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The Tower of Old London

May 23, 2013
by the gentle author

A contemplative moment at the Tower

Rummaging through the thousands of glass slides from the collection of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, used for magic lantern slides a century ago at the Bishopsgate Institute, I came upon these enchanting pictures of the Tower of London.

The Tower is the oldest building in London, yet paradoxically it looks even older in these old photographs than it does today. Is it something to do with the straggly beards upon the yeoman warders? Some inhabit worn-out uniforms as if they themselves are ancient relics that have been tottering around the venerable ruins for centuries, swathed in cobwebs. Nowadays, yeoman warders are photographed on average four hundred times a day and they have learnt how to work the camera with professional ease, but their predecessors of a century ago froze like effigies before the lens displaying an uneasy mixture of bemusement  and imperiousness. Their shabby dignity is further undermined in some of these plates by the whimsical tinter who coloured their uniforms in clownish tones of buttercup yellow and forget-me-not blue.

As the location of so many significant events in our history, the Tower carries an awe-inspiring charge for me. And these photographs, glorying in the magnificently craggy old walls and bulbous misshapen towers, capture its battered grim monumentalism perfectly. Today, the Tower focuses upon telling the stories of prisoners of conscience that were held captive there rather than displaying the medieval prison guignol, yet an ambivalence persists for me between the colourful pageantry and the inescapable dark history. In spite of the tourist hordes that overrun it today, the old Tower remains unassailable by the modern world.

The Ceremony of the Keys, c.1900

Salt Tower, c. 1910

Byward Tower, c.1910

Bloody Tower, c. 1910

The Tower seen from St Katharine’s Dock, c.1910

Tower Green, c.1910

View from Tower Hill, c, 1900

Upon the battlements, c. 1900

View from the Thames, c. 1910

Bell Tower, c.1900

Bloody Tower, c. 1910

Courtyard at the Tower, c.1910

Byward Tower, c 1910

Yeoman warders at the entrance to Bloody Tower, c. 1910

Vegetable plot in the former moat adjoining the Byward Tower, c.1910

Byward Tower, c. 1900

Water Lane, c 1910

Rampart, c 1900

Yeoman Gaoler – “displaying an uneasy mixture of bemusement  and imperiousness.”

Middle Tower, c. 1900

Steps leading from Traitors’ Gate, c. 1900

Steps inside the Wakefield Tower, c. 1900

The White Tower, c. 1910

Royal Armoury, c. 1910

Beating the Bounds,  c. 1920

Cannons at the Tower of London, c. 1910

Queen’s House, c. 1900

Elizabeth’s Walk, Beauchamp Tower, c. 1900

Yeoman Warder, c. 1910

Tower seen from St Katharine’s Dock, c. 1910

Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

Residents of Spitalfields and any of the Tower Hamlets may gain admission to the Tower of London for one pound upon production of an Idea Store card. Visit the new exhibition which opens tomorrow Coins and Kings: The Royal Mint at the Tower

You may like to take a look at these other Tower of London stories

Chris Skaife, Raven Keeper & Merlin the Raven

Alan Kingshott, Yeoman Gaoler at the Tower of London

Graffiti at the Tower of London

Beating the Bounds at the Tower of London

Ceremony of the Lilies & Roses at the Tower of London

Bloody Romance of the Tower with pictures by George Cruickshank

John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

Constables Dues at the Tower of London

The Oldest Ceremony in the World

A Day in the Life of the Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

Joanna Moore at the Tower of London

and these other glass slides of Old London

The Nights 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

The Doors of Old London

The Staircases of Old London

The High Days & Holidays of Old London

The Dinners of Old London

The Shops of Old London

The Streets of Old London

The Fogs & Smogs of Old London

The Chambers of Old London

The Tombs of Old London

The Bridges of Old London

The Forgotten Corners of Old London

The Thames of Old London

The Statues & Effigies of Old London

The City Churches of Old London

The Docks of Old London

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 23, 2013

    When our gallant Norman foes
    Made our merry land their own.
    And the Saxons from the Conqueror were flying.

    At his bidding it arose.
    In its panoply of stone,
    . A sentinel unliving and undying.

    Insensible, I trow,
    As a sentinel should be.
    Though a queen to save her head
    should come a-suing.

    There’s a legend on its brow
    That is eloquent to me.
    And it tells of duty done and duty doing.

    “The screw may twist and the rack may turn,
    And men may bleed and men may burn,
    O’er London town and its golden hoard
    I keep my silent watch and ward!”

    Chorus. The screw may twist, &c.

    Within its wall of rock
    The flower of the brave
    Have perished with a constancy unshaken.
    From the dungeon to the block.
    From the scaffold to the grave.
    Is a journey many gallant hearts have taken.
    And the wicked flames may hiss
    Round the heroes who have fought
    For conscience and for home in all its beauty.
    But the grim old fortalice
    Takes little heed of aught
    That comes not in the measure of its duty.

    “The screw may twist and the rack may turn.
    And men may bleed and men may burn.
    O’er London town and its golden hoard
    I keep my silent watch and ward!”

    Chorus. The screw may twist, & c …..

  2. May 23, 2013

    Marvellous photographs!

  3. Gary permalink
    May 23, 2013

    I was taken there as a child in 1936, it must have been the same as those photographs then.
    I haven’t been back since – has it changed much ?

  4. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 24, 2013

    Gary – yes & no.
    The surroundings & apputenances have xhanged.
    The fortress – no.

    One of the strangest views on the planet, one that would defy many fantasy-descriptions as too extreme, yet it is real …
    Stand on the S bank of the Thames on Shad Themes, & look NW.
    What do you see?

    A Victorian steel bridge, cased in stone, “Gothick” in the extreme, beyond & under that the WWII cruiser, preserved as memorial, behind them the thousand-year-old fortress, still keeping its “silent watch & ward” ( Thnak you, W. S. Gilbert ) & as final backdrop the concrte steel & glass towers of a 21st Century city in all its owm pomp.

    “London, flower of cities all.”

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