The Ghosts of Old London
To dispel my disappointment that I cannot rent that Room to Let in Old Aldgate, I find myself returning to scrutinize the collection of pictures taken by the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London held in the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. It gives me great pleasure to look closely and see the loaves of bread in the window and read the playbills on the wall in this photograph of a shop in Macclesfield St in 1883. The slow exposures of these photographs included fine detail of inanimate objects, just as they also tended to exclude people who were at work and on the move but, in spite of this, the more I examine these pictures the more inhabited they become.
On the right of this photograph, you see a woman and a boy standing on the step. She has adopted a sprightly pose of self-presentation with a jaunty hand upon the hip, while he looks hunched and ill at ease. But look again, another woman is partially visible, standing in the shop doorway. She has chosen not to be portrayed in the photograph, yet she is also present. Look a third time – click on the photograph above to enlarge it – and you will see a man’s face in the window. He has chosen not to be portrayed in the photograph either, instead he is looking out at the photograph being taken. He is looking at the photographer. He is looking at us, returning our gaze. Like the face at the window pane in “The Turn of the Screw,” he challenges us with his visage. Unlike the boy and the woman on the right, he has not presented himself to the photographer’s lense, he has retained his presence and his power. Although I shall never know who he is, or his relationship to the woman in the doorway, or the nature of their presumed conversation, yet I cannot look at this picture now without seeing him as the central focus of the photograph. He haunts me. He is one of the ghosts of old London.
It is the time of year when I think of ghosts, when shadows linger in old houses and a silent enchantment reigns over the empty streets. Let me be clear, I am not speaking of supernatural agency, I am speaking of the presence of those who are gone. At Christmas, I always remember those who are absent this year, and I put up all the cards previously sent by my mother and father, and other loved ones, in fond remembrance. Similarly, in the world around me, I recall the indicators of those who were here before me, the worn step at the entrance to the former night shelter in Crispin St and the eighteenth century graffiti at the entrance to St Pauls Cathedral, to give but two examples. And these photographs also provide endless plangent details for contemplation, such as the broken windows and the shabby clothing strung up to dry at the Oxford Arms, both significant indicators of a certain way of life.
To me, these fascinating photographs are doubly haunted. The spaces are haunted by the people who created these environments in the course of their lives, culminating in buildings in which the very fabric evokes the presence of their inhabitants, because many are structures worn out with usage. And equally, the photographs are haunted by the anonymous Londoners who are visible in them, even if their images were incidental to the purpose of these photographs as an architectural record.
The pictures that capture people absorbed in the moment touch me most – like the porter resting his basket at the corner of Friday St – because there is a compelling poetry to these inconsequential glimpses of another age, preserved here for eternity, especially when the buildings themselves have been demolished over a century ago. These fleeting figures, many barely in focus, are the true ghosts of old London and if we can listen, and study the details of their world, they bear authentic witness to our past.
Two girls lurk in the yard behind this old house in the Palace Yard, Lambeth.
A woman turns the corner into Wych St.
A girl watches from a balcony at the Oxford Arms while boys stand in the shadow below.
At the Oxford Arms, 1875.
At the entrance to the Oxford Arms – the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London was set up to save the Oxford Arms, yet it failed in the endeavour, preserving only this photographic record.
A relaxed gathering in Drury Lane.
A man turns to look back in Drury Lane, 1876.
At the back of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, 1877.
In Gray’s Inn Lane.
A man peers from the window of a chemists’ at the corner of Lower James St and Brewer St.
A lone policeman on duty in High Holborn, 1878.
A gentleman in Barnard’s Inn.
At White Hart Inn yard.
At Queen’s Inn yard.
A woman lingers in front of the butcher in Borough High St, Southwark.
A porter puts down his basket in the street at the corner of Cheapside and Friday St.
In Fleet St.
The Old Bell, Holborn
At the corner of Fore St and Milton St.
Doorways on Lawrence Pountney Hill.
A conversation at the entrance to Inner Temple, Fleet St.
Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
You can see more pictures from the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London here In Search of Relics of Old London