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The Ghosts Of Old London

December 28, 2020
by the gentle author

Click to enlarge this photograph

I find myself returning to scrutinize the collection of pictures taken by the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London held in the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. It gives me great pleasure to look closely and see the loaves of bread in the window and read the playbills on the wall in this photograph of a shop in Macclesfield St in 1883. The slow exposures of these photographs included fine detail of inanimate objects, just as they also tended to exclude people who were at work and on the move but, in spite of this, the more I examine these pictures the more inhabited they become.

On the right of this photograph, you see a woman and a boy standing on the step. She has adopted a sprightly pose of self-presentation with a jaunty hand upon the hip, while he looks hunched and ill at ease. But look again, another woman is partially visible, standing in the shop doorway. She has chosen not to be portrayed in the photograph, yet she is also present. Look a third time – click on the photograph above to enlarge it – and you will see a man’s face in the window. He has chosen not to be portrayed in the photograph either, instead he is looking out at the photograph being taken. He is looking at the photographer. He is looking at us, returning our gaze. Like the face at the window pane in “The Turn of the Screw,” he challenges us with his visage. Unlike the boy and the woman on the right, he has not presented himself to the photographer’s lense, he has retained his presence and his power. Although I shall never know who he is, or his relationship to the woman in the doorway, or the nature of their presumed conversation, yet I cannot look at this picture now without seeing him as the central focus of the photograph. He haunts me. He is one of the ghosts of old London.

It is the time of year when I think of ghosts, when shadows linger in old houses and a silent enchantment reigns over the empty streets. Let me be clear, I am not speaking of supernatural agency, I am speaking of the presence of those who are gone. At Christmas, I always remember those who are absent this year, and I put up all the cards previously sent by my mother and father, and other loved ones, in fond remembrance. Similarly, in the world around me, I recall the indicators of those who were here before me, the worn step at the entrance to the former night shelter in Crispin St and the eighteenth century graffiti at the entrance to St Pauls Cathedral, to give but two examples. And these photographs also provide endless plangent details for contemplation, such as the broken windows and the shabby clothing strung up to dry at the Oxford Arms, both significant indicators of a certain way of life.

To me, these fascinating photographs are doubly-haunted. The spaces are haunted by the people who created these environments in the course of their lives, culminating in buildings in which the very fabric evokes the presence of their inhabitants, because many are structures worn out with usage. And equally, the photographs are haunted by the anonymous Londoners who are visible in them, even if their images were incidental to the purpose of these photographs as an architectural record.

The pictures that capture people absorbed in the moment touch me most – like the porter resting his basket at the corner of Friday St – because there is a compelling poetry to these inconsequential glimpses of another age, preserved here for eternity, especially when the buildings themselves have been demolished over a century ago. These fleeting figures, many barely in focus, are the true ghosts of old London and if we can listen, and study the details of their world, they bear authentic witness to our past.

Two girls lurk in the yard behind this old house in the Palace Yard, Lambeth.

A woman turns the corner into Wych St.

A girl watches from a balcony at the Oxford Arms while boys stand in the shadow below.

At the Oxford Arms, 1875.

At the entrance to the Oxford Arms – the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London was set up to save the Oxford Arms, yet it failed in the endeavour, preserving only this photographic record.

A relaxed gathering in Drury Lane.

A man turns to look back in Drury Lane, 1876.

At the back of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, 1877.

In Gray’s Inn Lane.

A man peers from the window of a chemists’ at the corner of Lower James St and Brewer St.

A lone policeman on duty in High Holborn, 1878.

A gentleman in Barnard’s Inn.

At White Hart Inn yard.

At Queen’s Inn yard.

A woman lingers in front of the butcher in Borough High St, Southwark.

In Aldgate.

A porter puts down his basket in the street at the corner of Cheapside and Friday St.

In Fleet St.

The Old Bell, Holborn

At the corner of  Fore St and Milton St.

Doorways on Lawrence Pountney Hill.

A conversation at the entrance to Inner Temple, Fleet St.

Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You can see more pictures from the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London here In Search of Relics of Old London

19 Responses leave one →
  1. December 28, 2020

    Here’s a quote from my commonplace book “the past always leaves it’s haunting imprint on the present, particularly a present that becomes the past the moment a photograph is taken”. (sorry I forgot to write down the originator of this lovely quote).

  2. Janet M permalink
    December 28, 2020

    The quote was from Marc Caplan in the LA Review of Books.

