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Time Travel Explorer Blog

The Polygon: where has it gone?

by Peter Watts 19. April 2011 13:52

What's the Polygon?, somebody asked me, the other day.

I had no idea.

It's marked on old maps next to Euston Station, they said.

So it is. Look.

In 1799, it stands almost alone at the edge of London, a distinctive shape surrounded by half-built streets and fields.

By 1830, London has appeared around it and the Polygon's distintive shape now sits in Clarendon Square. The empty land just to the left is Rhode's Farm. It will very soon disappear beneath Euston station, one of the many stations to appear along an east-west axis in this part of north London, transforming the area for ever,

In 1862, the unmistakable shape of the Polygon now sits next to the red lines of Euston. Its presence already seems to give Somers Town a new, cramped, more uncomfortable atmosphere.

And now? Like so much of London, all that remains of the Polygon is its name, preserved in memory by Polygon Road. The building itself has disappeared beneath the gargantuan Somers Town estate - one of a string of council estates to be constructed in this hinterland land north of the Marylebone/Euston Road that collectively form the largest estate in Europe.

So what was the Polygon? Was it a theatre? A police station? Some futuristic entertainment palace for Georgian Londoners?

Fittingly for Somers Town, the Polygon was a housing estate, a Georgian building with 15 sides and three storeys that contained 32 houses. It was demolished in the 1890s, by which time Somers Town had become a cheap and run-down neighbourhood, almost entirely because of its location. Railways were loud and smelly places, and they depended upon cheap labour - and that combination was a killer for an area's aspirations.

Two of the most famous residents of the Polygon were William Godwin and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Another former Polygoner was Charles Dickens, who lived at No 17 in the 1820s shortly after his father, John Dickens, was released from debtors prison. Dickens later made the Polygon a home for his 'Bleak House' character Harold Skimpole, and he in turn may well have been modelled on Godwin. 

Mapping street names: knaves, brewers, Gazza and kebabs

by Peter Watts 14. April 2011 16:03

London's street names are changing all the time. To take one example, let's look at a single street in Soho.

On John Rocque's map of 1746 it is marked quite clearly as Knaves Acre. What a fantastic name!

It is at the eastern end of Brewer Street and leads on to what is marked Old Soho Street but is now Wardour Street. Brewer Street itself was originally known as Wells Street, but was renamed after two breweries - Thomas Ayres and Henry Davis - opened there in the 1700s.

In John Strype's survey of London in 1720, he writes: 'This Knaves Acre is but narrow, and chiefly inhabited by those that deal in old Goods, and Glass Bottles.'

A name as fine as this was sadly never going to last, and by 1799, Knaves Acre had formally been renamed the far more sober and less interesting Little Pulteney Street.

Pulteney was Sir William Pulteney, a landowner who had purchased the estate in the 1660s. It was named Little Pulteney Street to differentiate it from the nearby Great Pulteney Street, then as now a nondescript street in the unfashionable end of Soho.

It remained Little Pulteney Street for a long time after: here it is seen as such in both 1830 and 1862.

 

But at some point thereafter - most likely between the wars - a decision was made to simplify London streetnames, and dozens of Littles disappeared forever. This website chronicles the vast number of lost street names we have in London. Now Knaves Acre/Little Pulteney Street is simply Brewer Street, its proud history as a place where people dealt in bottles all but wiped from the memory.

Or is it?

Rather wonderfully, it was at this exact end of Brewer Street - at No 4 in fact - that Paul Gascoigne purchased London's most infamous kebab in 1998. It was 3am, he was tired, emotional and with Chris Evans and Danny Baker, and he never played for England again.

Once a Knaves Acre, always a Knaves Acre.

Mapping Museumland: London's forgotten exhibition.

by Peter Watts 8. April 2011 09:28

We now take the cluster of museums in South Kensington - the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the V&A - somewhat for granted, but they are all relatively recent additions to the London landscape. Here's that part of London as recently as 1830, when there was very little sign of inhabitation in the area south of Hyde Park. Brompton was best known for its market gardens and nurseries - you can see them marked on the map below - and these had a reptutation that made them known across Europe. These had been established in the 1600s, but were not to be around for much longer.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition opened on the site, transforming this hitherto quiet corner of London. When the Crystal Palace was take down and moved to Sydenham, it was almost immediately followed in 1862 by the International Exhibition. That is the structure that dominates the Stanford map of the same year.

Sometimes described as the 'forgotten exhibition', this covered a site of 23 acres - four times larger than the Great Exhibition - and almost six million people came to see a curious collection of objects housed in a huge domed building. Exhibits included telescopes, organs, lighthouses, obelisks, pickles, furs, dolls and statues. Also on view was the groundbreaking 'folding furniture' - a bed, six chairs, armchair, two sofas and gaming table that could somehow fit inside two wardrobes.

The building was meant to be permanent, but was pulled down at the end of the decade as the government baulked at the cost of preservation and decided the site would make an ideal location for the Natural History Museum, which at the time was crammed into the British Museum. Part of the fabric was taken away and used in the construction of Alexandra Palace.

Alongside the International Exhibition site you can see the South Kensington Museum, which had opened in 1857. Built by William Cubbitt, this was nicknamed the 'Brompton Boiler', in reference to its utilitarian design of long galleries covered by corrugated iron. Housed in these factory-like conditions were a variety of competing museums - the Museum of Manufacture, the Museum of Construction, the Museum of Animal Products, the Food Museum, the Education Museum, the Economica Museum, the Museum of Oriental Art and the Museum of Patents. These were eventually pulled down in 1889 when the V&A was constructed, and the Brompton Boilers were taken to Bethnal Green and re-erected, now covered in bricks, as the Museum of Childhood. The contents of the Brompton Boilers were divided between the V&A, the Science Museum (1913) and the Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881.

Which brings us to South Kensington as it is today.