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Charles Goss’ Vanishing London

December 31, 2014
by the gentle author

33 Lime St

A man gazed from the second floor window of 33 Lime St in the City of London on February 10th 1911 at an unknown photographer on the pavement below. He did not know the skinny man with the camera and wispy moustache was Charles Goss, archivist at the Bishopsgate Institute, who made it part of his work to record the transient city which surrounded him.

Around fifty albumen silver prints exist in the archive – from which these pictures are selected and published for the first time today – each annotated in Goss’ meticulous handwriting upon the reverse and most including the phrase “now demolished.” Two words that resonate through time like the tolling of a knell.

It was Charles Goss who laid the foundation of the London collection at the Institute, spending his days searching street markets, bookshops and sale rooms to acquire documentation of all kinds – from Cries of London prints to chapbooks, from street maps to tavern tokens – each manifesting different aspects of the history of the great city.

Such was his passion that more than once he was reprimanded by the governors for exceeding his acquisition budget and, such was his generosity, he gathered a private collection in parallel to the one at the library and bequeathed it to the Institute on his death. Collecting the city became Goss’ life and his modest script is to be discovered everywhere in the archive he created, just as his guiding intelligence is apparent in the selection of material that he chose to collect.

It is a logical progression from collecting documents to taking photographs as a means to record aspects of the changing world and maybe Goss was inspired by the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London in the eighteen-eighties, who set out to photograph historic buildings that were soon to be destroyed. Yet Goss’ choice of subject is intriguing, including as many shabby alleys and old yards as major thoroughfares with overtly significant edifices – and almost everything he photographed is gone now.

It is a curious side-effect of becoming immersed in the study of the past that the present day itself grows more transient and ephemeral once set against the perspective of history. In Goss’ mind, he was never merely taking photographs, he was capturing images as fleeting as ghosts, of subjects that were about to vanish from the world. The people in his pictures are not party to his internal drama yet their presence is even more fleeting than the buildings he was recording – like that unknown man gazing from that second floor window in Lime St on 10th February 1911.

To judge what of the present day might be of interest or importance to our successors is a subject of perennial fascination, and these subtle and melancholic photographs illustrate Charles Goss’ answer to that question.

14 Cullum St, 10th February 1910

3, 4 & 5 Fenchurch Buildings, Aldgate, 28th October 1911

71-75 Gracechurch St, 1910

Botolph’s Alley showing 7 Love Lane, 16th December 1911

6 Catherine Court looking east, 8th October 1911

Bury St looking east, 3rd July 1911

Corporation Chambers, Church Passage, Cripplegate, 31st January 1911 – now demolished

Fresh Wharf. Lower Thames St, 28th January 1912

Gravel Lane, looking south-west, 11th October 1910

1 Muscovy Court, 5th June 1911

3 New London St, 28th January 1912

4 Devonshire Sq

52 Gresham St, 17th September 1911

9-11 Honey Lane Market, Cheapside, 16th October 1910

Crutched Friars looking east from 37, 11th February 1911

Crutched Friars looking east, 28th October 1911

35 & 36 Crutched Friars, 28th January 1912

Yard of 36 Crutched Friars looking north, 11th February 1912

Yard of 36 Crutched Friars looking south, February 11th 1912

Old Broad St looking south, 24th July 1911

Charles Goss (1864-1946)

Photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

The Ghosts of Old London

A Room to Let in Old Aldgate

and see more of Goss’ photography

Charles Goss’ Photographs

Charles Goss’ Bishopsgate Photographs

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Haydn E Ebbs permalink
    December 31, 2014

    Another GREAT set of photographs, thank you……..

  2. December 31, 2014

    Thanks for sharing the wonderful photos. Valerie

  3. December 31, 2014

    Beautiful photographs. A wonderful posting for this last day of the year, which for me is always a bit tinged with melancholy and musings about the fragility of life. Happy 2015!

  4. Annie permalink
    December 31, 2014

    What a man. So pleased he realised that things were going to be swept away and did something about it. But so much remains! Check out Crutched Friars on google maps. Also: Botolph’s Alley – strolled down it not long ago and was amused to find a very modern sandwich shop thriving there.

  5. December 31, 2014

    Goss’ work reminds me of another Charles, Marville, who in the mid-19th century was commissioned by Baron Haussmann to take pictures of the soon-to-be-lost Paris that he, Haussmann, was so willfully, enthusiastically and no doubt profitably destroying. Marville’s images are all over the Internet for those who wish to pursue them.

  6. Tony Dorcey permalink
    December 31, 2014

    Magnificent! You have drawn my attention to a treasury of images that can help me “see” the streets of London and the daily action on them in the years when my parents were born there (1911 and ’12) and even my grandparents youth (1875 onwards) there. Here is an intriguing thought: Sitting in Vancouver, Canada, reading your delight-full blog on my computer each morning, I am maybe a modern day equivalent of the unknown face at the window, in the shadows, watching the scenes you paint each day. I look forward to tomorrow’s posts and investigating further the glorious collections of historical photos you have revealed to me. Thank you!

  7. John Campbell permalink
    December 31, 2014

    Interesting to see some german signage displayed in one of the featured streets. I wonder if this was part of the ‘little Germany’ district I read of in a previous Spitalfields Life article. Wonderful photos, many thanks.

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  9. Sarahc permalink
    December 31, 2014

    I’m thinking that Muscovy Court must have been connected in some way with the visit of Peter the Great of Russia in 1698.

  10. January 1, 2015

    Thanks for all the wonderful posts this year— I’m looking forward to the forthcoming ones of 2015!

    Love & Peace & Happy New Year

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