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The Lonely Streets Of Old London

November 24, 2015
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.

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

13 Responses leave one →
  1. John permalink
    November 24, 2015

    That was my experience too when I moved all by myself to a big new unknown city. No friends, no job, no family, no idea what I’d do next. I can still remember that biting sense of loneliness as I stumbled on trying to make a way – thinking I had done the right thing in moving to a strange big city.

  2. Marco permalink
    November 24, 2015

    What a beautiful set of photographs! London is one of my favourite cities in the world, but it is a town that can make you feel very alone.

  3. Suzy permalink
    November 24, 2015

    Love this.

  4. Yvonne Eade Kolessides permalink
    November 24, 2015

    Good morning and thank you once again for starting my day in Victorian London..
    The eerie atmosphere and the loneliness pictured is so real, simply amazing..

  5. Terry permalink
    November 24, 2015

    Haunting images of solitary ghostly figures dwarfed by their often grand surroundings. Such a lovely mix of interesting photos of London. Thank you.

  6. November 24, 2015

    Dear Gentle Author
    Thank you for these wonderful photographs! I can see why you identify with them, as I too have been lonely in London. But for me, these lone people are not necessarily lonely. Instead, each of these photographs feels like the start of a story (or even a novel): Why are they alone? Who are they waiting for? What is their exciting/terrifying/sad/enthralling secret? What has just happened? What happens next?
    Best wishes
    Liz Trenow
    PS I am an avid follower of your column and have acknowledged you in my next novel (set in Spitalfields) to be published by Pan Macmillan in early 2017.

  7. November 24, 2015

    Wonderful photos. I am always struck by the sense of quiet around even major institutions during the Edwardian era; the crowds seen in the usual bustling street pictures just melt away.
    Or are they hiding? In the Bunhill Fields shot you can see five or possibly six figures watching in the background. Perhaps ‘alone’ here referred to John Bunyan, in his tomb.

  8. November 24, 2015

    I was okay until the Cloth Fair children.
    Impossible to not respond emotionally to these images; some joy in the peace of the fellow on the grass on Hampstead Heath, thank goodness.

    And, GA, you are far from alone today! This blog, your lectures/books–you’ve got so many people around you now I wonder if you have to make an effort now to be by yourself!

    Thanks for letting us into your life–we enriched!

  9. November 24, 2015

    ¡Fantástico escrito y fotografías! somos unas solas y solos

  10. Stephen Foster permalink
    November 24, 2015

    Lovely pictures. Am I right in saying that the picture of the Tower of London is the Execution shed where prisoners were executed by firing squad?

  11. Stephen Barker permalink
    November 25, 2015

    Even now on the weekends parts of the City of London are very quiet and empty. Seeing these photos makes one wish you could see the old city before the loss from bombing and development. One thing I don’t miss is the blackness of the buildings caused by the soot and smoke from coal fires.

    I particularly liked the photo from Eltham Palace and Cloth Fair. Thank you for sharing them.

  12. November 25, 2015

    These are fantastic! The Hampton Court and Kensington Palace photos are giving me serious “Last Year at Marienbad” flashbacks. 🙂

  13. November 25, 2015

    How interesting. I can well understand your emotional response. I have a black and white photograph of my mother sitting alone and awkwardly on the steps beneath the Albert Memorial. In it, she is dwarfed by the monument. At the time it was taken, we were separated as a family and I was in my 20’s before I could look at it without crying. I still can’t walk past it without feeling upset.
    If only you had known then how your life would turn out, amazing story.

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