Skip to content

A Room To Let In Old Aldgate

December 29, 2022
by the gentle author

All our books are on sale at half price until New Year and we are including a free copy of THE MAP OF THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS with every order. Simply add the code BOXINGDAYSALE at checkout to get 50% discount.




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 scrutinise 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 December 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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Bill permalink
    December 29, 2022

    Thank you, once again. I googled Charterhouse and was happy to find it -or parts of it?- still stand.
    Shocking they would have demolished a Jones house, so -uncaring.

  2. Mark permalink
    December 29, 2022

    What great photographs and a lovely right up.
    Untold damage done when those lovely building’s were “Destroyed”

    St Marys Ovaries… I worked in one of the old wear houses there in 1973.

    Thank you.

  3. Jane permalink
    December 29, 2022

    I’ll never tire of waking up to all that GA brings forth from the BI Archives 🙂

    The City Bicycle School of the 1870s (image 2) would seem to have been a particularly pioneering enterprise that would be much valued in the Aldgate of today, 150 years later.

    Meanwhile, south of the river, the King’s Head Yard — the third of GA;s “Inn Yard” images, and one of the most historic ‘Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens’ coaching inn yards leading off Borough High Street, itself one of London’s oldest streets, first formally laid out 2,000 years ago by the Romans.

    On a scale equivalent to that closer to home in Spitalfields the battle against heritage destruction continues.

    Earlier this summer yet another Planning Inspector intervention, with ‘newly arrived’ Great Portland Estates (GPE) and their architects of choice AHMM having been trying since 2018 to site a 146m high tower within the Yard, i.e 37 storeys in 4-5 storey conservation area context) including the removal of the backs of the Georgian terrace that defines the western end of St Thomas Street, and (suitably objective reporting from”Intelligence for Architects”) “The Italianate façade of Keats House would be taken down from its present location on St Thomas Street and reassembled 2.7m to the west as the frontage of a new building to be delivered as part of the redevelopment.”

    “Historic England “strongly objects” […] the “greatest harm” [..] would come from [the proposed building’s] “profound impact” on the special character and appearance of the Borough High Street Conservation Area, inside which the development site is located. […] “severe harm” to a range of designated heritage assets, most notably Guy’s Hospital but also including Southwark Cathedral.”

    GPE have been unwilling to back down in the face of the local council refusing to even determine the Application, and so, as with developers elsewhere, GPE decided that Lockdown provided the ‘cover’ they needed to seek a favourable response from Central Government, After all to GPE’s mind and game plan, they’ve now also submitted a separate, alternative 103m high proposal that is (only now) 26-storey “plus mezzanine”. And whether 37 or 26+ storeys “The project seeks to enhance the area of Southwark around London Bridge station, St Thomas Street and Borough High Street by regenerating the under utilised historic yards to provide generous and accessible new public spaces, connect retail routes, and retain and restore built heritage on site.”…

    Once again, it’s the ‘learned people’ of King’s College London who are implicated and indeed ‘front and centre’ in this desecration of the historic streetscape… King’s having already demolished, in the last 5 years, a little further up the street, the oldest extant 18th-century merchant house irrespective the site’s Historic England Grade-II listing. Only to put in its place and that of its adjoining ‘Pilgrim’s Way’ historic yard (Spur Inn and Nag’s Head) a crassly designed Tesco and Premier Inn, that may or may not have an expected life of 30 or so years, certainly not the 300 years achieved by the retail facility and lodgings they replaced…

    London and UK readers would be right in seeing this as the ‘Argos-ification of architecture’

  4. Debra. E. Sewell permalink
    December 29, 2022

    I am amazed at some of the tall very close together buildings, thinking How did they (in those days) ever shingle a roof. !?!!?? no room to work . how did they get a ladder there and to lug up shingles !!!!

    amazing photos. Sad to know some building were destroyed in the name of progress.

    thank you for these.


  5. Karen permalink
    December 29, 2022

    Thank you so much for this article

  6. Saba permalink
    December 29, 2022

    I, too, was interested in the bicycle school. English gardens and going outdoors to enjoy them grew in popularity from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Outdoor walking, previously relegated to those who could not afford carriages, predated the bicycle. The Romantic poets, leisure time for some created by the industrial revolution, and the arrival of new plants from the colonies augmented a newfound love of the outdoors.

    Then — yeeks! — women took up the bicycle, some even wearing baggy trousers. So, I imagine the people at the bicycle school, wavering along these dark streets while learning the new skill of staying upright. Such fun. GA, if you come across posts of women on bicycles or people learning to ride, that would make a great post.

  7. Lizebeth permalink
    December 29, 2022

    Oh, I am sad to hear of yet another brutal development scheme. How can we work against it?
    There seems to be no education of government officials these days as to the priceless heritage they are in the process of destroying, in the name of what? A Premier Inn? I hope someone is documenting these ancient buildings in the fashion of earlier times, so we can at least see and remember our city as it was — but this is small comfort.

    I think anyone elected or appointed to a London Board of any kind should have a compulsory course in architectural and social heritage. Perhaps then money wouldn’t count for ALL?

    Thank you, G.A., for sharing these marvellous photos. Would that we could go back and walk there for just one day.

  8. Jill permalink
    December 30, 2022

    As always – Great article and, never to be missed, fascinating comments thoughts and ideas from readers.
    Happy new year one and all.

  9. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 19, 2023

    Thank you yet again, for taking us back in time. I yearn to wander past, stopping to explore whenever I feel the need to learn more

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS