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The Ghosts Of Old London

December 26, 2023
by the gentle author



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Click to enlarge this photograph

To dispel my disappointment that I cannot rent that Room to Let in Old Aldgate, I find myself returning to scrutinise 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 lens, 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 Paul’s 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 courtesy 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

7 Responses leave one →
  1. December 26, 2023

    These are wonderful old photographs. I am fortunate to have electronic copies of some of my family who have gone before. The photos here are to capture the landscape, much as I do when I photograph London using my phone camera. The old photos that I have catalogued, make the people the subject and the setting inconsequential. My father talked me through the stories of every guest in a family wedding photo from about a hundred years ago, my maternal grandfather smiles proudly in his little cafe, the neatly organised bottles of Tizer on the shelf behind his head and freshly cooked sausage rolls, now well past their sell buy date, on the counter. They are such precious possessions to me.
    It is wonderful that we have photographic evidence of Old London to help those if us with active imaginations to make those people the subject and build their stories. They certainly conjure a Dickensian scene where Scrooge may have taken his dinner or Bill Sykes skulked around accompanied by his dog. Magnificent! Thank you GA.

  2. Su Mason permalink
    December 26, 2023

    Such interesting pictures. What is the history behind The Palace of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey?

  3. park town permalink
    December 26, 2023

    I spy Light Reflectors in Friday Street,

  4. December 26, 2023

    The little girl, standing tentatively at the balcony at the Oxford Arms? — Did you notice her? Her white pinafore drew my eye to her, and now I can’t stop speculating. I imagine her hand resting on the worn craggy railing, feeling the damp splintered surface — then pulling back, to keep herself tidy. She and her mother are going out to make calls, and she has to remain clean and pressed. The boys languishing in the passageway make little snorts, mischievous calls, and entreaties. Normally she would run down and join them — but not today. Her mother will call to her any minute.
    No, I was wrong. I looked again, and now the neatly pressed pinafore looks like a stained apron. Her hair is uncombed. Her chin is lowered. Forgotten shrouds of laundry hang nearby. She looks down to the courtyard, noticing the tossed uneven stones, clods of earth, discarded papers, and open wicker baskets of rags. All familiar sights from her place on the balcony.

    Thank you for the time travel, GA.

  5. Cherub permalink
    December 26, 2023

    There is an air of creepiness to these photos, makes me think of A Ghost Story for Christmas on the BBC. The ones from my childhood in the early 70s still frighten me to this day and I am in my early 60s now.

  6. Neil Bartlett permalink
    December 26, 2023

    The photo of shops on Borough High Street includes a business called Chaplins. Surely they must have been related to Charlie who is thought to have been born in East Street Walworth, not too far away. My grandfather was at school with Charlie Chaplin.

  7. Bernie permalink
    December 26, 2023

    Does anyone know what provides the finish of many (most?) of the walls seen in these images.
    It is some kind of render, perhaps cement, but quite probably not. If not cement, what is it likely to be?

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