Time Travel Explorer Blog

Rediscovering London's Rookeries

by Peter Watts 24. September 2010 15:51

As Matt writes in the previous post, one of the great joys of old maps and the TTX app is that they give you the opportunity to virtually explore streets of London that no longer exist. These streets will have disappeared for all sorts of reasons – fire and Blitz being uppermost – but some will have been taken out for what can only be described as social cleansing.


These were the Rookeries, the slums of Victorian London, mazes of narrow streets, courts and alleyways that housed London’s poorest citizens. There were half-a-dozen in London, nests of poverty, crime and disease, where families slept ten to a room and criminals could evade police by simply knowing which alleyway to escape through and which cul-de-sac to avoid. For a good read on the Rookeries, try Sarah Wise’s ‘The Blackest Street’, about the Old Nichol slum in Bethnal Green.


Victorian planners decided the best way to deal with the Rookeries problem was to remove them from the face of London, and so set about an extensive road-building programme that simply drove huge new roads right through the middle of the worst Rookeries. One such scheme was in Bloomsbury and you can see how it worked by using the TTX app and switching between the modern map and the Greenwoods’ one of 1830, focusing on Tottenham Court Road station.


Here, between Great Russell Street and St Giles High Street, was one of the most infamous Rookeries, the St Giles’s Rookery, which the Victorians swept away by building New Oxford Street. Although the streets of the Rookery ceased to exist; the poor simply moved a little further south, to Seven Dials, so the Victorians tried it again by building Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue.


You can see slum clearance in action in other part of London using the TTX app. Try exploring the area around what is now Victoria Street for evidence of the Rookery around Westminster Abbey, or the junction of Aldwych and Kingsway, which was intended to destroy the Rookery around Hollywell Street, the centre of the Victorian trade in pornographic literature. Pornography, of course, was never sold on the streets of London again.

Ghost Streets of London: 1. Red Lion Square

by Matt Brown 21. September 2010 17:48

Perhaps the most addictive feature on the Time Travel Explorer app is the ability to effortlessly move between maps and time periods with the swipe of a slidebar. The maps are so well aligned that you can see immediately how street patterns have changed over the centuries. The effect really comes into its own with roads that have been erased from the map. In a series of posts, I'll use Time Travel Explorer (TTX) to seek out some of these vanished routes and look for any remnants. I suspect that London is crisscrossed with these ‘ghost streets' and that TTX is the perfect tool for hunting them. We'll start with Red Lion Square.

This diminutive rhomboid just north of High Holborn is among the more obscure of central London's squares. It's a little bit off the beaten track to be well-known, but packs plenty of history into its four sides. It was laid out in 1698, reportedly amid pitched battles between the builders and the neighbouring lawyers of Gray's Inn, who took umbrage at the new development. Over the centuries, it has been home to many distinguished people, from the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti to craftsman William Morris, to the populariser of the umbrella, Jonas Hanway.

Now, if we travel back in time, we can see several subtle differences. Sliding back to 1862, it's immediately clear that Orange Street, to the north-west, has now vanished. The street was swept away during the construction of Kingsway to the west. However, if you visit the site and look closely, where Central St Martin's meets the Cochrane theatre, you can see a remnant of the old street in the angle of the building. We've found our first ghost street!


Left: Modern map of Red Lion Square. Middle: The view in 1862. Right: A little to the east, focusing on Gray's Passage.

The other salient change to Red Lion Square is the absence of Red Lion Passage and it's continuation Gray's Passage in the modern map (see the south-east corner). This thoroughfare was obliterated in the aftermath of the Second World War, when new housing blocks were constructed. Once again, however, the changes reflected in the maps of TTX London can also be seen on the streets (or in Google Street View). Head to the Old Nick pub on Sandiland Street and note the way the building curves into the block, following the old alignment of the vanished Gray's Passage. The second phantom debouchment of Red Lion Square.

The curve of the Old Nick pub recalls the location of the vanished Gray's Passage.

I'd be interested to hear of other examples of these ‘ghost streets' - long missing from the maps, but still detectable if you know where to look. TTX London is the perfect tool for hunting these remnants, and I'll be exploring a few more with future posts.


Maps: they are what you make them

by Peter Watts 15. September 2010 10:47

One of the first things you learn when you start to take a more than passing interest in cartography is that maps are about much more than mere geography. Every mapmaker has to make a decision about what to include and what to leave out, making each map a subjective view of what the cartographer considers important.


