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John Thomas Smith’s Ancient Topography

August 17, 2019
by the gentle author

Bethelem Hospital with London Wall in Foreground – Drawn June 1812

Two centuries ago, John Thomas Smith set out to record the last vestiges of ancient London that survived from before the Great Fire of 1666 but which were vanishing in his lifetime. You can click on any of these images to enlarge them and study the tender human detail that Smith recorded in these splendid etchings he made from his own drawings. My passion for John Thomas Smith’s work was first ignited by his portraits of raffish street sellers published as Vagabondiana and I was delighted to spot several of those familiar characters included here in these vivid streets scenes of London long ago.

Bethel Hospital seen from London Wall – Drawn August 1844

Old House in Sweedon’s Passage, Grub St – Drawn July 1791, Taken Down March 1805

Old House in Sweedon’s Passage, Grub St – Drawn July 1791, Taken Down March 1805

London Wall in Churchyard of St Giles’ Cripplegate –  Drawn 1793, Taken Down 1803

Houses on the Corner of Chancery Lane & Fleet St – Drawn August 1789, Taken Down May 1799

Houses in Leadenhall St – Drawn July 1796

Duke St, West Smithfield – Drawn July 1807, Taken Down October 1809

Corner of Hosier Lane, West Smithfield – Drawn April 1795

Houses on the South Side of London Wall – Drawn March 1808

Houses on West Side of Little Moorfields – Drawn May 1810

Magnificent Mansion in Hart St, Crutched Friars – Drawn May 1792, Taken Down 1801

Walls of the Convent of St Clare, Minories – Drawn April 1797

Watch Tower Discovered Near Ludgate Hill – Drawn June 1792

An Arch of London Bridge in the Great Frost – Drawn February 5th 1814

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana II

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana III

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Garth HOULTHAM permalink
    August 17, 2019

    Great to see the drawing of London Bridge.
    My 3x gt grandfather Charles JAMES, on the 3 July 1854, was elected one of two Bridgemasters or Wardens of London Bridge with 682 votes. His address at the time was Tredegar Square, Mile End Road Middlesex. His three sureties were William DODDS, George SINGER & his son Charles JAMES the younger Licensed Victualler ‘White Hart Lower Clapton. 1861 Directory Charles JAMES, Bridgemaster, Bridgemasters Office, Guildhall, London.
    9 June 1856 elected member of Morden College a charitable trust for those who had suffered misfortune as merchants. Aged 76.
    25 January 1862 sent his NZ grandson William Pattison JAMES a prayer book from Morden College Blackheath London.
    Death no. 4 Q 1865 Wandsworth 1d 314

  2. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    August 17, 2019

    Great renderings. I love the crazy rain gutters and downspouts. The leaning half timbered walls are pretty cool too.

    Thanks, Ron

  3. Jean Clements permalink
    August 17, 2019

    Thank you. What wonderful drawings and so detailed. Very interesting architecture

  4. Pamela Traves permalink
    August 17, 2019

    Lovely Vintage Buildings are Lovely and they Look Like a Picture Rather than a Painting. I have so enjoyed them.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    August 17, 2019

    Fantastically eccentric buildings which have brought on another of my “why, oh why” whinges about how boring modern architecture is… I wonder how many times people have mourned the passing of decorative and characterful buildings being replaced by increasingly bland architecture?

    Thank you John Thomas Smith for the great etchings recording the losses of your age.

  6. August 17, 2019

    Extremely detailed, beautiful engravings. The decorations on the façade of the mansion in Hart street are pure Renaissance. Magnificent. Love the cat on the roof.

  7. August 17, 2019

    Personally, I am transported to one of the tiny uppermost windows here……I hear the kiddos playing below, I notice the shuffling feet of the vendors and tradesmen, I overhear some gossip between two neighbor ladies, and watch a cat sprawl on the low roof across the way. Without effort, I’ve passed an hour here…….just watching the human parade, enjoying this time travel, and marveling at the wobbly tilting architecture; a magnificent enduring city.

    Thank you John Thomas Smith and GA.

  8. Paul Loften permalink
    August 17, 2019

    Absolutely beautiful engravings of how our city once was. My favourite is the Watchtower drawn in 1792 with the two old gentlemen having a chinwag, leaning on his walking stick over the garden fence. I hope the conversation was worth the precarious walk down the narrow path that led to nowhere. One lapse of concentration and he was forever into the abyss !

  9. Gregg permalink
    August 17, 2019

    Great article with super images. Thanks.

  10. Paul Loften permalink
    August 17, 2019

    My mistake here ! Looking at the engraving more closely I can see it was a pick axe and not a walking stick so he was probably asking the workman when he thought the damned excavations were likely to be finsihed ! Never been quiet life for anybody living in Ludgate

  11. Gayle Thorsen permalink
    August 17, 2019

    So many people maimed or on crutches in several of these wonderful etchings. A reminder of how precarious life was. Very tenderly done.

  12. August 17, 2019

    These are wonderful and full of people doing just what people still do around towns today – shopping, digging holes in roads, putting up banners, having a sociable drink, and just going about their daily lives. I am surprised the Grub Street house lasted so much longer after this picture too. I think that one had reached the end of its useful life. Altogether they cast a new light on Facadeism. Many thanks indeed.

  13. Susan Martin permalink
    August 17, 2019

    Thank you so.much for this article. How amazing those drawings are. And how much we have lost.

  14. Ronald McKenzie permalink
    August 18, 2019

    I particularly enjoyed the drawing of the Old House in Sweedon’s Passage, Grub St. I can’t imagine living in a house where the floor run uphill and down like it must have there…

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