It’s one of the great myths – that London is a city of historic buildings. And people come from across the Atlantic and around the world to marvel at and photograph the history that lies all around us. In fact, as Richard Guard points out in his new book*, most of our capital isn’t very old at all.
Londoners can claim a lineage that stretches back to Roman times. And there were probably some unfortunate Brythonic tribes living here before that, evicted from their marshy plain by the invading legions. But you’ll look in vain for a colosseum, amphitheatre or Parthenon to mark those 400 years of Roman rule. All we have are tiny sections of their city wall, and the remaining fragment of the London Stone (from which all distances in Britain were once measured).
There’s little left of medieval London either. Many churches claim foundations from the 10th century, but most are later rebuildings. Indeed the oldest existing building lies within Tower Hamlets – the White Tower, the original Tower of London, built 19 years after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror.
But with two millennia of history behind us, it means that all around (and beneath our feet) lie the ghosts of the old London. More has been lost than remains, and Guard painstakingly describes our lost buildings and quarters – taking a detour into lost trades, hobbies and modes of speech – and even unearthing a lost island.
The East End is well represented – so much has been torn down and rebuilt down the centuries. The old city was a fragile tinderbox, and the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed 90 per cent of it. That great chronicler of the conflagration, Samuel Pepys, penned much of his diary from the countryside of Bethnal Green, where he and his family had fled from the fire. And the new buildings that rose up after the fire were mostly flattened during the Blitz – among the terrible loss of life in World War II, the East End lost a huge number of homes, factories and dock buildings.
The remnants of rural Middlesex and the market gardens that surrounded the hamlets of Bow, Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney in the early 1800s had already been sliced up by the new railways, and infilled with cheap back-to-back housing when London’s greatest writer came along. Dickens wrote with bitterness and sentiment of the rookeries, drinking dens and thieves kitchens of the East End – he had spent many happy childhood hours in Limehouse with his uncle Christopher Huffam. But most of what he wrote of in the middle of the 19th century was destroyed, if not by the Luftwaffe then by post-war town planners.
Ratcliffe Highway was a Roman road connecting the village of Red Cliff (or Ratcliffe) to the City. By the 1600s, the village had completely disappeared within dock developments and there is no place of that name today. But so notorious did the road become for drunkenness, prostitution and crime (it lay at the heart of the docks after all) that even the name was excised from history. It was first renamed St George’s Street and then, in 1937, it became The Highway. Certainly little obvious vice remains there today – but there’s little colour either.
Equally notorious was St Bethlehem’s Hospital, or Bedlam, where once the well-to-do would come and pay to see the ‘lunatics’. The grounds of the hospital, opened in 1329, now lie beneath Liverpool Street station. Opposite is Bishopsgate, now simply a road, but once one of the original eight gates to the City and just along from its neighbour, Aldgate. Here, the Holy Trinity convent stood on Minories for more than 900 years. Founded in 1108 by Queen Matilda, it was home to the Poor Clares or Sister Minoresses (hence Minories), and managed to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Great Fire. Rebuilt in 1706, it only finally disappeared under the onslaught of German bombs during World War II.
Petticoat Lane has a long history, being home to the Rag Fair, at which secondhand clothes were bought and sold. So frantic did the trading become that dozens of police constables were regularly stationed at the fair to keep control. In London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew wrote: “The passion of the Irish drove them to resort to cuffs, kicks and blows, which the Jews … were not slack in returning.” The authorities eventually moved the market into the Old Clothes Exchange in Phil’s Building, Houndsditch, in 1843.
A mile or so away, in Wapping, was Execution Dock. Here, for 400 years from the time of Henry VI, condemned pirates would meet their fate. As another great East End chronicler, John Stow, would relate, their bodies remained hanging: “till three tides had overflowed them”. Nothing remains of the dock, though it’s been placed close to the present day Wapping tube station.
The East End has had many great theatres. In Victorian times the East matched the West End for the number of its playhouses, though the entertainment was frequently more raucous and earthy. But few performances can have had as dramatic an effect as the staging of the satire A Vision of the Golden Rump at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Whitechapel in 1737. So outraged was prime minister Robert Walpole at the play’s mockery of him and of George II, that he pushed through the Theatrical Licensing Act the same year, banning any play criticising Government or Crown. The theatre would soon be forced to close, and no trace remains.
But perhaps one of the saddest losses is that of Shoreditch’s Peerless Pool, the forerunner of all London lidos. In the 17th century it had been a favourite haunt for duck hunters (hard to imagine people shooting game on the fringes of the East End today) but it gained a reputation for fatal accidents. Indeed, John Stow called it “the perilous pool”, as so many young men had drowned in it. In 1752, jeweller William Kemp spent a small fortune converting it into a gravel-bottomed swimming pool and filled it with water to a depth of five feet. Charging a shilling, he attracted wealthy City dwellers, who would undress in marble changing rooms and then swim beneath the shade of the trees. In the hard winters of the time, they would skate upon its frozen surface. Alas the pool is no more, disappearing beneath new streets in the 1840s.
*Lost London – an A to Z of forgotten landmarks and lost traditions, by Richard Guard. Published by Michael O’Mara Books, £9.99; www.mombooks.com