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The Loneliness Of Old London

November 18, 2013
by the gentle author

Lost in Old London – Rose Alley, Southwark, c. 1910

When I first came to live in London, I had few friends, no job and little money, but I managed to rent a basement room in Portobello. For a year, I wandered the city on foot, exploring London without any bus fare. I think I never felt so alone as when I drifted aimlessly in the freezing fog in Hyde Park in 1983. As I walked, I used to puzzle how I could ever find my life in London. Then I went back and sat in my tiny room for countless hours and struggled to write, without success.

Today, I am often haunted by the spectre of my pitiful former self as I travel around London and, while examining the thousands of glass slides created by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society for educational lectures at the Bishopsgate Institute a century ago, I am struck by the lone figures isolated in the cityscape. The photographers may have included these solitary people to give a sense of human scale – but my response to these pictures is emotional, I cannot resist seeing them as a catalogue of the loneliness of old London.

In celebration of the publication of The Gentle Author’s London Album I am undertaking a peregrination around London performing my magic lantern show at diverse venues. This week’s stop is at Waterstones Bookshop in Covent Garden and I look forward to seeing you there on Thursday night.


Thursday 21st November 6:00pm at Waterstones, Garrick St, Covent Garden, WC2

I will be showing 100 pictures – including selected glass slides from a century ago, telling the stories and counterpointing them with favourite photographs of the unexpected wonders of London today.


Alone outside Shepherd’s Bush Empire, c. 1920

Alone at the Chelsea Hospital, c. 1910

Alone at the Natural History Museum, c. 1890

Alone at the Tower of London, c. 1910

Alone at Leg of Mutton Pond, Hampstead, c. 1910

Alone in the Great Hall at Chelsea Hospital, c. 1920

Alone outside St Lawrence Jewry, 1908

Alone in Bunhill Fields, c. 1910

Alone in Hyde Park, c. 1910

Alone at the Guildhall,  c. 1910

Alone at Brooke House, Hackney, 1920

Alone on Hampstead Heath, c. 1910

Alone in Thames St, 1920

Alone at the Orangery, Kensington Palace, c. 1910

Alone in the Deans Yard at Westminster Abbey, c. 1910

Alone at Hampton Court, c. 1910

Alone at the Houses of Parliament with the statue of Richard I, c. 1910

Alone in the tiltyard at Eltham Palace, c. 1910

Alone in Cloth Fair, c. 1910

Alone at Marble Arch, c. 19o0

Alone at Southwark Cathedral, c. 1910

Alone outside Carpenters’ Hall, c. 1920

Alone outside Jackson Provisions’ shop, Clothfair, c. 1910

Alone outside Blewcoat School, Caxton St, c. 1910

Alone on the Victoria Embankment, c. 1910

Alone outside All Saints Chelsea, c. 1910

Alone at the Albert Hall, c. 1910

Glass slides courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Take a look at

The Lantern Slides of Old London

The Nights 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

The Tower of Old London

20 Responses leave one →
  1. Vicky permalink
    November 18, 2013

    What I enjoy about these old photographs are the ghost figures and we have a couple here. At the Tower of London there are two figures to the right and the left one is very insubstantial, you can see the planks of the building behind running through him as if he’s not quite there. At Carpenters Hall there are ghostly onlookers in the upper windows. These shadowy figures enhance the atmosphere of eerie loneliness.

  2. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    November 18, 2013

    And there I was enjoying my coffee and toast with homemade chutney reveiewing the morning e-mail notes. Spitalfields Life is always a good start for the day but horror of horrors it could well be that the the Gentle Author is unwittingly continuing an error found on the labelling of the slides at the Bishopsgate Institute!

    The twelfth illustration shown on “the Loneliness of Old London” posting is entitled “Alone at Lambeth Palace 1920”. The same illustration appears in the History of Brooke House , Hackney (Survey of London) entitled “North -west corner” and as the frontipiece etching by Jessie Godman in the 1888 monograph about Brooke House . Both volumes are available at the Bishopsgate Institute. Can I expect an instant investigation into the matter.

    Brooke House was blitzed twice and demolished in the mid 1950s.

    As ever, my best wishes and thanks to the Gentle Author.

    Melvyn Brooks Karkur, Israel

  3. Paul Kelly permalink
    November 18, 2013

    Some of these figures are like ghosts.

