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The Nights Of Old London

November 7, 2021
by the gentle author

The nights are drawing in 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 into the dark in search of the 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

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Herry Lawford permalink
    November 7, 2021

    Magic. More superb night photography and a beautifully written coda. It illustrates too how over-bright and garish most of our images now are as the near-ubiquitous use of mobile phones with their extreme light-gathering capability destroys the shadows and dark places, and the illumination that comes from things half-seen.

  2. November 7, 2021

    Wonderful images

  3. November 7, 2021

    It is probably an incontrovertible fact: analogue photography has made us perceive things quite differently, more sensitively, than “smartphones” ever could.

    Love & Peace

  4. November 7, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, kudos to Bishopgate Institute for preserving these marvelous images and to you for presenting them to your many readers. Gorgeous pics!

  5. RogerB permalink
    November 7, 2021

    Splendid! And the streetscapes so free from modern clutter.

  6. Mark permalink
    November 7, 2021

    Atmospheric compositions.
    Can’t help looking at the Trafalgar square one and re-imagining myself back on the fourth plinth during Antony Gormleys art installation during 2009. I sttod on it in the middle of the night. It was astounding and a great wave of history swept over me as I looked around the blackened night and recalled the great events that had taken place at this place. Viva Chavez!

  7. Saba permalink
    November 7, 2021

    GA, this article — especially the second paragraph — especially”where old London has become an apparition that coalesced out of the fog.” WOW!

  8. paul loften permalink
    November 7, 2021

    Wonderful haunting images of the other side of London’s midnight . What went on behind the closed doors? Only the generations of workers who kept things going at night could tell you. Their story is told by the Gentle Author in bringing us these photos .

  9. Geri CAruso permalink
    November 7, 2021

    Do you know if it is possible to get prints of these or of some of them?

  10. David Walsh permalink
    November 7, 2021

    And seemingly, it rains perpetually according to the lustre of the pavements.

  11. Joan Isaac permalink
    November 7, 2021

    Superb photos and such evocative writing – thank you yet again dear Gentle Author

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