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Looking Down On Old London

February 1, 2018
by the gentle author

In my dream, I am flying over old London and the clouds part like curtains to reveal a vision of the dirty monochrome city lying far beneath, swathed eternally in mist and deep shadow.

Although most Londoners are familiar with this view today, as the first glimpse of home on the descent to Heathrow upon their return flight from overseas, it never ceases to induce wonder. So I can only imagine the awe of those who were first shown these glass slides of aerial views from the collection of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society at the Bishopsgate Institute a century ago.

Even before Aerofilms was established in 1919 to document the country from above systematically, people were photographing London from hot air balloons, zeppelins and early aeroplanes. Upon first impression, the intricate detail and order of the city is breathtaking and I think we may assume that a certain patriotic pride was encouraged by these views of national landmarks which symbolised the political power of the nation.

But there is also a certain ambivalence to some images, such as those of Horseguards’ Parade and Covent Garden Market, since – as much as they record the vast numbers of people that participated in these elaborate human endeavours, they also reduce the hordes to mere ants and remove the authoritative scale of the architecture. Seen from above, the works of man are of far less consequence than they appear from below. Yet this does not lessen my fascination with these pictures, as evocations of the teeming life of this London that is so familiar and mysterious in equal measure.

Tower of London & Tower Bridge

Trafalgar Sq, St Martin-in-the-Fields and Charing Cross Station

Trafalgar Sq & Whitehall

House of Parliament & Westminster Bridge

Westminster Bridge & County Hall

Tower of London & St Katharine Docks

Bank of England & Royal Exchange

Spires of City churches dominate the City of London

Crossroads at the heart of the City of London

Guildhall to the right, General Post Office to the left and Cheapside running across the picture

Blackfriars Bridge & St Paul’s

Hyde Park Corner

Buckingham Palace & the Mall

The British Museum

St James’ Palace & the Mall

Ludgate Hill & St Paul’s

Pool of London & Tower Bridge with Docks beyond

Albert Hall & Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum & Victoria & Albert Museum

Limehouse with St Anne’s in the centre & Narrow St to the right

Reversed image of Hungerford  Bridge & Waterloo Bridge

Covent Garden Market & the Floral Hall

Admiralty Arch

Trooping the Colour at Horseguards Parade

St Clement Dane’s, Strand

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Glass slides courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to 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. February 1, 2018

    I could peer into these photos all day – marvellous! Despite the Great Fire, the City’s mediaeval street pattern was still clear before the Luftwaffe and developers went after it. And the churches! Wasn’t it so much better when God looked down on Mammon than the other way ’round?

  2. Caroline permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Very magical!

  3. February 1, 2018

    Wonderful photos, so good to see London without all of the modern monstrosities. Valerie

  4. Shawdian permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Yes I know the flight over London into Heathrow quit well. That magnificent view of the City never fails to fill me with a sudden rush of delight and a tug at the heart of pride, removing any feelings of sadness I may have had at leaving behind the last destination of foreign wonders. These aerial photographs of London put in perspective the beauty of the City of how it used to be. Makes me take out my art materials to draw all those lines, boxes and spirals and fill out those famous shapes with vibrant colour. I would like to see these photographs in a book,
    The Areal View of Old London would be nice.

  5. Jenny permalink
    February 1, 2018

    I have an aerofilms shot of our house in the 1930s, it is so fascinating to see what our area was like and I can’t help feeling nostalgic.

  6. StephenJ permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Yes GA, it might have been a bit dirty in those days, but at least it wasn’t covered in glass phalluses.

    I remember when the sandblasting was taking place, it was a revelation, but it was also a slight concern, since we were given to understand that along with the dirt came bits of the buildings themselves. It was pretty crude technology.

  7. Emma permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Do you have a date for these incredible images? I guess between the wars? Thanks you.

  8. Jude permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Lovely to see familiar sights from a different angle.

  9. Leana Pooley permalink
    February 1, 2018

    To look at these photos is to feel a deep sense of loss. To look at London’s skyline and see only church spires would have been so wonderful.

  10. Helen Breen permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, fabulous old photos. Particularly enjoyed seeing St. Paul’s cathedral outline in the form of a cross …

  11. Mary permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Wonderful images that show the tallest buildings in the city were the church spires not the hideous vanity projects that we now have to endure.

  12. February 1, 2018

    This was a wonderful viewing. Many of these images are not usually seen since they obviously date to a century ago.
    The first image of St Paul’s cathedral, for example, is now often seen very differently in the context of a photograph surrounding smoke/fire in the Second World War. This one instead is a good insight – almost challenging some of the images we generally bring to our memory.

    Such smoky ‘memory’, say of St Paul’s, doesn’t always exist as part of our own wartime experience since not of all us were alive at that time! But we will still tend to remember such a timed past . The images you have presented here are an interesting and important challenge!

  13. Ros permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Love these photographs. Love London, have lived elsewhere, but nothing compares to London. Fascinated by the remnants of the past that cling to the architecture and the layout even beyond the monuments and the tourist attractions. There are still secrets to be revealed I am certain.

  14. Yvonne M permalink
    February 1, 2018

    I feel sad to see all of those wonderful church spires. What Hitler failed to destroy, profit has hidden. I remember walking the streets of London and navigating my way by the church spires. It was a a magical city then.

  15. Malcolm permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Great stuff!

  16. Martin Loughlin permalink
    February 1, 2018

    As others have pointed out – so nice to see photos of london without all the hideous new buildings and post war planning vandalism

  17. pauline taylor permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Wonderful images, thank you so much.

  18. Christine Smith permalink
    February 1, 2018

    Thank you for showing these photos. I have seen film footage of London in WW2 in the past, and it is a jolt to see London with all the church steeples being the stand-out landmarks. I am also just returned from Paris, and having done the trip up the Eiffel Tower, and seeing all that city’s treasures so clearly on show it does make one wonder about ‘progress’. But ideas of beauty change. Maybe in another century the Shard and the glass towers of the City will be more revered the older buildings standing in their shadows. Ultimately, its the stories writers such as yourself, wrap around our spaces that decide what stands the test of time. Thank you for finding and sharing them.

  19. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 4, 2018

    Wonderful images, and as I remember the iconic buildings from my childhood, and not dwarfed my skyscrapers.
    However, I love much of the modern architecture now in London, so just grateful I both remember the past, but love the present too.

  20. Sheila O'Connell permalink
    February 11, 2018

    Interesting to see the transition from horse-drawn to motor vehicles. Very clear in the photograph of St Clement Danes, but also Admiralty Arch.

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