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Charles Goss’ Vanishing City

December 30, 2018
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 – 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

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Jamie S permalink
    December 30, 2018

    Fabulous as always… Thank you for taking the care to introduce us readers to these marvels

  2. Linda permalink
    December 30, 2018

    So interesting! Have all of the buildings in the photographs been demolished?
    It would be interesting to see side by side “then and now” photos.
    I thoroughly enjoy your posts. London is our favorite city.

  3. John Ralph permalink
    December 30, 2018

    A wonderful collection of images. Goss’ fascination with ‘shabby alleyways and old yards’ has echoes of Eugene Atget’s documentation of Paris, a similar one-man life-time project, which found an enthusiastic audience among the young artists who discovered and championed his work. Photography itself proved a key medium of the Surreal, with the city as theatre/film set a central motif. I wonder if Bill Brandt another great photographer of London was familiar with Charles Goss’ work?

  4. pauline taylor permalink
    December 30, 2018

    Thank you GA for letting me have this glimpse of the London that my grandfather grew up in, it is especially interesting to see the yards and alleyways and we are all indebted to Charles Goss and his foresight in recording them for future generations to enjoy. Thank you Charles Goss.

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    December 30, 2018

    New Year’s Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a great group of London photos from a century ago. Charles Goss was so far sighted. You are really carrying on his legacy in Spitalsfield and beyond.

    I would like to know more about the founding of Bishopgate Institute and how its work is funded today …

  6. Jim Keltz permalink
    December 30, 2018

    I agree with Linda, would love to see your photos of the modern day cites

  7. December 30, 2018

    As a Capricorn, I always want to go BACK in time. So, imagine how thrilled I was this morning with this amazing bonanza of vintage images. I love starting with the “man in the window” narrative…….it puts your readers right in the mood for gazing and wondering. As I went through these images I thought “no wonder this is one of the most exalted cities in the world.” What
    a rich history you have. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

    As snow falls in the Hudson River Valley……
    Happy New Year, all!

  8. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 30, 2018

    Hmmmm! I wasn’t aware that going back in time was a Capricorn thing but it does resonate with me as a fellow goat – as well as the preference for the company of older rather than younger people…. (much more interesting!)

    And I certainly love looking at old photos and dreaming up scenarios about what is going on.

    I’d also like to see the then and now comparison photos please GA.

  9. Chris Connor permalink
    December 30, 2018

    Brilliant pictures of a bygone age now hugely covered with faceless monoliths. Thank you for bringing this important history to the wider attention of the world.

  10. Claire permalink
    December 30, 2018

    How very interesting these photos are! But I have a question; the only telephone wires appear in 52 Gresham street in abundance. Two wires only appear in Old Broad street. 1911 would be the time when the telephone was just coming into use. It would be interesting to compare photos of 1911 to some later time, say 1912, 1913 etc. Thanks for your fabulous site (an admirer in Montreal)

  11. Paul Loften permalink
    December 30, 2018

    Thank you for these wonderful photos. What we view here and now can only be a shadow if it does not include the there and then.

  12. AndrewH permalink
    December 30, 2018

    Such tiny fragments of this era remain. The station area redevelopments have a lot to answer for (Broad Street, Fenchurch St/America Sq) and of course the Bishopsgate area bombings… At least we still have Clerkenwell largely intact.

  13. Ria permalink
    December 31, 2018


    Thank you.

  14. Marie-Anne Knight permalink
    December 31, 2018

    How I would love to be transported back to those days just so I can walk down the streets of London that my ancestors knew. For time to stand still just for a brief moment, and perhaps I will see a familiar face in the crowd…

  15. December 31, 2018

    He was a man of great vision. Valerie

  16. Michael Deegan permalink
    January 1, 2019

    Photographs that truly capture the buildings and streetscapes from that period. As suggested, it would be great to see some Then and Now comparisons, though most likely depressing too.

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