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Disappearing London

Privately published in 1927 this book is a pictorial record of twelve views that had "disappeared" from London during the previous 15 years. The commentary is by E. Beresford Chancellor, an expert on London's History, with his characteristic writing style, developed over many years of such projects.

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List of Plates

Plate I The Bank William Walcot, R.E.
Plate II The last of the G.P.O. Henry Rushbury.
Plate III Hop Exchange after the fire in 1920 Stanley Anderson, R.E.
Plate IV Waterloo Bridge Percy Robinson, R.E.
Plate V The Quadrant, looking South Randolph Schwabe.
Plate VI Piccadilly Circus William Walcot, R.E.
Plate VII Piccadilly Circus, looking North Randolph Schwabe.
Plate VIII Church of All Souls Ian Strang, A.R.E.
Plate IX Piccadilly Percy Robinson, R.E.
Plate X Demolishing Devonshire House Job Nixon.
Plate XI Savoy Steps, Strand Ian Strang, A.R.E.
Plate XII Cloth Fair Hanslip Fletcher.

IMPROVEMENTS which connote, of course, demolition more or less wholesale, may be said to occur in London approximately every hundred years. A great City never is, but always to be, built; and, therefore, there can hardly pass a day without witnessing the destruction of some landmark often historic, but often merely dear to us by long association. Such things happen before we are aware even of their imminence, and as a case in point I remember not so many months ago the shock I received on passing through Hanover Square and seeing that fine old house in the south-west corner, a house with an architectural and social history, being pulled down; and again, that other fine mansion in Russell Square, known as Baltimore House, in an advanced stage of disintegration. You may walk anywhere in London and see the outlines of the houses as you have always remembered them; and the next week may be suddenly confronted with a great gap where one of these so recently stood; or you may see the eye-less windows of some familiar home, and realise that nevermore will you be gazed at by its accustomed intentness.

Such changes as these are inevitable, just as the changes, almost imperceptible as they are, are occurring continually in a human body. But just as we are assured that at stated periods, the whole skin is renewed, so in the case of a city there are epochs in which a vast and drastic change takes place, and, as I have said, this change would seem to come about approximately at intervals of a century. If we go back to the times of the Stuarts we shall find that with the reign of Charles I, all sorts of drastic alterations took place in London's outward appearance, although it was not till after the Restoration that the nucleus of the West End was formed when Charles II granted land in St. James's on which the Earl of St. Albans proceeded to form St. James's Square. Yet the artistic proclivities of Charles I, the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Arundel, were responsible for a number of new and splendid structures which materially varied the appearance of such areas as Whitehall and the Strand. Old plans, too, will show what a considerable increase in building on all sides occurred between the period (1593) when John Norden produced his map of London, and that (1658) when Faithorn and Newcourt issued theirs, an increase still more markedly exhibited in Ogilby's plan of some twenty years later. But it is when we study Rocque's great survey of 1746, that we shall see still more wholesale changes and vastly enlarged boundaries, especially in the area west of Charing Cross and north of Oxford Street. And then a plan of London, as it was just about a century later, will indicate a sort of geometrical progression in development, a development so extensive and, as it then seemed, so splendid in its individual structures, that the artist, Shepherd, and the architect, Elmes, were able to devote large quartos to the study and description of what they called these Metropolitan improvements.

That such developments in city-planning did not happen exactly at a hundred years interval or thereabouts is, of course, obvious. It could be shown that in some cases a longer period elapsed before anything of a comprehensive character was initiated and carried out; on the other hand in other instances, it can equally be seen that a lesser length of time intervened. But taking it in a large and comprehensive way, London may be said to renew itself every century; and just now we are in the midst of one of these phases in which the cacoëthes ædificandi has apparently reached its Nth power.

Life generally is development. Age brings with it ever enlarged conceptions; and in nothing is this demonstrated more obviously than in architecture. True there were periods in the distant past when people revelled in vast structures. But these will generally be found to be only in certain directions. Churches were larger than they are at present, because there were fewer of them, and perhaps, because the religious spirit was more markedly present. Great private houses were on a more splendid scale than is dreamed of to-day, because, then, the rich nobles required room for large retinues, and a private palace was in many cases only less princely than the abode of the sovereign. But, with these exceptions, anything that was once small has taken on itself immense proportions. Hotels have become palaces; shops have rivaled palacesin architectural audacity, sometimes in decorative beauty; those who lived in exiguous dwellings, first of wood, then of brick, now dwell in stone-faced structures, and are only forced by want of room to cluster in flats in the West or in tenements in the East. And it is this want of space which is largely responsible for certain marked developments in the building activity now confronting us on all sides. Ground is expensive but the air is free; and so on a site on which, in earlier times, one family lived in a relatively small abode, now arises some vast structure in which a dozen dwell one above the other, ramparted about with the architectural splendour and happily regardless of rates and taxes. This is what may be termed the domestic side of the picture. If we turn to what may be generally described as the official, we shall find another reason, inter-allied with the former, for the extension of London skywards.

