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Ghosts Of Old London

December 26, 2016
by the gentle author

Click to enlarge this photograph

To dispel my disappointment that I cannot rent that Room to Let in Old Aldgate, I find myself returning to scrutinize the collection of pictures taken by the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London held in the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. It gives me pleasure to look closely and see the loaves of bread in the window and read the playbills on the wall in this photograph of a shop in Macclesfield St in 1883. The slow exposures of these photographs included fine detail of inanimate objects, just as they also tended to exclude people who were at work and on the move but, in spite of this, the more I examine these pictures the more inhabited they become.

On the right of this photograph, you see a woman and a boy standing on the step. She has adopted a sprightly pose of self-presentation with a jaunty hand upon the hip, while he looks hunched and ill at ease. But look again, another woman is partially visible, standing in the shop doorway. She has chosen not to be portrayed in the photograph, yet she is also present. Look a third time – click on the photograph above to enlarge it – and you will see a man’s face in the window. He has chosen not to be portrayed in the photograph either, instead he is looking out at the photograph being taken. He is looking at the photographer. He is looking at us, returning our gaze. Like the face at the window pane in The Turn of the Screw, he challenges us with his visage. Unlike the boy and the woman on the right, he has not presented himself to the photographer’s lense, he has retained his presence and his power. Although I shall never know who he is, or his relationship to the woman in the doorway, or the nature of their presumed conversation, yet I cannot look at this picture now without seeing him as the central focus of the photograph. He haunts me. He is one of the ghosts of old London.

It is the time of year when I think of ghosts, when shadows linger in old houses and a silent enchantment reigns over the empty streets. Let me be clear, I am not speaking of supernatural agency, I am speaking of the presence of those who are gone. At Christmas, I always remember those who are absent this year, and I put up all the cards previously sent by my mother and father, and other loved ones, in fond remembrance. Similarly, in the world around me, I recall the indicators of those who were here before me, the worn step at the entrance to the former night shelter in Crispin St and the eighteenth century graffiti at the entrance to St Pauls Cathedral, to give but two examples. And these photographs also provide endless plangent details for contemplation, such as the broken windows and the shabby clothing strung up to dry at the Oxford Arms, both significant indicators of a certain way of life.

To me, these fascinating photographs are doubly haunted. The spaces are haunted by the people who created these environments in the course of their lives, culminating in buildings in which the very fabric evokes the presence of their inhabitants, because many are structures worn out with usage. And equally, the photographs are haunted by the anonymous Londoners who are visible in them, even if their images were incidental to the purpose of these photographs as an architectural record.

The pictures that capture people absorbed in the moment touch me most – like the porter resting his basket at the corner of Friday St – because there is a compelling poetry to these inconsequential glimpses of another age, preserved here for eternity, especially when the buildings themselves have been demolished over a century ago. These fleeting figures, many barely in focus, are the true ghosts of old London and if we can listen, and study the details of their world, they bear authentic witness to our past.

Two girls lurk in the yard behind this old house in the Palace Yard, Lambeth

A woman turns the corner into Wych St

A girl watches from a balcony at the Oxford Arms while boys stand in the shadow below

At the Oxford Arms, 1875

At the entrance to the Oxford Arms – the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London was set up to save the Oxford Arms, yet it failed in the endeavour, preserving only this photographic record

A relaxed gathering in Drury Lane

A man turns to look back in Drury Lane, 1876

At the back of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, 1877

In Gray’s Inn Lane

A man peers from the window of a chemists’ at the corner of Lower James St and Brewer St

A lone policeman on duty in High Holborn, 1878

A gentleman in Barnard’s Inn

At White Hart Inn yard

At Queen’s Inn yard

A woman lingers in front of the butcher in Borough High St, Southwark

In Aldgate

A porter puts down his basket in the street at the corner of Cheapside and Friday St

In Fleet St

The Old Bell, Holborn

At the corner of  Fore St and Milton St

Doorways on Lawrence Pountney Hill

A conversation at the entrance to Inner Temple, Fleet St

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You can see more pictures from the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London here In Search of Relics of Old London

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Anne Myserian permalink
    December 26, 2016

    Such a good selection of photos. I often think of the people caught in these images, who perhaps don’t realize they’ve been included, and wonder if I’m in a photo somewhere that people will look at 100 years from now!

