In The Footsteps Of History

11th May 2012

Want to know where to find the lost pleasure gardens of London or the location of the notorious Tyburn hangings or the city’s stinkiest slums?

Jack Watkins has just the book…

London’s grittiest urban districts contain their own green corners. As I wandered down the long straight roads of Lambeth during that unseasonably bright March, daffodils nodded under the gentlest of breezes in the gardens of the Imperial War Museum. On the corner of Kennington Road, drinkers sat sipping lagers on the roof terrace of the Grand Union pub, overlooking the contented scene below. Mothers ambled through the gardens behind pushchairs, couples reclined on the grass, some youngsters were tossing a frisbee, while other folk were just ‘out’. Such a prospect, you might think, must have been visible to the drinkers in that pub gallery since its earliest origins, but those who came to imbibe a century and a half ago had a different motive. Then the building that is now the Imperial War Museum was actually the Bedlam Hospital, and the pub’s balcony had been specially built to afford a view of the ‘idiots’ walking in the gardens.

My trip was inspired by a new book, Lost London by Richard Guard, which offers intriguing snapshots of the city’s forgotten quarters and sites. Its author, an award-winning documentary editor, claims to have lived in seventeen parts of the city over the years, his affection for its hidden secrets stirred during a period as a cycle courier in the 1980s. Adopting a simple A-Z format, it is by no means an exhaustive gazetteer-style account, but it serves as a fascinating primer that, once you get the bug, is likely to prompt you to make the journey out to some of the locations described.

On just about every page I turn something catches my eye. I had long been aware that the Banqueting House on Whitehall, opposite Horse Guards, was the first ‘pure’ piece of Renaissance architecture in England, designed by Inigo Jones for King Charles I in 1622. I had not, though, understood that it was one of the few buildings to survive the fire of 1698 (not 1691, as stated in the book) which effectively obliterated the once magnificent Whitehall Palace. In one way that ignorance is understandable. After all, the Banqueting House is such a standalone masterpiece that Horace Walpole once described it as it as a model of the most beautiful taste. Yet Whitehall Palace itself was one of the largest in Europe, with 1500 rooms stretching across 23 acres, from the area of Northumberland Avenue to the Houses of Parliament.

Two types of lost landmark have a particular appeal, I’ve decided. Places of former greenery are one, but even more of a draw are sites of great squalor or those which played host to grisly scenes. Who could not be morbidly fascinated by the Lost London entry on Execution Dock, for instance, a jumble of houses and wharves round a bend of the river from the Tower of London and near the modern day Wapping Tube Station. Since the time of Henry VI, condemned pirates had been brought here and left to rot after being hanged, remaining on view ‘…’till three tides had overflowed them’. Captain Kidd was hanged here in 1701, then gibbeted and displayed as a local landmark by the Thames for the next twenty years.

I also ‘enjoyed’ reading about the slum district of Agar Town, a place of such wretched hovels that the stench on a rainy morning, wrote Charles Dickens, was ‘enough to knock down a bullock’. Music hall star Dan Leno was born here in 1860, before the Midland Railway Company moved in to clear the area for the train tracks and sheds of St Pancras Station. No-one mourned the passing of the hovels – although the residents received no compensation – but Agar Grove, in Camden Town, runs along what was the northern boundary of the slum district.

Two of London’s most notorious ‘lost’ sites are probably Newgate Prison, and the Tyburn. They inevitably receive full coverage in Guard’s book. The former, on the site of the present Old Bailey, was described as ‘the prototype for hell’ by Henry Fielding, and it’s a surprise to learn that it was only demolished in 1902. The Tyburn, the capital’s foremost site of public executions between 1300 and 1783, was probably located at the junction of Edgware Road, Oxford Street and Bayswater Road. Here was situated the ‘Tyburn Tree’, erected in the reign of Elizabeth I, an awful device of triangular construction, capable of hanging 24 miscreants at the same time, if the need should arise. Grandstands were erected to accommodate paying spectators. The last public hanging took place there in 1783, after which hangings took place outside Newgate Prison (where the last outdoor hanging happened in1868).

The air around Newgate was so noxious that locals claimed they were being poisoned. It must have been sweeter at Vauxhall Gardens, a place of rural elegance in the 17th and 18th centuries. Samuel Pepys remarked on the singing of nightingales, a bird whose song you’d be fortunate to hear in London today. The name ‘Vauxhall’ derived from the Vaux family, who owned the manor house.
Vauxhall Gardens was a highly fashionable venue for the latest music and contemporary theatre in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but its popularity had faltered long before the coming of the Nine Elms railway terminus in 1838. It lingered on until summer 1859, though. ‘Let me sit and sadly ponder on the glories of Vauxhall’ ran a valedictory piece in Punch.

Elsewhere in the book you can read about London Bridge – ‘some notable decapitated heads displayed thereon’ – plus our lost rivers and the lengthy list of Wren churches which disappeared as a result of demolition or wartime bombing. There’s even a section on lost street traders, from the cabbage sellers to the flower and milk girls, and an account of the on-street cries ‘Fresh wo-orter cresses!’; ‘…’old your horse, sir?’ ‘chestnuts all ’ot, a penny a score!” Who could not be entertained by such a book as this?

Lost London is published by Michael O’Mara, £9.99

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