The Bank PLATE I
"The Bank"
William Walcot, R.E.
Published by Mr. H. C. Dickins.
With the increase in population it is obvious that those centres of activity which depend on the public for their existence, should necessarily require larger staffs and more room. Thus we have such an institution as the Bank of England gradually finding cause for extension. In William III's time the Grocers' Hall was large enough for it; in George II's reign, more space was necessary, and it removed to premises of its own on a small part of its present site; in the following reigns great additions were made, until now it has been found impossible adequately to carry on its vast business in its one-storied classic edifice, notwithstanding the ample area it covers; and so we have to-day a ruin where Sampson and Soane and Taylor had created a triangular Ionic rabbit warren.

The last of the G.P.O. PLATE II
"The last of the G.P.O."
Henry Rushbury.
Published by Messrs. James Connell & Sons, Ltd.
In the same way the General Post Office, whose tentative beginnings were in Cloak Lane, Dowgate Hill; then at the Black Swan, Bishopsgate; anon in Brydges Street, Covent Garden, and later in Lombard Street, at last found an adequate abode in the building erected for it by Sir Robert Smirke on the site of the ancient monastery of St. Martin's-le-Grand. But now, notwithstanding the construction of an annexe (so to call it) opposite, by Williams, and the additional buildings on the west side of the main structure, set up in 1890, we have arrived at that stage when still ampler space is required, and consequently we have the demolition of the well-known landmark, of which Mr. Rushbury has given us one of his beautiful and spirited etchings.

Hop Exchange after the fire of 1920 PLATE III
"Hop Exchange after the fire of 1920"
Stanley Anderson, R.E.
From a proof kindly lent by the Artist.
Published by Messrs. P. and D. Colnaghi & Co.
Sometimes it has happened that not necessity but an untoward fate has caused the loss of a well-known feature of London. The Great Fire is, of course, our classic instance in this respect. But there have been other conflagrations which, however, in the lurid light of that tremendous disaster, have burnt themselves out without attracting the attention of any but contemporaries. A notable instance of this was the great fire in Southwark which occurred just ten years later (1676), and did for the south bank of the River what the Great Fire had done for the north. Disasters like these, of which, at least in extent, we have to-day happily little to fear, cleared whole areas. But even in later times when the means for coping with such things had greatly improved, although still feeble in comparison with what they now are, individual structures were frequently the prey to flames, especially our theatres, of which few exist or ever did exist, which had not at one time or another been burnt to the ground. Here and there, but luckily very rarely, even in these times we are not wholly immune from such a species of havoc, and Mr. Stanley Anderson's etching of "Hop Exchange (erected in 1867), in Southwark Street off the Borough High Street, after the Fire," gives a vivid picture of such a disaster.

Waterloo Bridge PLATE IV
"Waterloo Bridge"
Percy Robertson, R.E.
From a proof kindly lent by the Artist.
Linking up this south side of the river with the north, and carrying us (now painfully enough) from splendour of buildings and life to the squalor of this crying disgrace to London, is Waterloo Bridge. It is superfluous here to say anything about this noble structure, now on crutches, but still presenting a brave and beautiful face to the city it has served so long and well. All the world knows its story; even Londoners have come to realise its intrinsic excellence and charm, as it shoots like an arrow across the stream. Happily it is still with us; and happily, too, it is likely to be; but it seemed appropriate to include it among those structures with which sentiment has not dealt so well; and so here it is, portrayed by Mr. Percy Robertson with his usual accuracy and beauty of architectural and atmospheric environment.

