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The Nights Of Old London

October 27, 2019
by the gentle author

The clocks have gone back, next week the temperature is plunging, and I can feel the velvet darkness falling upon London. As dusk gathers in the ancient churches and the dusty old museums in the late afternoon, the distinction between past and present becomes almost permeable at this time of year. Then, once the daylight fades and the streetlights flicker into life, I feel the desire to go walking out in search of the dark nights of old London.

Examining hundreds of glass plates – many more than a century old – once used by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society for magic lantern shows at the Bishopsgate Institute, I am in thrall to these images of night long ago in London. They set my imagination racing with nocturnal visions of the gloom and the glamour of our city in darkness, where mist hangs in the air eternally, casting an aura round each lamp, where the full moon is always breaking through the clouds and where the recent downpour glistens upon every pavement – where old London has become an apparition that coalesced out of the fog.

Somewhere out there, they are loading the mail onto trains, and the presses are rolling in Fleet St, and the lorries are setting out with the early editions, and the barrows are rolling into Spitalfields and Covent Garden, and the Billingsgate porters are running helter-skelter down St Mary at Hill with crates of fish on their heads, and the horns are blaring along the river as Tower Bridge opens in the moonlight to admit another cargo vessel into the crowded pool of London. Meanwhile, across the empty city, Londoners slumber and dream while footsteps of lonely policemen on the beat echo in the dark deserted streets.


Glass slides courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Read my other nocturnal stories

Night at the Beigel Bakery

On Christmas Night in the City

On the Rounds With the Spitalfields Milkman

Other stories of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

17 Responses leave one →
  1. JIll Wilson permalink
    October 27, 2019

    Spoooooky! very atmospheric and timely…

    I also imagine the sounds of Big Ben striking and tug boats hooting…

  2. PennyP permalink
    October 27, 2019

    Thank you for these atmospheric photos and your evocative writing . Your first paragraph makes me feel better about the winter closing in – I am grateful to follow you through the seasons.

  3. October 27, 2019

    Beautiful atmospheric photos and evocative writing. Thank you GA

  4. Sally Bernard permalink
    October 27, 2019

    Loved your writing today , so evocative of night time in London. Brings back many happy memories.

  5. October 27, 2019

    Wonderful post, G.A., beautiful otherwordly pictures. Thank you.

  6. Paul Loften permalink
    October 27, 2019

    The velvet darkness of London nights remains as a treasured memory in the minds of many old Londoners. those of us who have spent the night trudging the streets home after a party , perhaps on new years eve when there is no easy way back home . Speaking personally I have spent a few nights sleeping on benches in more then one of the pictured locations and once on the concrete steps of the Oasis Swimming Pool in Holborn welcoming the dawn at Tin Pan Alley. At the time it did not feel so treasured, bleary eyed and hungover, but the passing of the years have endowed the memories with a patina that has raised the memory into the vault of my most treasured moments .

  7. Pauline Taylor permalink
    October 27, 2019

    These ‘misty moisty mornings’ photos sum up London to me much more than busy populated well lit ones do. Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in the pitch black of the wartime countryside, it makes London at night seem such a strange unworldly place, quite creepy. We did,of course have very bright moonlit nights as well, and I have a vivid memory of a scary walk home down a long country lane after watching ‘Topper Returns’ in the local village hall. The film was terrifying to me as a child, it is described as a supernatural comedy but I failed to appreciate the comedy as I trailed along behind my parents with the eerie shadows of the trees crossing the road in front of me, weaving and gyrating in the breeze. Why have these photos of London brought all that back? I think it must be the eerie quality. Thank you GA.

  8. October 27, 2019

    Thank you so much, not just for this wonderful writing and photos but for all that greet me every morning. They are a beautiful beginning to my day.

  9. Pimlico Pete permalink
    October 27, 2019

    Dazzled by the shadows as well as by the glaring streetlamps.

    “Tug boats hooting” says Jill, above. And echoing off the warehouse walls, along the empty streets and through the open window of my childhood bedroom by the river.

  10. October 28, 2019

    They are Beautiful Pictures of the hark streets of Old London. I love them very Much!!???????

  11. October 28, 2019

    These are fascinating and beautiful photos. I’m surprised and impressed by how similar many of the scenes are to today’s view. Maybe the quiet of night, and the less important role of background helps this.

    It’s good to see h0w much clearer our air is now – London is constantly changing, but that’s not alwys bad!

  12. Peter of London permalink
    October 28, 2019

    Brilliant writing and a great selection of photos.

    Although I’m distracted by the massive decoration on top of the building in the fifth photo. It looks like Selfridges to me, possibly something for the coronation?

  13. Greg Tingey permalink
    October 28, 2019

    “Atmospheric” – as in amazingly polluted & smokey air – it shows doesn’t it?

  14. October 28, 2019

    One or two of the above images remind me of the 1950s smogs we experienced back then. I was a sickly child and was kept indoors for days on end during those times.

  15. Jane Godden permalink
    October 28, 2019

    Evocative writing and atmospheric pictures that stirred deep memories. I walked many times late at night around London in the 1970s and also very early in the morning when the Household Cavalry were returning to barracks. It was wonderful to feel I had the place to myself.

  16. Pimlico Pete permalink
    October 29, 2019

    Photo 6 shows Selfridges department store in Oxford Street decorated for the 1935 jubilee of King George V.

    A websearch for “selfridges 1935 jubilee” gives other images of this astonishing display.

    Likewise the 1937 coronation festive decking suggests no expense was spared.

  17. November 4, 2019

    Wonderful as always

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