The history of London is represented by the history of its maps. They can be seen as symbolic tokens of the city, and as attempts to picture its disorder in terms of fluent and harmonious design. From the first great copperplate map of the mid-sixteenth century to the “Underground” map of the late twentieth century, the mapping of London represents an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to mitigate it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable.
That is why the first map, from which John Stow himself borrowed, has always been a source of wonder and curiosity. It is inscribed upon copper plates by an unknown hand, but all the evidence suggests that this carefully prepared map was commissioned by Queen Mary I. In its complete form (only three fragments remain) it would have been some eight feet in width and five feet in depth, covering the entire area of city and suburbs. It is in certain respects extraordinarily detailed: the very scales of Leadenhall Market are depicted, together with the dog-kennels in some of the gardens; the position of a tree or the number of buckets by a well are faithfully recorded; shirts and bed linen lie stretched out to dry in Moor Field, while games of musketry and archery are conducted in the neighbouring pastures. The churches and monastic remains are also visible, many of them rendered in such detail that we may distinguish between wood and stone. When Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt compared the sea around England with “a moat defensive to a house,” we now know that his audience, coming to the Theatre, by Shoreditch, had passed just such a moated house on the road out of London through Finsbury Fields. Since this copperplate is also the original upon which most other maps of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London are based, in its lineaments we may find the most lucid and significant outline of the city.
In certain respects, however, the map inevitably strays from accuracy. The actual warren of passages and alleyways is ignored in order to display the principal lanes and streets; the city has in that respect been cleansed. The number and variety of houses are also neglected in order to create a more uniform and pleasing appearance. The citizens depicted at work or at play are in turn of an unnatural size, suggesting that the cartographer wished to emphasise the human dimension of the city. Nevertheless it is a beautiful feat of engraving, and it is no accident that it did become the source and inspiration for maps completed some years later.
One coloured map of mid-Tudor London, for example, which is known as the “Braun and Hogenberg,” is a smaller copy of the great original. Here the city is given compact form and, although it is by no means a spiritualised shape, it is in instinctive harmony with its surroundings; the skiffs and wherries ply their river trade in graceful formation, while the main thoroughfares themselves seem to mimic the natural passage of the water. It depicts the “fair city” of contemporary report, but it also has one other significant aspect; in the foreground, quite out of proportion, stand four Londoners. An older man is dressed in the robes of a merchant, with cap and fur-trimmed coat, while upon his right hand stands his apprentice wearing a short coat like a doublet as well as sword and buckler; the merchant’s wife is dressed in a simple blue gown over a Spanish farthingale while her maid is plainly attired in gown and apron. These are modest figures but they stand upon a hill above London as the true representatives of the city. The map itself can be seen as an advertisement of London’s mercantile power, with the vessels on the Thames behind the four Londoners depicting its status as a port.
In similar spirit the two great “panoramas” of London, before the Fire of 1666 utterly destroyed its appearance, take the river as the leading spirit of their design. Anthony van den Wyngaerde’s riverine views of the mid-seventeenth century have been eclipsed by Hollar’s panorama of 1647, but Wyngaerde’s study has the merit of showing the bustling life of the Thames. Some row, while others fish. Travellers wait at Stargate Horse Ferry, while others make their way up Southwark High Street towards London Bridge.
Of course Hollar’s more powerfully executed engraving is perhaps the most beautiful and harmonious of all London panoramas. In his work, London has become a world city of which the horizons are scarcely visible. The artist takes his stand upon the roof of St. Mary Overie by Bankside, so that in the foreground of the engraving are great clusters of roofs and house-fronts by the entrance to London Bridge. The chimneys and windows, the rooftops of tile and wood, suggest the massive presence of a city already congregating by its southern mouth; on the Thames there are almost eighty great vessels as well as innumerable smaller craft, the river itself forming a great sheath of light and space which lends London a monumental aspect. There are more intimate details on the southern bank where, among the throng of roofs and chimneys, Hollar has opened up two short vistas of the streets. A dog can be seen, a man on horseback, couples wandering, here and there a solitary figure, all fixed for ever as part of the pattern of London. From Hollar’s high vantage a walled garden can be observed and, beyond it, two circular buildings labelled “The Globe” and “Beere bayting” respectively. Beyond them lie fields, where horses are grazing. On the other side of the Thames there is a forest of rooftops and church spires; although that of St. Paul’s had been destroyed by a thunderstorm some eighty years before, the cathedral church still dominates the skyline of the city. It rises above the streets and wharves, where people can be seen working or waiting for transport. There is continuous building eastwards from the Tower to Shadwell, while the line of the city is prolonged westward to Whitehall. The effect is that of great activity caught in majestic perspective, with the city arrayed in glory. The panorama is completed by various classical deities who, as it were, introduce and applaud the scene from the wings; the figure of Apollo hovers just above St. Paul’s.