Individual instances such as these are always to be counted among the demolitions constantly taking place in our midst. Nothing is secure because Time is always bringing with it changes of ideas and the necessity for their expression in terms of architectural development. From great houses, like Devonshire House and Harcourt House and Northumberland House, which have gone, and Grosvenor House, which is going, to beautiful little dwellings like those in Paradise Row, at Chelsea, and little taverns like The Adam and Eve in the same picturesque locality, little is spared to us from other days, and were it not for the loving care with which artists have sought, and are daily seeking, to perpetuate the features of what has passed and is almost daily passing from us, their outlines, even the very memory of them, would soon be obliterated from our minds. For if it be difficult to reconstruct mentally the appearance of a building that has disappeared, it is ten times harder to do so when that building has been replaced by something wholly alien to it in size and in architectural style.

But such constant happenings as these can only change the aspect of a district by their gradually cumulative effect. We sigh for the loss of some familiar landmark we have known all our lives, but to the superficial observer it is merely one more or less gone of the thousands of structures with which London is concerned. It is, however, altogether other guess-work when whole areas are laid in ruin and covered by immense buildings which not only entirely alter their appearance but their very alignment.

During the last few years we have in London been confronted by two of these vast changes. Of these the former has now (so quickly does time fly in our hurried life), become familiar to us, and there is beginning to spring up a generation which remembers, but cannot for the life of it recall, the Strand and its northern purlieus as they were before the Aldwych curve and the Kingsway boulevard swept out of existence Holywell Street and Wych Street and the slums that lay behind them, filthy and fetid with the accumulated dirt and squalor of three centuries. We may, as I for one do, regret the disappearance of those twin streets which bore their antique air with something of a quiet distinction. They were not over-cleanly; they were narrow; and, in view of our modern Juggernautish traffic they were impossibly inconvenient. But what ghosts you saw (in the mind's eye) passing along them! what memories they evoked! what pleasures one of them the Booksellers Row of so many bargains they afforded ! They were the only two thoroughfares in all London which alone seemed to one to recall Gay's "Trivia." For in them all the déségremens and not a few of the joys, of walking the streets, as the poet depicts them, could be imagined, and some of both realised. Well, they are gone, and with them are gone so much that required removal; so much which, decorative as it was in the retrospect, was in reality an unwholesome area, hidden from the busy Strand, but always there like a festering wound covered by a cloth. When that great improvement (for even those who care for old landmarks cannot, I think, deny that it was one) took place, it was done thoroughly. Not merely were new and splendid streets run through the district, but all the low and squalid surroundings were cleared away. And parenthetically I may remark that this has nearly always been our custom, as differentiated from that of Paris (to take an instance where much re-building has occurred) where when a new boulevard or street is laid out, it cuts through the area like a knife, leaving cheek by jowl with it all sorts of ancient and un-cleanly little by-streets; so that immediately off the great flaring Boulevard Sebastopol we have the Rue Quincampoix essentially as it was in the seventeenth century, and the Rue des Lombards which dates from the thirteenth.

But a more recent rebuilding scheme in London has driven the Aldwych-Kingsway improvement from our short memories, and the reconstruction of Regent Street is the latest, and what will doubtless for many a year stand forth as the most comprehensive, rehabilitation which London is likely to witness.

I suppose as long at least as my generation encumbers the earth and remains in the way of the younger, there will always be argument, more or less heated, as to whether this is an improvement or not. Lord Beaconsfield on a famous occasion announced to a rather wondering assembly, à propos the origin of species, if I remember rightly, that he was "on the side of the angels." One would always, I suppose, like to be, as the safest place in a discussion; the trouble in this instance is, however, as to which is that side. Are the angels, one wonders, in favour of the immense structures that tower up towards their abode, and, to borrow the Horatian tag, strike the stars with their uplifted heads; or would they rather have retained that gracious curve which Nash gave to his street, and which has now entirely disappeared ? It is a moot point. In the new Regent Street we have many wonderful and some amazing buildings; and we creep about between these Brobdingnagian structures and wonder at their Vanbrugh-like proportions. We are, or at least some of us are, I imagine, proud at having produced such a thoroughfare of mausoleums, just as Cheops no doubt was when he saw the last stone placed on his pyramidal achievement. But there are some who regret the passing of the old street whose homogeneity is irretrievably lost and whose quiet distinction has been replaced by something very large and very expensive; but just a little ostentatious and, as some think, not a little vulgar. Well, there it is, and use will no doubt reconcile, but one cannot but remember such things as were most precious to many of us. With which adaptation of the famous phrase, I pass to a consideration of some of the etchings which the change has happily caused, and which seem to me among its best results.

