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Time Travel Explorer Blog

London's first lido

by Peter Watts 15. March 2011 11:43

Just behind Moorfields Eye Hospital off City Road is one of those London streets with an intriguing name. It's called Peerless Street, and a clue to the origin of its name actually lies in the name of one of the streets it ajoins - Bath Street. For here in Clerkenwell, just north of Bunhill Fields and adjacent to the unmappable confusions of Old Street roundabout, sat London's first public swimming pool.

The Peerless Pool opened in 1743 and can be seen in tremendous detail on our first Time Travel Explorer map of 1746.

This was the first open air pool in London for 'all gentlemen lovers of swimming and bathing'. It was fed by a nearby spring but there was a problem. The pond had been known as 'Perilous Pond' for three hundred years thanks to the number of people that had drowned there. However, a jeweler called William Kemp was not concerned. He converted the pond into a pool 170 feet long and 50 feet wide, filled the bottom with gravel and, in a stroke of marketing geniusm renamed it Peerless Pool.

The pool was advertised as a 'place where gentlemen could without danger learn to swim' and was a great success, surviving for more than 100 years.

Here it is in 1799, almost unchanged although with encroaching buildings hinting at what was to come. The pool is actually the body of water on the right with the distinctive semi-circular knob on the end; the water marked as the pool was a fish pond (as seen in the more accurate 1746 map) filled with carp and tench for anglers. The area also had a bowling green and dressing rooms.

By 1830, things were starting to change. Joseph Watts took over the pool and built Baldwin Street over the fishpond. However, Peerless Pool was still in regular use, even if it was now increasingly hemmed in.

Onward to 1862 and it's just hanging on, although its days are clearly numbered. Whereas the map of 1746 had shown Peerless Pool as a bucolic spot in the countryside with barely a house or road in sight, the view from poolside in 1862 is very different: streets and houses are all around; to the south looms St Luke's Hospital For Lunatics and the bowling green is now covered by almhouses. 

Which brings us today and those suddenly tell-tale names, Peerless Street and Bath Street, all we have remaining of what can rightly be considered London's first lido.

The Aylesbury Estate: Walworth in maps

by Peter Watts 9. March 2011 14:02

 

This is the Aylesbury Estate, a vast block of concrete that was plonked down in Walworth, near Elephant and Castle, between 1967 and 1977 as part of an extraordinary plan to revolutionise and regenerate working-class living in South London. The idea was that the Aylesbury, the largest estate in Europe, would link up with the Elmington Estate in Camberwell and the North Peckham Estate by overhead pedestrian walkways that meant Londoners could travel three miles across South London without touching the ground. Needless to say, this utopian dream never quite came off and the Aylesbury has come to be seen as emblematic of the worst kind of post-war planning. It is currently scheduled for a second round of 'regeneration', which will began with its demolition.

The building of the Aylesbury in Walworth was controversial even at the time. It took over a site of 285,000 square metres previously occupied by the sort of ramshackle Victorian terraces you can find all round inner London. Here is the site in 1830, when Walworth was well on the way to expansion. 

The site of the Aylesbury is just north of the main street along at the bottom, Albany Road. This looks like a fairly uncluttered area, but it was already much more heavily populated than much of the rest of South London - which is why the 1830 map reaches this far south. This population growth had occured in a relatively brief space of time. Here's the same site (or slightly to the north, anyway) in 1746, when it was all fields.

And here it is now. It's easy to see the appeal of high-rise housing when looking at maps, as it shows how you can cram a huge number of people into a relatively small footprint. The Aylesbury was big enough to contain 10,000 people. The population of Walworth had grown from 15,000 in 1801 to 122,000 in 1901, but by the 1970s had decreased to around 30,000 - so around a third of the area's residents were expected to live on the Aylesbury.

Burgess Park just to the south of the Aylesbury was a relatively late arrival to an area that was famously bereft of green spaces. It was partly reclaimed from housing in the 1970s, but the bulk is built over the old basin for the Grand Surrey Canal, which went from Bermondsey to Camberwell and was concreted over in the 1970s. There's a bridge in the middle of the park that once spanned the canal but now goes to nowhere.

In Michael Collins's excellent book, 'The Likes Of Us', about the working-class population of Southwark, the author wrote of how his family narrowly escaped being rehoused in the Aylesbury, having moved from the regeneration area shortly before construction began. The settled instead in one of Walworth's few remaining Victorian streets and observed the changes taking place around them: 'The Street began to represent both a haven and a time capsule harbouring the rituals, the routines, the culture that had been the lifeblood of the neighbourhood and the area at large for so long. As the walls came tumbling down all around, as rubble settled and dust rose, it was as though the time capsule itself was being buried underground. But the future would have to wait, whether it was housing estates as wide as their accompanying tower blocks were tall, or the influx of interlopers. Homes, heritage, homogeneity, the holy trinity of the neighbourhood and the wider community, were the territory that was now being protected, defended even.'

London's Lost Map

by Matt Brown 8. March 2011 19:54

The very first detailed map of London is also the most mysterious. The so-called 'Copperplate map' dates back to the 1550s, and the time of Queen 'Bloody' Mary. It's a work of beauty, showing buildings, field partitions, and miniature characters going about their Tudory business. Some shoot arrows in Moorfields, others hang clothes to dry on tenter hooks.

Sadly, only three panels from the map are known, and 12 are missing. You can view two of the panels at the Museum of London, while the third (only discovered around a decade ago) is held by the Dessau Art Gallery. However, a slightly later woodcut map survives, and is thought to derive from the copper plate map.

An excellent documentary about the map is available on BBC iPlayer (for UK licence payers only), and I urge you to listen before it goes away. Towards the end, the programme speculates about the existence of the remaining panels. If you happen to have an old painting of the Tower of Babel laying around, you might want to take it out of its frame and inspect the back.

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