Time Travel Explorer Blog

The Mysterious Mound of Shoreditch

by Matt Brown 24. December 2011 12:22

Shoreditch, 1746, and the area that would later become the junction of Curtain Road and Great Eastern Street. Neither are yet present in this view. London's centre of creativity, digital culture and all things cool was, back then, characterised by orchards, courtyards and open fields.

And a giant, mysterious mound.

The origins of the so-called Holy-Well Mount are uncertain. It takes its name, as so many features on this early map, from a 'holy well', source of water for the medieval Holywell Priory founded (probably) in the 12th Century and swept away during the Reformation. The only other online representation of the mount is an etching of burials on the site during the plague of 1665. According to an archaeological survey (PDF) by Museum of London Archaeology, the mound is either a defensive feature from the English Civil Wars, or an artificial hill created from eariler plague burials. No one is sure. 

What we do know is that the mound did not survive for long beyond the time of this map. It was cleared away in 1787 after becoming a notorious site for robberies and rapes. A later chart from 1799, available in Time Travel Explorer, shows that the hill has been cleared and its site taken up by housing. 

Today, the spot is occupied by artists studios and a particularly friendly branch of Pizza Express. While there's no obvious mound, a slight gradient can still be perceived in these backstreets.

Explore for yourself by downloading Time Travel Explorer for iPhone or iPad.

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.


Mapping Jack the Ripper: 3. Elizabeth Stride and Berner Street

by Matt Brown 11. February 2011 10:59

The third 'canonical' victim of Jack the Ripper, Elizabeth Stride, was found with her throat cut in a yard off Berner Street, south of Commercial Road, on 30 September 1888. The body was discovered still oozing blood - the Ripper had almost been caught in the act.

As with other posts in this series, I won't dwell on the circumstances surrounding her death, as the internet is already full of such accounts. Instead, this post will look at how the area around the site has developed over the centuries, using the Time Travel Explorer app.



The two earliest views, 1749  and 1799, show the area as undeveloped. Commercial Road, to the north, was not constructed until the early 19th Century, although a similar east-west track (White Horse Lane) is in existence. The murder site sits on the boundary of two parcels of land. In the earlier view, farmland or orchards lay to the north while pasture land is to the south. A few cottages and farm buildings can be found nearby on Church Lane.


Stride forward, if you'll excuse the pun, thirty years and we see a very different picture. Commercial Road has been constructed, linking the docks to the City, and with it came countless streets of houses and tenements. For a shocking account of life in these slums at the turn of the 20th Century, I recommend Jack London's The People of the Abyss.

Elizabeth Stride, like most prostitutes, was a denizen of these mean streets and lived in the notorious criminal rookery of Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields at the time of her death. The place where she met her end, off Berners Street and known as Dutfield's Yard, is indicated by the red dots. The yard is not labelled as such in any of the views, but you can see what a warren of passages and service spaces the area supported. Happy hunting ground for a knife-wielding man of shadows.

Today, Berners Street is known as Henriques Street after philanthropist Basil Henriques. The yard is long gone, although its location was photographed before development. An image of the site today can be found here.

Previously: Annie Chapman, Mary Ann Nichols

Mapping Jack the Ripper: 2. Annie Chapman and Hanbury Street

by Matt Brown 28. January 2011 09:48

The second in a series looking at the changing street patterns around the Jack the Ripper murder sites.

Previously, I explored how the neighbourhood around Whitechapel Road changed before and after the murder on Durward Street of Mary Ann Nichols, the first Ripper victim. Today, I visit perhaps the most familiar of the murder scenes - Hanbury Street - where prostitute Annie Chapman met her end a few days after Nichols.

Today, the area is a bustling hive of activity, as the trendy set make their way among the various shops and venues of Spitalfields and Brick Lane. At the time of the Ripper, the neighbourhood would have been greatly impoverished. Many of the houses from that period remain in the streets south of Hanbury, although the murder site itself is now dominated by an unattractive car park building from the 1970s. However, an eerie record of the fatal back yard can be found on the excellent short film The London Nobody Knows, in which James Mason visits the soon to be demolished property in 1969.

But what can we learn about the location from maps? Booting up Time Travel Explorer lets us view these streets in five different periods.


Area around Hanbury Street in 1746 (left), 1799 (middle) and 1830 (right). Use the app to zoom in for more detail.

The first thing to note is the name. For much of its history, Hanbury Street was known as Brown's (or Browne's) Lane, after the original developer of the 17th Century. By 1746, the area is densely built up. A strong Gallic influence can be seen in the map, reflecting the neighbourhoods large Huguenot population, many of whom were silk weavers. The French Charity House, for example, stands roughly where you might find the All Saints store today. A French chapel can also be seen just south of Browns Lane. What would become the murder site stands almost opposite, in Black Swan Yard.

