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Time Travel Explorer Blog

Where am I?

by Peter Watts 6. June 2011 11:53

So where do you think this is then?

It's now part of Central London, but all you can really tell from the 1746 map is that it was once a body of water surrounded by fields. Is it even worth taking a guess?

Shall we step forward in time and see if it helps?

Hmmm, 1799 and not much has changed, although if you look carefully you can just make out the words 'Pimlico Wharf' on the road encircling the north of the water. So at least we have a vague location to work with.

Need more clues?

Here we are in 1830, and still not much has changed, other than that the water is a more fetching shade of blue, there are considerably more streets and houses, and the words 'Pimlico Wharf' are impossible to miss. Here's a nice view of Pimlico Wharf from the London Metropolitan Archives. 

The view from 1862 is very different, so before I reveal exactly where we are let me tell you a little bit more about the area's history. This was the basin for the Grosvenor Canal, which was begun in 1725 as a way to get access from the Thames to the Chelsea Waterworks Company, the crucial pumping station that supplied water from the Thames to much of London. However, in 1852 it became illegal to take drinking water from the Thamas and the Chelsea Waterworks Company moved to Surbiton. So what to do with the basin that remained? Any guesses?

Well, by 1860 it had been filled in and this had been built on its site.

As the images show, Victoria Station fits snugly into the space once filled by gallons of water. But there is just about no other indication of what the site was once used for. Still, at least we have our maps, eh?

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.

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.'

Clocking docks in Wapping

by Peter Watts 15. February 2011 18:04

If you want to give yourself a shock when using Time Travel Explorer, head for Kennet Street in Wapping, just off Thomas More Street. Here it is on the contemporary map, it's the straight road that runs parallel to the funny looking wiggly street just south of News International.

Now switch to 1830 and there you are, suddenly standing in the middle of the great blue expense of London Docks. Did you bring your rubber ring?

London Docks were built in 1805, three years after the West India Docks on the Isle of Man, and their closeness to the City gave them a great advantage over some of the other dock networks. Here is what Wapping looked like shortly before they were built in 1799.

The London Docks consisted of a large Western Dock (the one pictured above) and a smaller Eastern Dock, both of which had locks that led directly to the river, essentially allowing boats to avoid the bulge of the London mainland at Wapping. They were connected by the tiny Tobacco Dock. (The architect Terry Farrell has pointed out that the net result of all the docks in London essentially had the effect of 'straightening' the river, as they created short cuts to navigate through all the curves.)

The docks were built by John Rennie, who also built London Bridge, and were amalgamated with nearby St Katherine's Dock in 1864. Built for sailing ships, by the 1930s they were already too small for big cargo ships and in 1968 they were closed and sold to Tower Hamlets, who immediately filled them with concrete.

The land was turned into housing in 1981, but a stroll through Wapping still provides many glimpses of what used to be here, from old dock walls to unexpected Port Of London Authority emblems. The warehouse at Tobacco Dock is one of the few buildings to have survived intact. It was turned into a shopping centre in 1990, which proved to be a commercial failure, and now stands eerily empty, a zombie mall for this fascinating, often-changing and unfairly neglected area of riverside London.

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'Thank God for the quiet grave'

by Peter Watts 3. February 2011 10:00

So far on this blog we have concentrated on the ways in which old maps allow us to see the ways in which London has changed, but now let us consider how it can sometimes stay the same, for centuries. And where better to start than a graveyard, the ‘quiet grave’ spoken of by Keats in the blog title.

St George’s Gardens in Bloomsbury, close to the Foundling Museum, was once the burial grounds of two churches - St George-the-Martyr in Queen Square and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St George, Bloomsbury. These days they are a peaceful and well-tended spot, containing little of note other than a Chapel of Rest, a statue that used to belong to the Apollo Theatre on Tottenham Court Road and – for fans of Iain Sinclair – a decent-sized obelisk in one corner. The burial grounds were said to have been laid out by Hawksmoor, and he is also believed to have designed the monument for Robert Nelson, who was the first man buried here in 1715.

Then, St George’s Gardens were a spot on the very edge of the city and these were the first London burial grounds to be laid out at a distance from their church. As can be seen in the map of 1746, they were in the middle of fields north of London with barely a building in the sight. The two burial grounds lie at an angle, adjacent to each other – and today a series of stones down the centre shows how the cemetery was once divided into two parts, one for each of the two churches that shared the space.

