Category Archives: Subterranean London

London filth

Lee Jackson loves filth. His new book, Dirty Old London, is full of the stuff, as he explores Victorian London’s attempts to cleanse a city that is swilling in muck. I’ve often wondered what Victorian London would have smelled like, and Jackson’s book comes close to capturing what must have been a frightful stink. I knew about the horse shit and the smoke, but had never considered the mud, blood, unwashed bodies, corpses and human excrement that, collectively, would have made the Victorian city one of the foulest places on earth. It’s astonishing anybody wanted to live there.

Jackson shows how Victorians began to push against the tide of muck, which grew worse as London’s population swelled. Victorians did not consider dirt in itself to be a carrier of disease, but they believed the smell could be lethal as well as deeply unpleasant, so eventually set about doing something about it. They built pavements, sewers, public baths and indoor lavatories, improved housing, dug cemeteries and generally tried to do something about “that combined odour of stale fruit and vegetables, rotten eggs, foul tobacco, spilt beer, rank cart-grease, dried soot, smoke, triturated road-dust and damp straw’. They weren’t always successful – some of those aromatic problems lingered long into the 20th century when they were eventually dealt with, or in the case of horse manure, replaced by something even worse such as exhaust fumes.

In explaining how this happened, Jackson is far more entertaining than anybody has the right to be on such a subject. Rather than focus on the well-trod tales of John Snow and Joseph Bazalgette – both of whom barely feature, thankfully – Jackson resuscitates the lives of less well known figures in this lengthy campaign against dirt, characters like reformer Edwin Chadwick who laid much of the groundwork for what was to follow. In the process, he shows how Victorian London functioned – the haphazard, individual-driven nature that saw things get done, or not, as the case might be.

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Indecency by Isaac Cruikshank

This is a history with potentially narrow focus, but Jackson – a general historian of the unstuffy, non-academic variety – is removed enough from the subject to be able to show its wider importance and long-term effects. One theme of the book is the way sanitisation – in the form of sewage, rubbish and housing – was the hinge on which London’s social contract turned. For much of the 19th-century, the bewildering array of local authorities that ran London saw their role as, essentially, to keep out the way. They did as little as necessary, thus keeping rates low and relying on private enterprise to fill the gap. But as London grew, getting bigger and smellier every year, this system began to creak. A good example is with the dustmen. Collecting and recycling London’s rubbish was a lucrative job for some entrepreneurs, but not so much for the dustmen themselves, who had to rely on tips to make a living. And given that tips were much more likely to be acquired in rich areas, the poorer streets were increasingly neglected, allowing rubbish to pile higher and higher. Local authorities had to step in to fix this, and it gradually became the accepted role of local authorities in the UK until Thatcherite councils like Wandsworth in the 1980s began to perceive different, pre-Victorian, way of running things.

Jackson also touches on a related angle: the increasing movement of public buildings into private hands. In this case, it’s centred round the Victorian public lavatories, which were only built after ferocious lobbying from some notable figures who recognised the desperate need on the streets for London loos.  The story of how those toilets were eventually built is fascinating in itself, but Jackson also notes the fact that so many have recently been closed, flogged, refurbished and then sold back to us as coffee shops, galleries and an “award winning urban spa”. Perhaps this is the fault of the Victorians, for making things so well and so adaptable, but you can’t help feeling that, now as then, it stinks.

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Guns and strippers: in the crypt at Kensal Green Cemetery

Photographer Sean Smith has an exhibition in the crypt of the Dissenters Chapel in Kensal Green. It’s an evocative location, with Smith’s dramatic, very beautiful but often gruesome or unsettling photographs blown up large, brightly lit and placed at the end of dark, dank corridors like profane altarpieces.

His photographs come from all over the world – one of the earliest and most compelling shows a bloodied miner in South Yorkshire from the 1984 strike lying on the floor next to a police riot shield – and there are also pictures from Beirut, Virginia, Albania and Southampton as well as three from London, reproduced below. Take the chance to check them out for yourself – and to have nose around the crypt – before the exhibition closes on June 26.

Raymond Revuebar, Soho, 1989

Raymond Revuebar, Soho, 1989

Boys with guns, Southall, late 1980s

Boys with guns, Southall, late 1980s

Ruby Venezuela, Madam JoJo's, Soho, 1989

Ruby Venezuela, Madam JoJo’s, Soho, 1989

Secret London: photos of lost rivers and abandoned London

Lovers of London urban landscape, lost rivers, photography and, for want of a better word, psychogeography, should be aware of a forthcoming exhibition, From The Westbourne To The Wandle at Maggs Bros gallery.

Curated by counterculture bookdealer Carl Williams, this brings together the work of two London photographers and writers, Jon Savage and SF Said. Savage is best known as a music writer, but in 1977, inspired by JG Ballard, he set out to photograph the urban wastelands of West London, taking a sequence of stunning black and white pictures of the lost land beneath the Westway.

He has written, ‘In its emptiness, austerity and gloom, it is an interzone waiting for something to happen, for the beasts to be unleashed. This was how London felt at the time: coming, coming, coming down – like a speed hangover merging into an apocalypse. But in there was also a sense of possibility that new ways of thinking might grow from this emptiness – like the scented buddleia on the bombsites.’

