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A Room To Let In Old Aldgate

October 11, 2020
by the gentle author

I would dearly love to rent the room that is to let in this old building in Aldgate, photographed by Henry Dixon for the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London. Too bad it was demolished in 1882. Instead I must satisfy myself with an imaginary stroll through the streets of that long lost city, with these tantalising glimpses of vanished buildings commissioned by the Society as my points of reference. Founded by a group of friends who wanted to save the Oxford Arms, threatened with demolition in 1875, the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London touched a popular chord with the pictures they published of age-old buildings that seem to incarnate the very soul of the ancient city. London never looked so old as in these atmospheric images of buildings forgotten generations ago.

Yet the melancholy romance of these ramshackle shabby edifices is irresistible to me. I need to linger in the shadows of their labyrinthine rooms, I want to scrutinize their shop windows, I long to idle in these gloomy streets – because the truth is these photographs illustrate an imaginary old London that I should like to inhabit, at least in my dreams. Even to a nineteenth century eye, these curious photographs would have proposed a heightened reality, because the people are absent. Although the long exposures sometimes captured the few that stood still, working people are mostly present only as shadows or fleeting transparent figures. The transient nature of the human element in these pictures emphasises the solidity of the buildings which, ironically, were portrayed because they were about to disappear too. Thus Henry Dixon’s photographs preserved in the Bishopsgate Insitute are veritable sonnets upon the nature of ephemerality – the people are disappearing from the pictures and the buildings are vanishing from the world, only the photographs themselves printed in the permanent carbon process survive to evidence these poignant visions now.

The absence of people in this lost city allows us to enter these pictures by proxy, and the sharp detail draws us closer to these streets of extravagant tottering old piles with cavernous dour interiors. We know our way around, not simply because the geography remains constant but because Charles Dickens is our guide. This is the London that he knew and which he romanced in his novels, populated by his own versions of the people that he met in its streets. The very buildings in these photographs appear to have personality, presenting dirty faces smirched with soot, pierced with dark eyes and gawping at the street.

How much I should delight to lock the creaky old door, leaving my rented room in Aldgate, so conveniently placed above the business premises of John Robbins, the practical optician, and take a stroll across this magical city, where the dusk gathers eternally. Let us go together now, on this cloudy October day, through the streets of old London. We shall set out from my room in Aldgate over to Smithfield and Clerkenwell, then walk down to cross the Thames, explore the inns of Southwark and discover where our footsteps lead …

This row of shambles was destroyed for the extension of the Metropolitan Railway from Aldgate to Tower Hill, 1883.

Sir Paul Pindar’s House in Bishopsgate was moved to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1890.

At the corner of St Mary Axe and Bevis Marks, this overhanging gabled house was destroyed in 1882.

In College Hill.

St Giles Cripplegate, which now stands at the centre of Barbican complex.

Old buildings in Aldersgate St.

Shaftesbury House by Inigo Jones in Aldersgate St, demolished after this photo was taken in 1882.

Chimneypiece in the Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green, where Dickens was once a cub reporter.

In Cloth Fair, next to Smithfield Market.

At the rear of St Bartholomew’s Church.

In the graveyard of St Bartholomew the Great.

In Charterhouse, Wash House Court.

The cloisters at Charterhouse.

St Mary Overy’s Dock

Queen’s Head Inn Yard.

White Hart Inn Yard.

King’s Head Inn Yard.

In Bermondsey St.

At the George, Borough High St.

You can see more pictures from the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London in The Ghosts of Old London and In Search of Relics of Old London.

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    October 11, 2020

    I feel as if I am in a Dickens novel when I look at these photos, and I am sure I will return for another stroll through this land of the imagination.

  2. Guy M permalink
    October 11, 2020

    Am I right that the George is the only one of these establishments still in existence? (apart from Sir Paul Pindars house in the V&A of course…).

  3. Laura Johns permalink
    October 11, 2020

    Lovely article, how I wish we could go back in time and experience the atmosphere of London as it was when those photographs were taken.
    The photographs conjure a mixture of curiosity, sadness, wonder and disbelief.
    I always look forward to your article, it has become a part of my day, thank you for everything you do.

  4. October 11, 2020

    What an incredibly atmospheric set of photographs. Gentle Author, you are a romantic at heart and I am enjoying idling in the gloomy streets with you.

  5. Mark permalink
    October 11, 2020

    Triffic studies.
    Have seen Pindar’s exterior in the V & A. Workmanship to the highest degree.

    How the hedge fund “managers” must grind thier teeth togeather, these buildings having not been preserved for them personally to thieve from us in the 21st century.

  6. Richard Smith permalink
    October 11, 2020

    WoW! These photographs are simply amazing and take s to another long gone world. Thank you GA for posting them and delighting us with a vision of the past.