For an idea of how this works, think about drawing a map of your home area (and see Londonist's gallery for examples). Do you show pubs? Cinemas? Museums? Churches? Schools? Do private roads get included? What about those go-nowhere roads that are in housing estates? Where do you choose to place your boundary? Do you show bus stops? Shops? Restaurants and takeaways? Alleyways? Public toilets? Every decision you make reflects your own interests, what you consider to be important and the information you feel needs to be passed on. It isn’t any different for the pros (or the people who financially backed them).


Take John Rocque, for instance. His elegant map of 1746 (available on the TTX app) was made to reflect ‘the view of his middle and upper class contemporaries – that their London was the new Rome... In such maps, there was no room for the poor, the danger, sickness and grime that is the focus of much contemporary writing about London.’ (‘Mapping London’ by Simon Foxall.)


Even Edward Stanford’s map of 1862 (also available on the TTX app), which is considered to be one of the more politically neutral maps available as it does not exaggerate particular features or types of information, makes a pretty bold statement by ignoring the entire Isle of Dogs, deeming it not central enough for his tastes despite the importance of the docks at the time to the London economy. Even today, generations of South Londoners are treated the same way by cartographers who insist that London stops at the Thames.

Free Time Travel walk around Westminster - Saturday 18th September

by Bill Visick 14. September 2010 12:13

To celebrate the launch of Time Travel Explorer in the Apple app store, join us for a 2 hour guided walk around Westminster including the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Whitehall.

  • Explore the origins of "the Minster in the West" and see how it is linked to the City of London
  • Experience the way in which the area has developed over the centuries - and what still remains of the original buildings
  • Travel through time using old maps on your iDevice

Tour provided by Sue Mayne, certified Blue Badge Guide

Meet at 10:00 on Saturday 18th. underneath Big Ben, opposite Westminster tube station.

IPhone not necessary, but if you have one make sure you've installed the app - Time Travel Explorer - Pro version recommended, low launch price still maintained.

Please register here to confirm your attendance, places are limited and there is lots of interest


Old-school Mapping At Stanfords

by Matt Brown 10. September 2010 15:41

GPS, the Internet and hand-held devices have revolutionised the way we use maps. If you've already downloaded Time Travel Explorer, you'll be more than aware of the possibilities that digital technologies have opened up for the map fiend. Sometimes, though, nothing beats the experience of pouring over a crisp paper copy. If you want to get your hands on some original cartography, I can recommend one house of charts above all others: Stanfords.

This topping shop in Covent Garden specialises in maps, atlases and travel guides of all kinds, proudly claiming the distinction of ‘world's largest stock of maps and travel books under one roof'. But don't take my word for its charms; ask Mr Sherlock Holmes. The savy detective knew a thing or two about cartography, and relied on the shop for an Ordnance map of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles (although Watson mistakenly records the name as Stamford's).

The shop predates even Holmes by several decades. Edward Stanford (1827-1904) learnt his trade as assistant and later partner to map seller Trelawney Saunders at number 6 Charing Cross, a short stroll away on what is now Whitehall. The company fragmented in 1853, and Stanford took on sole ownership, putting his name above the door. The resourceful young man, still in his mid-20s, capitalised on Britain's imperial expansions with his own spot of empire building. He acquired neighbouring properties and set to work commissioning new and detailed maps of every corner of the globe. In 1873, a printing works was purchased on Long Acre, later to become the headquarters of the company that I and thousands of other Londoners know and love to this day.

One of Stanfords' most successful works was the 1862 Library Map of London, widely hailed as the most accurate of the time (you can see just how clear it is by opening the Time Travel Explorer - it's one of the featured maps). The business also provided charts for the Cabinet War Rooms, to help Churchill plot his way to victory in the Second World War. At the other extreme, Stanfords also produced tiny toy atlases to populate Queen Mary's dolls' house. I noticed that one such example is on display at the current Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library, right alongside the world's largest atlas. (I also recommend tracking down the fabulous dolls' house, on permanent exhibition at Windsor Castle.)

Stanfords remained in family hands until 1947, when it was sold to George Philip & Son. It has since de-merged to once again trade under its famous old name. Make sure you pop inside next time you're in the area.

Stanfords can be found at 12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden. A more detailed history can be read on Stanfords' own site.