Book review: Lost London, 1870-1945

I’ve had my eye on this weighty volume from English Heritage for a long time, and was delighted to find it on sale in Blackwell’s for £20 reduced from £30 (it’s also available on Amazon for the same price). Having seized this excellent bargain, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every last fascinating page.

Lost London is a collection of incredible photos of London taken between 1870 and 1945, which all come from an archive held by English Heritage. I actually collect old photographs myself, so the subject matter is naturally of interest to me, but this informative book also taught me an awful lot that I didn’t know about London in days gone by.

I had rather expected that the devastation of Second World War bombing would be the dominant theme of the book, but in fact only the last (comparatively short) chapter concentrated on that dark chapter in London’s history. The insight these photos give into what London was like during the war is truly eye-opening and horrifying. Though many of the photos in the collection from this period show churches, because these were deemed the most architecturally significant and therefore worth recording, the photos are a vivid reminder of the extent of the bomb damage: scarcely a building in the photos from this period has survived unscathed, and even those left standing have windows blown out. It’s a terrifying thought.

But the war wasn’t the only thing responsible for the destruction of vast numbers of London’s historic buildings: many were purposefully demolished long before the Luftwaffe struck, to make way for road widening and that sort of thing. Even after the war, buildings that could have been refurbished were knocked down to make way for new housing that would aim to eradicate the terrible poverty that had characterised large swathes of London for decades. These were the days before people were concerned about conservation, and a great many remarkable buildings surviving from as far back as before the Great Fire have been lost.

Many of the photos in Lost London depict buildings on the verge of demolition, their interiors stripped and awaiting their fate. As one might expect, some of the ill-fated buildings in these photographs were grand houses; with fortunes changing after the First World War and the subsequent decline of the traditional aristocratic lifestyle brought about by the blurring of class boundaries during the war, many stately homes were destined to be demolished. One picture in the book shows one such house with objects such as mirrors laid out along the centre of the room ready for auctioning off.

Other buildings, now lost, were of great historical interest; for instance the premises of Edgington & Co Ltd in Bermondsey, a local landmark for the mural over its entrance. Edgington’s was a supplier of tents, awnings and sails, and included among its illustrious portfolio the flags for HMS Victory and tents for David Livingstone and Scott’s Antarctic expedition. It was demolished in 1967. Such a pity. Another fascinating image shows an old coaching inn, now lost, once frequented by the likes of Dickens.

Lost London gives a good sense of how London used to look and provides fascinating glimpses into the past. For instance, I had no idea that weatherboarded buildings were so common, nor that buildings in narrow streets often had mirrors mounted off them to reflect light into rooms – an ingenious way of combatting the gloom of narrow alleyways. I’d never have imagined that some of the worst poverty in the city could be found in one of its wealthiest areas, Westminster, nor that astonishingly rural scenes could be found in London. These were the result of surviving buildings from smaller villages being swallowed up by relentless urban sprawl. Peckham was one such village, and one particularly interesting photograph shows a farmhouse that survived as a reminder of Peckham’s rural roots. That too was demolished, and how very different the scene is today.

It is the people as much as the buildings that contribute to the immense interest of these photographs, both those in which people are posing and those depicting people going about their everyday lives. In many cases the photographer has attracted a significant level of interest, and in addition to the groups of people posing for the camera, faces can be seen leaning out of windows watching what’s going on. It’s hard to believe how different life is a hundred years later, when everyone has a mobile phone and every mobile phone has a camera.

This collection of photographs is astonishingly atmospheric and in many cases deeply poignant. The one that stands out most in my mind shows three boys from the East End, a notorious hotspot of crime and poverty, two of whom are so poor that they are barefoot. This is the London that Dickens would have known, and such images bring his street urchins vividly to life. Images of such abject poverty are a stark reminder that while there is much that we might mourn the loss of in the way of historic buildings, the changes to London since these moments were captured have not all been for the worse.

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