  2. December 26, 2016

    Wonderful photos, taking us back to old times. Thanks for sharing. Valerie

  3. December 26, 2016

    There is something haunting about the man in the shop window in the first picture. My mind plays tricks with the dark shadows around his head and he is wearing a soldier’s cap. An anachronistic vision, sparked by the moustache as this must be pre 1914. Spooky.

  4. December 26, 2016

    I just love this set of pics showing old London with the old wooden balustrades’. They can still be seen in Tenerife today with their courtyards. They can be seen in London in concrete form attached to Flats as supported walkways – Weird I know have seen a ghost she walked a few days up and down an old lane at the back of my house. Tried a few times to see her dashed around quickly no luck the ‘lady vanishes’. Perhaps she is re-visiting this earth in spirit form to look up her old haunts. I hope in the New Year we have some more nice treats from GA. Poet John

  5. Michael Ayres permalink
    December 26, 2016

    Yes wonderful photos, it always strikes me how deserted the streets were back then, given the madness we find today.

  6. December 26, 2016

    A fascinating glimpse into Victorian London’s buildings and citizens. Particularly interesting for me as I knew many of the locations shown, having either lived or worked nearby. I even recognised some of the structures/streets by certain features which still remain.

  7. Peter Holford permalink
    December 26, 2016

    The Bishopsgate archive is endlessly fascinating – a superb archive of vanished London in high resolution. Once again thank you for sharing, GA.

  8. RLWright permalink
    December 27, 2016

    Very interesting. Are any “now” pictures available to view?

  9. December 27, 2016

    “It is the time of year when I think of ghosts, when shadows linger in old houses and a silent enchantment reigns over the empty streets.” I feel the same way about old London that you do about these photographs. Walking through the Tower of London and standing at a window, I think of all those who stood here before me hundreds of years ago and what their thoughts were. I often feel, when I wander the streets of London, that I live two lives. The one full of the rush of modern life and the lives that were lived over a thousand years on these very same streets. To me, an American visitor, I’m constantly amazed at how turning a corner will reveal a new mystery, a new adventure into the past. Reading your posts remind me of that thrill when I discover a new fascinating story behind another building or photograph.

  10. Ross permalink
    December 27, 2016

    Fascinating photographs. Easy to imagine Dicken’s characters hurrying along those streets.

  11. December 27, 2016

    As someone who also feels that layering of other times, other lives, it is ever a pleasure to immerse myself in your exploration of London past. This year I find myself drawn to Medieval mysteries and documentaries about Tudor feasts and Elizabethan revels. Another year it might be “A Christmas Carol” or Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Unlike Mr. Pussy in front of the fire, I can’t seem to find contentment in the immediate alone. The echos always call.

  12. December 27, 2016

    Even though a few of the places were in need of repair, they are all beautiful and architecturally interesting. I contrast this with the ugly towers that are being thrown up in the present. Did architects (or builders) just have more imagination in the past?

  13. Rachel permalink
    January 11, 2017

    I just realized that the reason these shots lack crowds/people/carriages is that they were probably very long exposures, and fast-moving objects don’t show up. Reminds me of Atget’s Paris shots.

  14. Terry Towels permalink
    January 31, 2017

    You write beautifully. When I first looked at these pictures, I thought that they were the basis for the alternate world of London in Harry Potter. Your words made me slow down and look. Thank you.

  15. George Cowie permalink
    December 25, 2018

    These photos remind me of my mother’s photos when she traveled in England for a month back in the late 1930s. I imagine that her photos of London and England then are much changed today, after the damage wrought during the Blitz. Her favorite photo was in front of 10 Downing, dressed properly for the photographer. She did travel around the southern counties in the company of her young lady friends, remarking on the hazards of changing tires when they were punctured by road hazards, but loving the stays in the small villages.

  16. Janice Skilton permalink
    March 22, 2019

    I used to wonder why these old buildings were demolished, now l see they wouldn’t have stood mich longer!
    No cars, litter or crowds.
    Life must have been so tough, this is why we won 2 world wars.
    If one could live through this, one could survive anything.
    I wondered how people coped in the winter and the rain.
    No wonder life was so short and so many babies and children died so very young…. Excellent photographs, so full of information and wonder.
    Thank you very muck fot sharing….

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