The remaining two maps shown above (1799 and 1830) reveal little else about the area, other than the growing influence and spread of the brewery, which came to dominate the area. Its buildings, although now used for other things, are still a prominent feature of Spitalfields.


Hanbury Street area in 1862 (left) and today (right).

Moving forward a half century and we note Commercial Street for the first time. It was cut through Whitechapel and Spitalfields in 1843-45 in order to clear slum property and better connect the two markets. The 1862 map shows how the Truman Hanbury Buxton brewery has now spread to cover several blocks. The French Chapel is now labelled up as a Wesleyan chapel, reflecting the area's ongoing non-conformist character. The map does not show the murder site in any detail, but the house (number 29) would have been in place by this time. Four years before the crime, a shelter for women was set up on Hanbury Street by Florence Soper, daughter-in-law of Salvation Army founder William Booth, offering a means to survive without resorting to prostitution. Sadly, its facilities did not prevent Annie Chapman from meeting her destiny on 8 September 1888.

Travelling Through Time: Elephant and Castle

by Matt Brown 6. January 2011 11:47

No one knows for sure how Elephant and Castle got its curious appellation. The favoured explanation traces the name back to a local coaching inn owned by a cutler, whose guild arms include an elephant with a castle on its back. In turn, this emblem may be a rebus for ‘la Infanta de Castilla', any of a number of Spanish princesses who married into the English royal family in Medieval times. But it's all a bit vague and uncertain.

What is certain is that this busy junction has a long and fascinating history. As the site prepares for its latest transformation - a major redevelopment bringing new homes, shops and green spaces to the area - we can look back with Time Travel Explorer at previous incarnations.

The earliest record of settlement comes from the 13th Century, when the area was known as Newington. It remained a small village for the next few hundred years. If we go back to the earliest map on Time Travel Exploere (1746) the area appears semi-rural, with enclosed fields to the west and cultivated land to the east. Many of the major roads we know today are already present. Note the prominent triangle of land between the road known as Newington Butts and what we now call the Walworth Road. This precursor to the modern roundabouts is thought to be the ‘butt' in Newington Butts, as the word often refers to a miscellaneous corner of land.

Elephant and Castle in 1746 (left), 1799 (middle) and today (right).

Many of the buildings around the junction are named in the 1746 map (although you'll need to use the app to zoom in). On the junction with Newington Butts we find St Mary's church and churchyard, much of which remains today as a park and play area. Further north, the most prominent buildings are the fishmongers' alms houses. These attractive buildings last

ed until Victorian times. At the northern tip of the junction, where today Newington Causeway begins, we find a turnpike toll gate, standing beside the wide open space of St George's Fields. All these details remain in the more sketchy 1799 map, with the addition that St George's Fields are beginning to build up with developments. This is the E&C of Michael Faraday, who was born in the area in 1791. A memorial to the great scientist can be found in the centre of the modern roundabout.

Jump forward to our next map, 1830, and we see a very different picture. The entire area is now covered with housing and commercial buildings, although the triangular ‘butt' can still be discerned. The name Elephant and Castle appears on the map for the first time. Our final stop, in 1862, is most notable for the rail line, which cuts through the eastern side of the map. The toll gate has now been removed, and there is no sign of the ancient ‘butt'.

Elephant and Castle in 1830 (left), 1862 (centre) and today (right).

Although the area was devastated during the Second World War, the road layout remains essentially the same today - with the exception of the infamous roundabout system. However, a Victorian resident who could see the housing stock at Elephant today would be dumbfounded. In place of the simple two-storey dwellings of his or her day, the area is now replete with distinctive - if often unattractive - housing blocks. The slab-like 1970s Heygate and Aylesbury estates to the east and south of the roundabout would be utterly alien. Few people will lament their loss when they are finally demolished in the coming months. North-east of the roundabout is the somewhat more attractive Metro Central Heights by Ernő Goldfinger - a set of white apartment buildings from the 1960s. Looming over all is the distinctive Strata tower, completed last year and resembling a giant electric razor.

The changes to Elephant and Castle have been monumental, but greater changes are on the way.


Mapping Jack the Ripper: 1. Mary Ann Nichols and Durward Street

by Matt Brown 19. December 2010 18:36

Shortly before dawn on the morning of Friday 31 August 1888 the body of Mary Ann Nichols was discovered north of Whitechapel Road, in Buck's Row (now Durward Street). Her throat was torn and her abdomen haphazardly sliced. The unfortunate Mary was to go down in history as the first ‘canonical' victim of Jack the Ripper.

Thousands of books and newspaper articles have been written about the Whitechapel murders of 1888, so I refer you to the Wikipedia article, which contains a decent reference list. In this series, I will instead focus on the streets of East London in which the murders were committed, and explore the local history using Time Travel Explorer.

