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Charles Goss’ Vanishing City

January 6, 2024
by the gentle author

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Archivist Stefan Dickers will be giving a lecture at the Hanbury Hall in Spitalfields next Tuesday 9th January at 7pm entitled THE TREASURES OF THE BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTE. As well as its celebrated London photographic collection featured in these pages, the Bishopsgate Archive houses Britain’s largest LBTQ+ collection.

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Click here to book your ticket for THE TREASURES OF THE BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTE

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33 Lime St

A man gazed from the second floor window of 33 Lime St in the City of London on February 10th 1911 at an unknown photographer on the pavement below. He did not know the skinny man with the camera and wispy moustache was Charles Goss, archivist at the Bishopsgate Institute, who made it part of his work to record the transient city which surrounded him.

Around fifty albumen silver prints exist in the archive – from which these pictures are selected and published for the first time today – each annotated in Goss’ meticulous handwriting upon the reverse and most including the phrase “now demolished.” Two words that resonate through time like the tolling of a knell.

It was Charles Goss who laid the foundation of the London collection at the Institute, spending his days searching street markets, bookshops and sale rooms to acquire documentation of all kinds – from Cries of London prints to chapbooks, from street maps to tavern tokens – each manifesting different aspects of the history of the great city.

Such was his passion that more than once he was reprimanded by the governors for exceeding his acquisition budget and, such was his generosity, he gathered a private collection in parallel to the one at the library and bequeathed it to the Institute on his death. Collecting the city became Goss’ life and his modest script is to be discovered everywhere in the archive he created, just as his guiding intelligence is apparent in the selection of material that he chose to collect.

It is a logical progression from collecting documents to taking photographs as a means to record aspects of the changing world and maybe Goss was inspired by the¬†Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London in the eighteen-eighties, who set out to photograph historic buildings that were soon to be destroyed. Yet Goss’ choice of subject is intriguing, including as many shabby alleys and old yards as major thoroughfares with overtly significant edifices – and almost everything he photographed is gone now.

It is a curious side-effect of becoming immersed in the study of the past that the present day itself grows more transient and ephemeral once set against the perspective of history. In Goss’ mind, he was never merely taking photographs, he was capturing images as fleeting as ghosts, of subjects that were about to vanish from the world. The people in his pictures are not party to his internal drama yet their presence is even more fleeting than the buildings he was recording – like that unknown man gazing from that second floor window in Lime St on 10th February 1911.

To judge what of the present day might be of interest or importance to our successors is a subject of perennial fascination, and these subtle and melancholic photographs illustrate Charles Goss’ answer to that question.

14 Cullum St, 10th February 1910

3, 4 & 5 Fenchurch Buildings, Aldgate, 28th October 1911

71-75 Gracechurch St, 1910

Botolph’s Alley showing 7 Love Lane, 16th December 1911

6 Catherine Court looking east, 8th October 1911

Bury St looking east, 3rd July 1911

Corporation Chambers, Church Passage, Cripplegate, 31st January 1911 – now demolished

Fresh Wharf. Lower Thames St, 28th January 1912

Gravel Lane, looking south-west, 11th October 1910

1 Muscovy Court, 5th June 1911

3 New London St, 28th January 1912

4 Devonshire Sq

52 Gresham St, 17th September 1911

9-11 Honey Lane Market, Cheapside, 16th October 1910

Crutched Friars looking east from 37, 11th February 1911

Crutched Friars looking east, 28th October 1911

35 & 36 Crutched Friars, 28th January 1912

Yard of 36 Crutched Friars looking north, 11th February 1912

Yard of 36 Crutched Friars looking south, February 11th 1912

Old Broad St looking south, 24th July 1911

Charles Goss (1864-1946)

Photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

The Ghosts of Old London

A Room to Let in Old Aldgate

and see more of Goss’ photography

Charles Goss’ Photographs

Charles Goss’ Bishopsgate Photographs

One Response leave one →
  1. January 6, 2024

    These photos have survived very well and are a tribute to Mr Goss’s careful preservation of the views of London. I don’t know much about the photographic printing process but you wouldn’t think that albumen, as a natural protein, would survive for over a hundred years.
    I have inherited a whole bin bag full of old photographs from my parents. I need to sort through them all and see if there are any of historical significance. I have already had old cine film digitised that showed Venice, Cannes and Switzerland in the 1950s. As both of my parents worked in London – Mum in the City and Dad in Hackney Red, I may find some gems. Charles Goss was right, we do need to preserve images as part of our historical narrative. Excellent, thank you GA for the inspiration to rummage through the bin bag!

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