  4. SBW permalink
    November 18, 2013

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I hope its ok to share my thoughts on this. The images are haunting – figures alone in the city. And your thoughts, of loneliness when you first arrived in London. Surely it must be true for all of us, that there are times, when facing life’s very difficult challenges, that in this dear city we do feel utterly alone, and that feeling can be the toughest challenge. Yet, looking at these photographs, two things spring to mind – firstly that there are times, very, very early, that to be alone in London is something of a treat, up before others, feeling the city in a way which is not possible later in the day amongst the jostling throngs of people, and enjoying experiencing the city gradually spring to life.

    And the other thought, that sometimes, it is not when one is alone in London that one feels such loneliness, but when is one is in the midst of an enormous jostling crowd. I reached for TS Eliot’s The Waste Land this morning after reading your post, and read ‘The Burial of the Dead’, a poem I have not look ed at for many years, but immediately remembered these lines:

    Unreal City,
    Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
    A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
    I had not thought death had undone so many.
    Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
    And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
    Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
    To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
    With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

    This poem haunted me as a young person, and then years later, I became one of those people flowing over London Bridge into the City. Fortunately for me, my eyes were not fixed on my feet, but on the wonders around me. And your blog, it seems to me, derives such pleasure from all these wonders. But when fear and loneliness sets in, then the beauty is harder to take hold of.

    I thank you again.


  5. Lucinda permalink
    November 18, 2013

    Such wonderful photos, and all the more wonderful because it would be virtually impossible nowadays to be entirely alone at so many of these places, although one could still very possibly be lonely.

  6. Debbie Rutter permalink
    November 18, 2013

    Oh to be alone in any of those places for just an hour in each! Bliss.

  7. Alan Taylor permalink
    November 18, 2013

    Wonderful pictures yet again.


  8. Greg Tingey permalink
    November 18, 2013

    I suspect the “Marble Arch” picture is nearer 1900 than 1910 …
    The road-surface is not “made up” & no motor vehicles at all?

    P.S. You’ve done it again – I’m busy on Thurday evening – one of these days, I’ll actually make it to one of your events ….

  9. David Whittaker permalink
    November 19, 2013

    Terrific idea..GA …and beautiful comment from SBW..

  10. November 19, 2013

    I recommend scrolling through the photographs while listening to some unaccompanied piano music.
    And then remember – there was also the photographer.

  11. November 19, 2013

    I love these! More fantastic photos and I wonder at how few people there are in them. Haunting indeed.

  12. Ian Buckley permalink
    November 20, 2013

    Great pictures – especially like the one showing the corner of Queenhithe. As you probably know, this is one of the oldest placenames in London – the queen in question being the early 12th c Matilda, daughter of Henry I.

  13. November 20, 2013

    some years ago I spent a month in London on my own. I did have some friends in the city but mostly spent many hours walking alone. I can be very melancholic…

  14. Chris F permalink
    November 20, 2013

    Shepherd’s Bush Empire… Here’s a link to Teddy Brown who passed away in 1946. He was a big chap but brilliant at playing the Xylophone and an accomplished drummer…

  15. armier permalink
    November 21, 2013

    It’s been emotional.

    (Lord, how I love this city and thankyou for this fine and serendipitous post)

  16. November 22, 2013

    Fabulous images, very atmospheric.

  17. November 23, 2013

    This era photo was taken with a rather long exposure so that if a person was there and moved away only the shadow would be visible. This is particularly visible in the Cloth Fair photo. The whole collection is a wonderful look at a bygone era. As a storyteller I often look to images from certain time period to get a description in my mind, this set could help me bring London to life in words! Thank You for seeking them out and sharing.

  18. November 24, 2013

    I just ordered a copy of your book for my mother (90) who has had a love affair with London since she (age 16)and her grandmother left their vacation there in September 1939 sailing home on the Queen E as the war began. She returned many times since but rues how ‘Old London’ has all but disappeared. So she will love this. Please inscribe to ‘Estelle Macauley Ritter’. Her grandfather (G grandfather) was president of Packard Motors.

  19. November 26, 2013

    These were wonderful!

  20. March 22, 2014

    You’re right… London did look so very lonely.
    Not to mention bleak and cold, though I love old photos, history and learning about London, I think I’ll stick with the London of today! 🙂
    I hope you have a great weekend!
    Tammy xx

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