It is perhaps the finest ever representation of London, and certainly the greatest image of the city before the Great Fire of 1666. Later maps by Norden, as well as Newcourt and Faithorne, in style and spirit reflect the first great copperplate map. Similarly, the familiar map of the London Underground today still completes and complements the one first designed with such clarity of purpose in 1933. The original Underground map bears only approximate relation to the location of lines and stations, but it is so aesthetically pleasing that its lineaments have never been changed.
In 1658 Wenceslaus Hollar completed a further etching, of the western aspect of the city. We observe that still more areas of fields and stiles and country lanes have been replaced by squares and piazzas and dwellings. Some of these houses are several storeys high, others on a smaller scale, but all reflect a pleasing symmetry which did not in fact exist. Another theme obtrudes, at least in retrospect. The streets and open areas are devoid of figures or any depiction of active life—the city had already grown too large to register even the symbolic presence of its citizens—and so it seems like some great empty place waiting silently for its destruction in the Great Fire.
The extent of that destruction can be see in another engraving by Hollar; it was completed in 1667, and depicts the razed city as more than four hundred acres of whitened contours. The ruins of the churches, prisons and main public buildings are sketched in, but the rest is empty space encroached upon by dark clusters of building which had escaped the flames.
Within days of that Fire, however, various speculative maps of a new London were being completed. These were visionary schemes. To a certain extent they resemble the structure of planned cities such as Paris and New York which were to be laid out grandly in the nineteenth century. Many of these seventeenth-century designs for London incorporated grid systems of intersecting thoroughfares, with great avenues linking majestic public edifices. Wren and Evelyn conceived of a humane and civilised city built upon a preordained pattern, while some of their contemporaries presented mathematically ingenious systems of roads and squares. These noble plans could not work, and they did not work. The very nature of the city defeated them: its ancient foundations lie deeper than the level at which any fire might touch, and the spirit of the place remained unscathed.
London is not a civilised nor a graceful city, despite the testimony of the maps. It is tortuous, inexact and oppressive. It could never be laid out again with mathematic precision, in any case, because the long history of streets and estates meant that there was a bewildering network of owners and landlords with their own especial claims or privileges. This is a social and topographical fact, but it in turn suggests a no less tangible aspect of London. It is a city built upon profit and speculation, not upon need, and no mayor or sovereign could withstand its essential organic will.
That is why the map of reconstructed London, published ten years after the Fire, shows the city restored approximately to its original state. One new thoroughfare has been built, the new King Street and the new Queen Street leading to the Guildhall from the river, but the congerie of streets around it— Milk Street, Wood Street, Aldermansbury, Old Jewry, and all the rest—have sprung up again. Thoroughfares were widened after more stringent fire precautions and building regulations were applied, but the essential topography of the neighbourhood was revived.
There was one other change. The surveyors of this post-Fire map, John Ogilby and William Morgan, had declared that they would chart “all Bye-streets and Lanes, all Courts and Allies, all Churches and Church-yards” by scientific principles of “Mesuration and Plotting” with theodolites and “circumferentors.” So for the first time the city became susceptible to scientific measurement, with the result that it could no longer be depicted as an aesthetic or harmonious whole. Paradoxically it then became fragmented, chaotic, unknowable. The twenty sheets of this topographical survey are covered by rectangles and numbers—“i 90 … B69 … C54”—which are designed to expedite identification, but the general effect is one of bewildering complexity. When London is seen in terms of abstract size and measurement, it becomes unimaginable.
There was, instead, a vogue for guidebooks which rendered London intimate and identifiable—among them Couch’s Historical Remarques and Observations of 1681, de Laune’s The Present State of London and Colsoni’s Le Guide de Londres of 1693. They were complemented by such volumes as The Antiquities of London and Westminster, with accounts of the town-ditch, the gates, the schools, hospitals, churches and wards.
By the eighteenth century there was an efflorescence of those books which emphasise “whatever is most remarkable for GRANDEUR, ELEGANCE, CURIOSITY OR USE.” There were others designed to aid visitors, or new residents, as to the way in which they should conduct themselves in the city. One, for example, suggests that should a carrier of a sedan chair behave unmannerly, “take the Number of the Chair, as you do of a Hackney Coach, and complaining at the office abovementioned, the Commissioners will correct their Insolence.” The London Adviser and Guide of 1790 offers similar advice, with the note that common people will be charged one shilling for swearing in the street and that every gentleman will face the higher penalty of five shillings. The number of convictions is not mentioned.