The murder of Mary Ann Nichols took place just behind Whitechapel station, in the interstices between rail routes that now carry the District and London Overground lines. A map from around the time of the murders (not on TTX) shows the spot.

If we now travel back in time to 1746 (see above), we find a very different picture. The area is largely undeveloped. Even the plots fronting what is now Whitechapel Road are chiefly taken by orchards and gardens. The murder scene is a broad track known as Ducking Pond Row. Fans of psychogeography might point to an historical resonance here - that the scene of this first Ripper murder has a long history of maltreatment of women. If you scroll east on the 1746 map, you'll see the ducking pond, where nagging wives and suspected witches were once punished. Today, according to Time Travel Explorer, the pond is a Sainsburys car park.

The Mount, Whitechapel.

Still in 1746, and just south of the main road, we see an unusual patch of land known as Whitechapel Mount. Contemporary illustrations show this to have been a substantial mound, and its origins - whether manmade or natural - are uncertain. The area adjacent was known as Mount fields, and stands empty in the 1746 map.

Moving forward to 1799 (above, right, compared with the 1746 map, left), and both the Mount and the ducking pond have seemingly vanished (although this is more to do with the mapmakers' choices of what to include rather than actual absence; the Mount was disassembled in the early 19th Century). The area north of Whitechapel Road remains largely undeveloped and the murder site retains the name Ducking Pond Row. This is also the earliest map in which we see the London Hospital, just south of Whitechapel Road. This was constructed on the Mount fields in 1757, with clear views across open fields to the south.

As we leap forward to 1830 (above, left), big changes are afoot. The name Ducking Pond Row is still present, but we now see Bucks Row along its northern stretch for the first time. The area is becoming industrialised, with the presence of a distillery and warehousing. To the north-west a quaker burial ground has been established. South of the main road, the area of the Mount has been replaced with Mount Street, Terrace and Row (Mount Terrace remains to this day - a final reminder of the long-vanished landmark).

Finally, we head to 1862 (above, right), 26 years before the murders. The road is now firmly established as Bucks Row, and their is no mention of the ducking pond. Smith & Co.'s distillery and other industrial buildings remain, along with large residential developments. The area was to change once again before the murder of Mary Ann Nichol. A contemporary map (not in TTX) shows the changes reaped by construction of the two railway lines through the area.

Soon after the murder, the street was changed to Durward Street, as it remains today. A walk along Durward Street still reveals a mish-mash of residential and warehouse buildings. The area is set for further big changes, however, with the construction of a new Crossrail station over the coming decade.

Men Behind the Maps: John Rocque

by Matt Brown 12. November 2010 17:23

The earliest map on Time Travel Explorer London is also one of the most famous in the capital’s history. The John Rocque map of 1747 was far and away the most detailed up to that time, surpassing many of those that followed. Unlike earlier maps, the Rocque charts show the innumerable alleys and courts as well as the main thoroughfares. It stands as one of our greatest sources on the early Georgian city.

But who was John Rocque? His early years are a little shady. We know he was born no later than 1709, when he moved to London from France with his parents and three siblings - a family of Huguenots fleeing religious persecution on the continent. ‘Jean’, as he was originally known, seems to have taken to horticulture as a young man, and produced plans and diagrams of several notable gardens in the south-east in his 20s and 30s while living with his brother Bartholomew, himself a landscape gardener. He built up a solid reputation as a cartographer and engraving, working from premises in Great Windmill Street, Soho.

His masterpiece came in 1737. The map of London took ten years to produce, and was carried on 24 separate sheets. It is a work of both beauty and clarity, as can be readily seen in Time Travel Explorer. As well as recording the centre of London in great detail, it also stretches out to regions of farmland and hamlets that we now think of as relatively central parts of London. To the North, much of Bloomsbury and Kings Cross are little more than fields, with the River Fleet still flowing openly down from Hampstead. West, and Knightsbridge is shown as ‘the Five Fields’. South of the river, villages such as Newington and Walworth are surrounded by open country. While to the East, development is limited mostly to the ancient tracks of Old Kent Road and Mile End Road.

The map’s success led to Rocque’s appointment as cartographer to the Prince of Wales in 1751. He went on to construct maps of other cities, counties and the whole country. He married twice, first to a lady known as Marthe, and later to a Mary-Ann Bew. The latter carried on the family business after Rocque’s death in January 1762.

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Millbank Tower...What Came Before?

by Matt Brown 10. November 2010 15:54

Millbank Tower in Westminster is very much in the news today, as students protest at the rise in tuition fees proposed by the Coalition government. A minority of those attending the rally have turned to violence, smashing windows and starting fires.