SF Said’s picture were taken for last year’s excellent Lost London Rivers book. Said shoots on Polaroid, which he describes as like a ‘photographic time machine’ and says he wants to ‘capture the dreams that a place might have of itself, or the memories that it stores under layers of time’.

He uses expired film, which can create strange, mesmeric effects and explains ‘as their chemical layers decay, they start to produce strange flame-like swirls and flickering light leaks that go even further into dreamlike realms.  These hallucinatory effects are unpredictable and random; sometimes they ruin a picture.  But when you’re lucky and it all comes together, I think they give you something magical that you could never get any other way.’

The exhibition is at the gallery at Maggs Bros, 50 Hays Mews, W1J 5QJ from March 22 to April 19.

Walking London: rivers and tubes

‘What a bounteous banquet of costly viands is spread before an ardent-minded, grateful-spirited Perambulator!’ Old Humphrey’s Walks In London

‘One must perambulate early and late in all weathers, to know a little about London’. The London Perambulator

London is a gift for those who wander. Sometimes you can pick a new area and just stroll wherever the whim strikes you; sometimes you can take a different route between two familiar destinations. Either way, you’ll find your appreciation of the city is inordinately increased.

There is a healthy industry in London walking – M@ recently compiled a list of his ten favourite for the Guardian – but if you need something cheaper and more challenging, you can always take a self-guided walk over a longer distance. I once walked the Thames from St Paul’s to Hampton Court on a Sunday afternoon, criss-crossing bridges and sticking as close to the river as possible. It was particularly satisfying to see how easy it is to walk on the river bank – the only place I had to take a significant detour was around the ever-weird Chelsea Harbour.

In a similar vein, a couple of books have recently come out on the theme of London walking. Walk The Lines is about Mark Mason‘s decision to walk every tube line in London, above ground, an overall distance of 403 miles that takes him everywhere from Amersham in the north-west and Epping in the far east to Morden in the deep south.

Mason enjoys discovering new parts of the city and peppers his book with brilliant London trivia but is at his best when writing about the pleasure walking can provide. As he writes, ‘Once you’ve caught the bug, you feel an urge to plan your walks, be it thematically, geographically or by some other means. There must be a raison d’être for your ramble.’ This, he thinks, taps into a similar mentality to that of a collector: ‘It’s not about studying, about observing or noting. It’s about collecting. About claiming the city’s greatness, or at least some small part of it, for yourself.’

Mason’s book is a fun read, but you couldn’t very well use it to walk the tube lines yourself, even if you were lunatic enough to want to do so. Tom Bolton’s London’s Lost Rivers, however, bills itself as ‘A Walker’s Guide’ and is a terrific mix of history, topography and practicality. It maps – astonishingly diligently – the courses of eight of London’s buried rivers, so walkers can follow them for themselves, pointing out items of interest they can see along the way while also offering some historical context about the subterranean rivers.

Along with Nicholas Barton’s The Lost Rivers of London, it’s essential for any fan of buried rivers (Diamond Geezer says much the same here). The atmospheric Polaroid photographs by SF Said are a nice touch, as is the introduction by the great Londonphile Chris Fowler. Highly recommended.

Underground again at Aldwych

 

Transport for London allowed Aldwych station one of its periodic reopenings this weekend, with 1940-themed tours of the station and platform to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Blitz.

The tours – which are completely sold out so don’t even try – were arranged to complement the Under Attack exhibition at the London Transport Museum, as explained by museum director Sam Mullins in this BBC clip.

As a part-time moleman who has never been inside Aldwych, I was down there like a greedy ferret in a goldmine. Aldwych, a pointless spur on the Piccadilly Line, closed in 1994 and its history can be read at the wonderful Subterranea Britannica or Abandoned Stations. Ian Visits and Diamond Geezer also have posts about the station.

I’ve wanted to get inside it for ever such a time.

The tours begin in the neat but spartan ticket office, which is decorated with a number of wartime posters giving instruction about shelters and the blackout. You are greeted by an actor playing an Air Raid Precautions officer, whose monologue is interrupted by the forbidding wail of an air raid shelter. You meet three more such actors in the course of the tour, the best being the 1940s housewife who sits in the train down on the platform and can be quite saucy if you ask the right sort of questions.

The chance to poke around the station and listen to actors recreating 1940s stereotypes is all well and good, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the 1938 train that has been brought out of retirement for the occasion.

 

I’m no train nerd, but this one is a beauty, as I’m sure better photographers than I will record this weekend.

The other highlight is this cracking little souvenir book about Aldwych and the Blitz that is given to everybody who goes on the tour.

The tour ends with a deafening reconstruction of an aerial bombardment, with impressive sound and light, before the all-clear sounds and allows you to climb the steps back to the surface (no lifts or escalators, so prepare for a walk).

A recreation of the ‘Blitz experience’ is an almost impossible thing to pull off for obvious reason and this is neatly done in the circumstances, although it might have been nice to have bunks on the platform to give more of a flavour of what it was like to cower down there for a night.

Interest in the tours have been so great – an estimated 3,000 people will take part this weekend – that the London Transport Museum believe public tours of Aldwych will be reintroduced on an irregular basis in the future.

So that’s one ambition sated, only for another to take its place. Earlier this week I was talking to a curator at the LTM, who told me of his recent tour round Down Street, another abandoned station with wartime connections. It is, he told me, in ‘fabulous condition’. Anybody interested?