  7. October 11, 2020

    Wonderful! Pictures remind me to those of my Hometown Kassel (Hessia, Germany) before WW2. Most of the Houses were destroyed on October 22nd. 1943.

    This Website gives a Glimpse of what had been:

    Love & Peace

  8. October 11, 2020

    Magical pictures. Tahnk you, G.A.

  9. Ian silverton permalink
    October 11, 2020

    The gravestones at St Bartholomew the Great cloth fair,brings back once again my childhood school based there in the 50s, it’s where we small children slept on warm afternoons, many on the gravestones when we where brave!!! Stay safe GA and your readers, London looks deserted in pictures we see of it now, Get back to work you Londoners its dismal the way your heading.

  10. October 11, 2020

    My, this is a fine stroll we’re having. So glad you suggested it. I think I might just stay here for a while, in the courtyard of the Queen’s Head Inn. I’ve gotten a bit chilled during our walk and the sun is now baking the yard. We haven’t seen many people this morning — but, wait, there is someone in that upper window. If I wave, will they acknowledge me? — Or are they suspicious of me, lurking here in the sunlight? I’ve noticed how the window and door openings seem to be the “eyes” of the façade; and I savor wisps of muffled conversation and — was it? — a little
    harmonica tune. Well, it’s Sunday afterall — many people are taking a well-needed Day of
    Rest. What a great day for a stroll.

    Thank you, GA.

  11. October 11, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for sharing these old London photos by Henry Dixon. Indeed, they do evoke the world of Dickens and other writers. For example, long before I ever went abroad, I recall Aldgate being mentioned in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

    Truly, they “are veritable sonnets upon the nature of ephemerality.” Well said.

  12. October 11, 2020

    Guy M, I believe that the George Inn is the last of the coaching inns remaining in London. You might enjoy this book – SHAKESPEARE’S PUB A Barstool History of London as See Through the Windows of Its Oldest pub – The George Inn, by Pete Brown.

  13. Geraldine Anslow permalink
    October 11, 2020

    I have adored looking through these images. Your posts feel like gifts. I have the strangest sense of familiarity seeing these passages, buildings, courtyards and cloisters. Perhaps I know them from a previous lifetime: London,especially in the East does this to me all the time, gives me this visceral tug. I wonder if you would consider sharing the room? We could split the rent for our writing space and sort of ‘hot desk’.

  14. October 11, 2020

    ” ..veritable sonnets upon the nature of ephemerality’ unforgettable phrase of yours. So true.

    Beautiful ghostly photos of what has been lost. The Italians would have found some way to renovate, adapt and evolve these buildings to whatever was happening in the neighbourhood. To our shame we have never included preservation/adaption of buildings of the past as important. No better illustrated by the current beyond words activities in our oldest manufacturing site inside the beautiful Whitechapel Foundry. Every time I see a photo of a galleried Inn such as above it triggers me to the Archaeologist’s comments about the relevance of the plans for a galleried Inn effect in the developers plans based on the purported influence of The Artichoke inn. What a farce.

  15. October 11, 2020

    Great article. I think it was only the wooden front elevation of Sir Paul Pindar’s House that was saved and re-assembled at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

  16. Georgina Briody permalink
    October 11, 2020

    To Guy M……indeed the George is still going strong or was last time I visited!!

  17. Clare Edwards permalink
    October 11, 2020

    Beautiful photographs of a bygone time. Thanks you for every post!!

  18. Sharon Joste permalink
    October 11, 2020

    Fabulous photos thanks ?

  19. Mark L Parsons permalink
    October 12, 2020

    I was drawn in…. oh my, hear the echoes?, glimpse the shadows?
    Thank you GA – rock star of we past peekers

  20. October 12, 2020

    What amazing images, and I’m glad to know that at least ‘some’ of the buildings survive to this day.

  21. October 12, 2020

    What a wonderful fantasy I was able to enjoy while being trapped in Australia by Covid. Thank You.

  22. October 12, 2020

    There are still one or two places in London where you can get the atmosphere of these wonderful old places – not least the George, in the last photograph! I’ve spent many evenings drinking in the Lamb and Flag, Covent Garden, and always love the weatherboarded alley that runs alongside it with an entrance into the pub. The rickety stairs that lead you to the rooms above are straight out of these images. Only a foggy night could complete the scene.
    There is a little Victorian survivor not far from Goodge Street. Have a wander down Newman Passage that links Newman Street to Rathbone Street, next to the Newman Arms. Only a short walk, but from a lost age.

  23. venel permalink
    October 27, 2020

    Although i was not born in the UK, I just went on a roller coaster of nostalgia, on going through these photos.
    Thanks for showing them.

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