The Quadrant, looking South PLATE V
"The Quadrant, looking South"
Randolph Schwabe.
From a proof kindly lent by the Artist.
I think the editors of this volume have no need to excuse themselves for selecting several examples dealing with this special subject; for, after all, it is the one instance of the rehabilitation of an old street carried out in a single gesture. Other thoroughfares like Piccadilly and the Strand are being gradually transformed; Kingsway and Aldwych are entirely new creations. But here we have a street, which just a hundred years ago was regarded, and properly so, as the finest in London, and over which the topographers and topographical artists of that day, waxed lyrical, no doubt regarding it aere perennius, entirely rebuilt from its beginnings at Pall Mall, to its strange apotheosis at All Souls', Langham Place. That beginning is what has been always known as Lower Regent Street and Waterloo Place, and has been practically wholly rebuilt. But it is the Regent Street between Oxford Street and Piccadilly, that the Londoner understands by the name, and here we have that portion of it known as the Quadrant, with a glimpse of Norman Shaw's great hotel opposite (whose building, by the way, was really the beginning of the end of the Nash convention), in Mr. Schwabe's attractive etching. The commencement of demolition is here taking place, with the ropes and ladders of the housebreakers, and the regardless crowd beneath. . . .

Piccadilly Circus PLATE VI
"Piccadilly Circus"
William Walcot, R.E.
By courtesy of The Crittall Manufacturing Co., Ltd.
If you would realise how impressive and dignified was this wonderful curve (the only thing of the kind London possessed), you should study this picture, and the more purely architectural one which T. H. Shepherd produced in 1822, soon after Nash had completed his splendid street. What this corner looked like while the re-building of Messrs. Swan and Edgar's premises and the conversion of the old County Fire Office into its new form were in progress, can be seen, too, in the exquisite etching by Mr. W. Walcot, who brings to the perpetuation of this spot (as he has done to so many others in the London he knows and loves so well) not merely the skill of the artist but something of a poet's mind. He has here daringly given us something of an anomaly in that he has adumbrated the new structure as rising behind Nash's existing work, with the special view of conveying, at a glance, the difference between the two; a poetic licence for which all will, I believe, feel grateful.

Piccadilly Circus, looking North PLATE VII
"Piccadilly Circus, looking North"
Randolph Schwabe.
From a proof kindly lent by the Artist.
Mr. Schwabe's second etching is a delightful presentation of this famous corner, in which Gilbert's "Eros" and the County Fire Office are the chief features, and which shows us the beginning of the end of Messrs. Swan and Edgar's old premises, as well as the gracious and dignified "curve" which we have lost. The picture is full of movement, and the human element seems to have some relation in size with the surrounding buildings; whereas to-day we all look, and some of us feel, like pigmies in a street which, through the height of its structures, has become (or so it seems) half as wide as it used to be.

Church of All SoulsPlate VIII
"Church of All Souls"
Ian Strang, A.R.E.
Published by Messrs. Alex. Reid & Lefèvre, Ltd.
We complete the thoroughfare with Mr. lan Strang's strong and accurate view of All Souls' Church, a picture which incidentally shows us the demolition of a portion of the east side of Upper Regent Street. Much criticism has been directed against All Souls'; as it generally is against originality of any sort. But it must be remembered that Nash, who had an awkward corner with which to deal, specially designed the edifice in order to form a termination to his long vista. The circular portion is, of course, only the peristyle, and not the church itself as many people seem to suppose. The proportions of that church, as a matter of fact, struck an architect friend of mine, when I was there with him recently, as particularly excellent.

Piccadilly PLATE IX
by Percy Robertson, R.E.
From a proof kindly lent by the Artist.
Mr. Percy Robertson's charming "Piccadilly", speaks for itself.

Demolishing Devonshire House PLATE X
"Demolishing Devonshire House"
Job Nixon.
By courtesy of T. C. Newman, Esq., Messrs. Williams Deacon's Bank, Ltd.
Published by Messrs. P. and D. Colnaghi & Co.
That unique thoroughfare has in recent years undergone many changes. Walsingham House gave place long ago to the Ritz; the memories of Devonshire House are almost obliterated by the vast structures that have arisen on its site and that of its ample garden (and here we have a most valuable and interesting record of its demolition from Mr. Nixon); the block westward in the east corner of which stood the house built by Brettingham, and for so long occupied by the Baroness Burdett Coutts and her china parrot (to be seen on the left of Mr. Robertson's etching); the rebuilding that has taken place at intervals along the north side of the street; all these things have altered its appearance greatly. But the presence still of Barrymore House (now being converted into an hotel) and Coventry House (long since the home of the St. James's Club) help somewhat to preserve the air of a past day; and the greenery of the Park opposite is more noticeable (because railings have replaced the old brick wall) than it was in earlier times.

