I should have explained that St James’ Park is lovely at dusk when the many water birds are settling down for the night. It’s quite noisy and active and the old fashioned lamps that surround the lake create a magical atmosphere, I think , (not sure) that the top end of the lake might be illustrated in photograph 14. In winter when night falls earlier, people taking their journey home stop by the lake or sit on a bench, watch the spectacle and lose themselves in their own thoughts. The distant hum of the traffic becomes soothing rather than an irritant and after a little while one is restored to continue the journey home in a better frame of mind.

  13. Chris F permalink
    October 9, 2012

    I wasn’t suggesting that you hung about the parks late at night! I meant myself…
    I lived on Margaret Street just at the back of Oxford Street for a couple of years whilst training at drama school. If I couldn’t get home at the weekends, I used to get to some of the parks as early as possible (Before the crowds). Whilst preparing for my stage fight exams, my flat mate & fellow ‘would be’ thespian, would use Regents Park to practice in… We must have looked a sight pretending to knock seven bells out of each other and also rehearsing our sword and dagger routine with bamboo canes… I laugh when I think of it now. Great times…

  14. Yvonne permalink
    October 21, 2012

    The day I accidentally stumbled upon your magical, oh so wonderful website was one to be remembered..
    Thank you soo much!

  15. October 21, 2012

    Simly breath taking images, just stunning, emotive and almost palpable. Thank you for sharing these beautiful photos.

  16. byghostlight permalink
    October 29, 2012

    Amazing photos butI cant for the life of me place where the picture a426 is taken?! is sure its really obvious and more than likely kick myself once i find out the answer

  17. October 12, 2013

    Hi byghostlight – a426 is Oxford Street. The grand building is the outside of Selfridges Department Store.

    What wonderful images – such a treat. thank you so much for sharing


  18. October 14, 2013

    Wonderful images. Like byghostlight I was also confused by image 426. Although I could see similarities to Selfridges, what became of the lions and statue on the roof, and the circular windows between columns and those wonderfully ornate lampposts?

  19. Karin Marais permalink
    November 7, 2013

    Wonderful, evocative photos with such a sense of stillness that would be impossible to find today.

  20. February 18, 2016

    Would it be usefull to have bomb site on here, its where german bombs were dropped on london

  21. Eve permalink
    October 18, 2021

    Quite recently in lock down 2020 these same streets, sights & sounds were returned eerily to the old days & nights of the city’s quiet majesty, mystery & hint of menace .. sigh!

  22. December 6, 2022

    Even in 2022 I’m watching those pictures as an artist to draw the beauty of “Old London night”.
    I’m gonna use only Liners and i’ll make only stripes to play with the contrast between lights and shadows.

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