  3. December 28, 2020

    Lovely old vignette; some places recognisable to me, though I never lived south of the River. Thank you for the “ghosts.”

  4. Yvette Williams Elliott permalink
    December 28, 2020

    Wonderful pictures. I so enjoyed looking for the ‘ghosts’ and searching for the details.
    Many thanks to you for another year of fascinating posts, from which I have learned so much.

  5. Catherine Goodman permalink
    December 28, 2020

    Thank you GA , wonderful photographs and reflections,C

  6. Paul H permalink
    December 28, 2020

    Beautiful photographs – every person and building full of interest. Thank you for sharing.
    The changes from then to now seem so huge, in such a short time…

  7. Daniela Appignani Azzola permalink
    December 28, 2020

    How fascinating to suddenly discover people long gone staring back at us from antique pictures. At first glance, my mind registered the man in the first picture as being a painting hung in the shop window, complete with frame. And then pareidolia sets in and I can’t stop finding faces…

  8. December 28, 2020

    What an incredible London… Beautiful, haunting… With courtyards very similar to those in Spain. Totally unexpected. Thank you.

  9. Jude permalink
    December 28, 2020

    Pity the society didn’t manage to save the inn.
    Great photos. Particularly liked seeing the carved doorways. The upper walkways behind buildings….
    Lovely way to start my day, gazing at life in streets my ancestors would have known. Thank you

  10. December 28, 2020

    Wonderful set of photos as usual. Thanks to the photographers & to you. 2 things jump out. Since we are roughly in the era of Jack the Ripper usually photos associated with London at this time show teeming masses in what was allegedly the largest city on earth at the time & yet in these photos there are just a few people. It makes you think that Jack the Ripper photos are cherry picked to enhance the story. The other is regarding image 19 of Borough High St. which shows a shop owned by ‘Chaplin’. The location is about 1 mile from the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin born approx. 12 years after the photo was taken. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the shop was owned by a relation of Charlie’s. Great photos. Thanks.

  11. Richard Smith permalink
    December 28, 2020

    Absolutely fascinating GA, I enjoyed playing find the ‘ghosts’ and reveled in the detail of the buildings. Thank you for bringing the past back to life.

  12. paul loften permalink
    December 28, 2020

    Thank you for the wonderful photos of the ghosts of old London. They will one day come to haunt us for what we are turning it into.
    By the way, where can I get my hair brushed by steam power charge?

  13. December 28, 2020

    “Study the details of their world”……..Gladly.

    The intricacy of this series is almost mind-numbing, and makes my pulse race a bit. OK, I’m ready to explore. I pull up my chair, loop a hand around my fresh mug of coffee — and I travel down lanes, duck into doorways, try to keep my footing on extreme cobbles, squint into the sunlight as I study an upper window, inspect the oddball array at Chaplin & Co, listen intently to hushed conversations in a passageway, and scoot out of the way of a passing wagon. Of course after all that exploration, I’ll need to refresh myself at the pub.

    See you there.

  14. Lizebeth permalink
    December 28, 2020

    I echo the sentiments of an earlier person: I, too, have learned so much this year from your wonderful posts. The old photos are, for me, the best things, as they show me a London I would have loved to wander through — now, sadly, more and more of these neighbourhoods are being destroyed in the name of “progress”. Thank you so much for sharing, and for your wonderful writing.

  15. gkbowood permalink
    December 28, 2020

    Where are all the people?! At a time when London was teeming with people, additionally, most these photos are eerily void of the ever present carts and horses. Did the photographer ask them to keep out of the photos so he could just get the buildings? They are an excellent record of the sheer grubbiness of some of the buildings. These are real treasures.

  16. December 29, 2020

    Such wonderful photos…thanks for sharing. I’m in Canada, so can’t even visit modern London, let alone go to the archives that hold the older photos. Online photo archives (and those who highlight their holdings) are a huge boon to me.

    My maternal ancestors lived throughout London, from Bethnal Green, to Islington, from St Giles to Battersea, Tooting, and Wandsworth. London for me is definitely a haunted city and I hope at some time to visit it again.

  17. Pamela Traves permalink
    December 29, 2020

    Wonderful Vintage Pictures!! I have Enjoyed them Very Much!!????????

  18. January 7, 2021

    Isn’t The Old Bell still there? Or a pub of that name in Holborn

  19. March 30, 2021

    Thankyou GA, I am thrilled to bits with these pictures as my Nanna was born in Drury Lane in 1873, and you’ve given me a glimpse of her childhood world. She is now one of your ghosts and given her due respect.

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