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The Long Nights Of Old London

November 21, 2015
by the gentle author

The temperature is plunging 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 long 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

23 Responses leave one →
  1. November 21, 2015

    Lovely and mysterious.

  2. November 21, 2015

    London at night is always special, and the photos capture the atmosphere so well. Valerie

  3. penny Hancock permalink
    November 21, 2015

    reminds me of coming home late as a child from my aunt’s in Hammersmith to Blackheath crossing central London (St Jame’s Park, Westminster, the river) in the dark in the back of my parents’ old morris minor.
    Very inspiring, thank you again for such a beautiful post.

  4. November 21, 2015

    Dear Gentle Author,
    I don’t often comment. I read your blogs every day and love them. Some days they just make me feel very emotional, this one did. You write with poetry and care. I am still crying now.
    Best wishes to you and thank you, Margaret x

  5. November 21, 2015

    The uncluttered skyline on the river pictures is so different from that of today. I loved the London Skyline in the noughties, the gerkin is cute but now the skyline overwhelms me. The Shard is too jagged and the walkie-talkie thing with its brittle cheap electronic quality has completely altered London. I used to love leaning on the east facing section of Hungerford Bridge taking in the iconic view, before having a beer and a butty sitting on the terrace at the Royal Festival Hall cafe. A simple pleasure worth the price of a Virgin Train northern return ticket on its own. (Or a snatched hour between catching the Ramsgate or Herne Bay train when visiting family in Kent.) Last time I stood there, new skyscrapers were emerging like Capitalist leylandie and I felt I was witnessing a different city.

    The photo of the Thames barge at rest on the river reminds me of that Turner painting where the moon shines dimly on the river. These old photographs are very atmospheric. Thank you for sharing.

    PS. I hope what ever it was I saw being built just behind Brick Lane at the end of Fournier St in June isn’t blocking out the light too much.

  6. Annie G permalink
    November 21, 2015

    I love the snowy image! And the riverscape with St Paul’s, no huge skyscrapers, is like a Canaletto. Magical.

  7. Bronchitikat permalink
    November 21, 2015

    Great shots, wonderful atmosphere! Thanks, Gentle Author.

    Just one thing – “Buy British, smoke Canadian Club tobacco and cigarettes”? Now I know Canada is part of the Commonwealth, probably still part of the Empire when the picture was taken, but . . .

  8. Jude permalink
    November 21, 2015

    So atmospheric, especially the ones of the Houses of Parliament.

  9. November 21, 2015

    Wonderful photographs, and wonderful commentary (as always!). An acquaintance of mine has just published a book about London fog: Presumably the the reason that there are not many photos of serious fog is that it was literally impossible to take pictures in such low light levels?

  10. November 21, 2015

    What a great atmosphere in these wonderful pictures — really fine art!

    Love & Peace

  11. Andy Willoughby permalink
    November 21, 2015

    Such beautiful photographs! They remind of when I was a child in London, and again when I was homeless and wandered the streets at night.

  12. November 21, 2015


  13. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    November 21, 2015

    Lovely photographs!Is London at night now as romantic & evocative?Certainly the skyline has changed for the worst!

  14. Melinda Watt permalink
    November 21, 2015

    Absolutely stunning and so evocative! When were these photos taken?

  15. Katya permalink
    November 21, 2015


  16. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    November 21, 2015

    Dear Gentle Author,
    I remember the night skies when I lived in Kentish Town, in the winter of 1977-78. How orange they were! I came from outer suburbia here in the USA, in a neighborhood with no streetlights, and night was totally black (except for moon …). London was a big surprise in many ways.
    Best wishes.

  17. Debra Matheney permalink
    November 21, 2015

    Sitting in California on sunny and warm fall day, yet I long for London at night. The mysterious and evocative fall evenings, walking along the Thames, the skyline not yet ruined by modern ugly high rise buildings, nothing better for the soul. Thank you for the lovely memories.

  18. Greg Tingey permalink
    November 22, 2015

    “Atmospheric” as in SMOKEY.
    None of the pictures was taken on a “foggy” day, but look at the haze & pollution – well I remember it.
    Good pictures, though

  19. kristine dillon permalink
    November 22, 2015

    Dear Gentle Author,

    I am drawn back to your blog each day with the lure of knowing I will learn something new, discover something fascinating, or see something beautiful. As I read this article, I am reminded yet again, of your ability to craft words together so beautifully, that when you express a mood or sentiment, I can feel it as though I am there too.

    Thank you once more.

  20. Linda Kincaid permalink
    November 23, 2015

    Stunning pictures.

  21. Carolyn permalink
    November 24, 2015

    Gorgeous old pics of London! Definitely 1 of my favorite European cities!

  22. Suzy permalink
    November 24, 2015

    Like today’s post this is a bit special. I recently took a free walking tour of an area of London I’d never much explored before (around Pudding Lane and over to St Paul’s. As it got to dusk, and the tour came to a close, you capture my feelings exactly when you say:

    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 long nights of old London.

    Ever beguiling London.

  23. January 8, 2016

    I am a French collector of magic lantern and had a quarantine plates of the series “London by night”. The ones I was slightly put color with yellow lights on. They are beautiful and I would make a montage with music and text.
    Do you know of an English poem about London from the early twentieth century that would suit these beautiful night images?

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