Savoy Steps, Strand PLATE XI
"Savoy Steps, Strand"
Ian Strang, A.R.E.
Published by Messrs. Alex. Reid & Lefèvre, Ltd.
From here we can take an Asmodeus-flight, first to the Strand then to the farther east. The shorter journey will bring us to the Savoy Steps, of whose demolition we have this spirited etching by Mr. lan Strang. The point of view here selected is that looking up towards the main thoroughfare, and the picture recalls a sight which many a Londoner loitered to gaze at a few years ago. Savoy Steps ran under No. 108 Strand and were reached by a narrow entry from the street; they were very similar to the picturesque George Steps (which happily still remain) further west.

Here we have a corner of the Savoy Chapel on the right, and we are amid the foundations of the famous palace which once spread over this area, that palace from whose postern John of Gaunt so often rode out, and in whose gardens overlooking the Thames, Chaucer walked and dreamed.

Cloth Fair PLATE XII
"Cloth Fair"
Hanslip Fletcher.
By courtesy of T. C. Newman, Esq., Messrs. Williams Deacon's Bank, Ltd.
Our journey to the east lands us rather wonderingly in the midst of that interesting area which has in recent years undergone many changes, but whose essential old-world character can never desert it so long as St. Bartholomew's, Smithfield, remains, as it does to-day, London's most precious ecclesiastical possession dating from mediaeval times. Mr. Hanslip Fletcher here records for us a nook in Cloth Fair, running out of Smithfield on the north side of the church, and so called because in old times it was the spot where the clothiers and drapers who came to the annual Bartholomew Fair, chiefly congregated. On those occasions certain overseers were appointed by the Merchant Taylors' Company, to attend here with "a standard yard" made of silver, in order to ensure the proper measure being used, and to bring to justice anyone found employing what was called an "unlawful yard." As late as 1815, the place was still a resort of tailors and clothiers; and down to our own time many interesting old houses, such as the architect shows us in his charming etching, remained. But improvement has been for long ripe here, and year by year they gradually disappeared. All this part is so inextricably mixed up with the annals of Bartholomew Fair, once so important a commercial "fixture," but gradually degenerating into a mere playground till its extinction in 1855, that one can with difficulty separate the annals of the place from those of that annually recurring event. But at least we can, by the aid of the accompanying picture, visualise something of the architectural setting of the "Fair" to whose record a well-known volume, by Morley, was dedicated.

It was, by the way, at a house actually in Cloth Fair, whose sign was appropriately "The Hand and Shears," that the opening of Bartholomew Fair was announced annually with much vociferation and the "snapping of shears''; and it was also about these purlieus that Pip, of "Great Expectations," wandered when awaiting his interview with Jaggers, the lawyer. One likes to think, too, of the youthful Thackeray, a schoolboy at The Charterhouse, close by, haunting this picturesque, but, even then, decaying spot.

The gathering of beautiful etchings which has here been made, possesses a double value. They are all works of art, selected by experts for their excellence in a medium which affords opportunities for much variety of treatment; and they are all records of what has disappeared from London; in most instances showing us the various landmarks in the very process of disintegration. Here we have depicted what so many have loitered to observe, the gradual destruction of something with which we have been, in many cases, long familiar. And it has, happily, been within the power of the various well-known artists represented, to extract from this destruction, pictures which are instinct with charm and picturesqueness. If ever ruin could be said to justify itself, it is, as here, when it affords opportunities for such artistic perpetuation.




The Editor desires to thank all those artists who have kindly given permission for the reproduction of their etchings, and to express his gratitude for facilities granted by Mr. T. C. Newman and by Messrs. The Crittall Manufacturing Company, Limited. Also by Messrs. P. and D. Colnaghi and Co., James Connell and Sons, Ltd., H. C. Dickins, and Alex. Reid and Lefèvre, Ltd.

Printed by Herbert Reiach, Ltd.,
43 Belvedere Road, S.E.1.

Photogravure Plates by Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Co., Ltd.,

Edited by Geoffrey Holme
"The Studio" Limited, 44 Leicester Square, London.

Published 1927


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