The tower itself was one of the tallest structures in London when it was first built in 1963. Then known as the Vickers Tower, it was the first major office tower in the capital. In recent years, it's dropped somewhat from public consciousness thanks to more shouty buildings like the Gherkin and the Shard. Today, it's right back in the news again.

But what was there before the office complex? Time Travel Explorer offers the perfect tool to find out. Here are views from 2010, 1862 and 1746.


The site of Millbank Tower, in 1862, is largely unmarked. It appears to be some kind of stone mason's yard. The most obvious feature, however, is the huge Millbank Penitentiary, a vast prison which held captives destined for deportation. The prison was demolished in 1890, but its outline can still be partly traced in the street layout of Pimlico. Further back, in 1746, and the area was all fields. Pimlico was a swampy hinterland with very little development.

Traveling Through Time: King's Cross

by Matt Brown 31. October 2010 14:33

King's Cross is one of the most rapidly changing areas of London. Only a couple of years after St Pancras was hooked up to the Eurostar, huge change is afoot alongside and behind King's Cross station itself. A new concourse is almost complete to the west of the main station building while vast swathes of former railway lands to the rear will become home to commercial buildings and a new campus for St Martin's College.

The pace of change is frenetic, but it has always been thus in this quarter. Time Travel Explorer lets us move between eras and see how local landmarks have come and gone in this unique area.

Views of King's Cross in 2010, 1862 and 1830. Use Time Travel Explorer to zoom in further.

Travelling back to 1862, the biggest change you'll spot is the road layout. St Pancras Road, following the curve of the buried River Fleet, sweeps round the southern foot of King's Cross station, covering ground now occupied by the green-canopied concourse. When you're next waiting for a train at King's Cross, consider that you're standing on a vanished road, which itself overlays a vanished river.

Actually, an even bigger change lies to the west. St Pancras station is completely absent from the 1862 view. We see instead a whole neighbourhood of streets, schools and churches just months away from demolition. The Great Northern Hotel, however, is extant, again following the ancient curve of the River Fleet. Behind it is a small park, an area which will soon serve as the new concourse for King's Cross station.

This view also shows us that the Great Northern Hospital once occupied the site now taken by McDonalds, Starbucks, Pret and other usual suspects.

Time to hop back a few more decades. Although less detailed, the 1830 map reveals plenty of interest. Neither station is present (King's Cross opened in 1852). Instead, we find a series of streets joining up to Maiden Lane (now York Way). In place of the Great Northern Hotel, we find a smallpox hospital. Not shown is the huge ‘dust heap' that accumulated next door, immortalised in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. Finally, we also see a monument marked as ‘King's Cross'. This statue of George IV was erected in 1830, the year of our map. While it only lasted until 1845, this memorial made enough of an impression to impart the name King's Cross on the whole area, which had formerly been known as Battle Bridge.

Close ups of the station area in 1862 and 1830.

Innumerable little lanes and courts

by Matt Brown 21. October 2010 09:40

"if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey its innumerable little lanes and courts" - Dr Samuel Johnson

This oft-quoted piece of sagacity from the good doctor is as true today as it was back in the 18th century. London is criss-crossed with secret alleyways and little-known shortcuts. Some are a useful means for avoiding tourist crowds, many have colourful histories; some lead nowhere at all, and quite a few are home to a special pub. You cannot claim to have a sound and ready knowledge of London until you have squeezed through Brydges Place, held your nose along Bull Inn Court, or pondered the name of Hanging Sword Alley.

Time Travel Explorer allows you to seek out these spaces from the comfort of your sofa. Starting in the modern map view, you can zoom in on one of the many passages north of Fleet Street, for example, and compare its layout through time by switching between maps. The first thing you'll note is the marked diminution in number. Back in Johnson's time, many streets could boast an alley or court every few houses. When the City still housed small independent manufacturing trades each business needed access routes from the main street, stabling for horses and provision for waste storage and collection. Comparing with the 1862 view, we find that Peterboro Court is no more, Falcon Court has been blocked off, and Robin Hood Court has, like its namesake, become a myth.

Area north of Fleet Street, 1862, 2010, 1746. Use TTX London to see in more detail.

Many other passages remain in this unusually well endowed part of town. Gough Square, sometime home to Johnson himself, is all present and correct as far back as 1746. Wine Office Court, scene of the incomparably atmospheric Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, has also stayed put. Crane Court, Re

d Lion Court and Hind Court are also undisturbed by the centuries.

Modern developments may appear to sweep away all before them, but farsighted planning laws have preserved many of the characterful snickleways beloved of Johnson. Exploring them on foot is one of my favourite weekend pastimes. Failing that, you can learn a lot about these hidden byways with a quick finger tour in Time Travel Explorer.