Fifty years later, in 1799, strikingly little had changed and the burial ground was still adrift amid the fields of soon-to-be London.

Skip forward to 1830, though, and we are looking at a different picture. Bloomsbury was now very much in evidence, with streets surrounding the burial grounds on all side. Still, though, they retain their distinctive shape and were almost certainly still in use - most central London burial grounds were only closed in 1850 when the Burial Act led to the construction of the giant cemeteries at Nunhead, Kensal Green and elsewhere. It's believed St George's carried on burying the dead of London until 1855. 

After closing, many burial grounds were simply built over, but St George's survived. Here it is in 1862, almost completely unchanged.

In 1885 it was converted into a park, but most of the graves and memorials were left intact. And here it is today, a serene scene of familiar constancy for almost 300 years, while London has changed all around it. People often find graveyards to be a peaceful retreat from the modern world, and this could be one of the reasons why.

Crossing the river: how bridges changed London maps

by Peter Watts 24. January 2011 11:57

I mentioned in my previous post the importance the building of new bridges had on London's topology, and that clearly be seen in the following sequence of images.

The first shows the bend in the Thames before Waterloo Bridge was built. This comes from the John Rocque map of 1746, at which time Westminster Bridge was being built and was soon to open. Until Westminster Bridge was completed in 1750, London had just the one bridge - London Bridge - between the City and Putney making large tracts of marshy south London almost completely unvisitable to North Londoners (no jokes please).

While the impact of Westminster Bridge can already be seen in the form of the main road that leads from the southern bank towards Newington, there are almost no buildings at all on the south side of the river, and the area around what will soon become Waterloo is almost completely unused.

This was even more pronounced in 1799, with the area leading from Westminster Bridge becoming denser and the road larger and more priminent, lined with houses and shops, while nearby Waterloo - even though Blackfriars Bridge had gone up in 1769 - is still all fields. 

That was to change abruptly with the arrival of Waterloo Bridge in 1817.

This map of 1830 shows how quickly the building of Waterloo Bridge effected the surrounding area on the south bank, as it rapidly became inhabited by roads, shops and houses. Many bridges were built across the river at around this period, including Lambeth Bridge in 1862, Hungerford Bridge in 1845 and Southwark Bridge in 1819. The jewels of south London were suddenly available to all. 

The railway lands of South London

by Peter Watts 17. January 2011 15:20

The Great Fire and Blitz did their damage, but it can be argued that nothing changed the topography of London quite as much as the railways. From 1836 these industrial interlopers began to arrive in London, the first in Bermondsey and Deptford, causing houses to be demolished and huge tracts of London to become divided by high-rise red-brick arches carrying trains above the streets.

North of the river, the stations were kept out of the centre by Parliament and developers and were slung instead in a great line from Paddington to Liverpool Street, like the new gates to an old metropolis. But in the south, they encroached right up to the river, often taking root in land that had only recently been inhabited. Here you can trace the arrival of the station at Waterloo, on land that in 1746 was almost completely unoccupied.

Here is the same land in 1830, now more densely occupied thanks to the explosion of bridge-building that allowed traffic to cross the river more easily than ever before.

By our next map of 1862, the station has arrived, plonked messily in the middle of the map with railway lines shooting off it. 

It's these lines that would have so much impact on South London, which to this day can resemble a face that has been slashed and scarred by raised arches, embankments and bridges. The area between Waterloo and London Bridge around Southwark Street is particularly bad. See the map of 1862, with just a single east-west line, and compare it with the spider-web of lines on a modern map.

 

This vast network of interlocking and overlapping lines goes a long way towards explaining why some people find South London so confusing and alienating. The railway line create dead ends where none should be and force the roads to take confusing shapes to find their way through bridges and arches. Felix Barker and Peter Jackson wrote in 'A History Of London In Maps' that 'with the excitement of children laying out nursery tracks, prodigally financed companies spread networks so liberally that by the end of the (19th) century maps resembled cats' cradles.

But there are some benefits to this South London railway land. The huge number of railway arches can easily be transformed into cheap commercial space, granting parts of south London around Vauxhall, London Bridge and Waterloo a night-time economy that people are happy to cross the river to take part in.