The next attempt at a comprehensive cartography, undertaken by John Roque, in 1783, emphasises the problems that were now inevitably encountered; trigonometrical measurements of the streets did not align with actual measurements, and street names were thoroughly confused. The project took seven years to finish and, in the process, Roque himself came close to bankruptcy. The plan itself was of enormous size and the publishers suggested that it be placed on a “Roller” so that “it will not interfere with any other Furniture.” Yet it is by no means a complete survey. It omits certain smaller or inconsiderable features, place names are missing, and there has been no effort to include individual buildings. This is hardly surprising in a map covering some ten thousand acres of built land, and the publishers were tactful enough to encourage subscribers to point out “Inaccuracies and Omissions.” So it remains in many respects an impressionistic survey, with the actual lanes, tenements and shops reduced to a fine grey shading; it has an “enduring enchantment,” according to the authors of The History of London in Maps, but it is the enchantment of distance.
At the end of the eighteenth century the largest map ever printed in England conveyed what seemed to be, even then, the immensity of London. Richard Horwood’s map was ninety-four feet square, and contained street numbers as well as names and houses. The project continued for nine years but four years after its publication Horwood, tired and careworn, died at the age of forty-five. Some of the inevitable difficulties he encountered can be measured by changes in four different editions. Within the space of thirteen years the fields adjacent to Commercial Road were gradually filled with houses and terraced streets. In the space of twenty years the number of houses in Mile End had tripled. The persistent and steady growth of London, in a sense, had killed its map-maker.
Horwood’s aim was largely utilitarian. The enterprise was sponsored by the Phoenix Fire Insurance office, one of the city’s most significant institutions, and was advertised as indispensable “in bringing Ejectments or Actions, in leasing or conveying Premises etcetera.” In that, it proved successful, if only because every subsequent attempt at conveying the specific houses or buildings of the city was engulfed by its sheer immensity. The first Ordnance Survey of London completed in 1850, for example, comprised some 847 sheets; it was greatly reduced for publication but then proved to be on too small a scale to be useful for travellers and inhabitants alike. This and later maps of mid- and late Victorian London simply display lines of streets linked together, with shading used indiscriminately to represent the shops, offices, houses, tenements and public buildings.
These are the direct predecessors of the contemporary A to Z gazetteer in which hundreds of pages are needed to chart a city which cannot be recognised or understood in terms of one central image. The begetter of the A to Z, Phyllis Pearsall, entranced by London’s immensity, compiled the first edition in the mid-1930s by “rising at five and walking for 18 miles per day.” She covered 3,000 miles of streets, and completed 23,000 entries which she kept in shoeboxes beneath her bed. Michael Hebbert, the author of London, has revealed that the maps “were drawn by a single draughtsman, and Pearsall herself compiled, designed and proof-read the book.” No publisher was interested, however, until she delivered copies on a wheelbarrow to a W.H. Smith buyer. By the time of her death, in 1996, the number of London streets had risen to approximately 50,000.
The nineteenth-century city, already seeming too vast for comprehension, was sometimes plotted in terms of theme or subject. There were “cab-fare maps” outlining the distance which could be travelled for a certain fare, maps of street improvements with the renovated thoroughfares outlined in vivid red, maps of the “modern plague of London” which marked each public house with a red spot, and maps displaying the incidence of death by cholera. Maps of the underground railway, of trams, and of other forms of modern transport soon followed so that London became a city of maps, one laid upon another like an historical palimpsest. It never ceased to grow and, in the process, glowed perpetually with various colours—those of death, alcohol and poverty competing with those of improvements and railways.
“Up to this time,” Henry James wrote in 1869, “I have been crushed under a sense of the mere magnitude of London—its inconceivable immensity—in such a way as to paralyse my mind for any appreciation of details.” Yet for the true antiquarian of London those details live and survive within the memory, beyond the reach of any plan or survey. “In my youth,” John Stow wrote in the sixteenth century, “I remember, devout people, as well men as women of this city, were accustomed oftentimes, especially on Fridays, weekly to walk that way [to Houndsditch] purposely there to bestow their charitable alms; every poor man or woman lying in their bed within their window, which was towards the street, open so low that every man might see them.” It is a distinct and striking image, in a city of spectacle and ritual. And then again: “I remember within this fifty four years Malmsey not to be sold more than one penny halfpenny the pint.” Memory here must complete the task of observation, if only “to stop the tongues of unthankful men, such as used to ask, Why have ye not noted this, or that? and give no thanks for what is done.”
Stow remains the guardian spirit of all those Londoners who came after him, filled with their own memories of time passing and time gone. There is Charles Lamb wandering through the Temple in the early 1820s, noting “what an antique air had the now almost effaced sun-dials, with their moral inscriptions, seeming coevals with that Time which they measured”; these were “my oldest recollections.” A decade later Macaulay spoke of a coming time when the citizens of London, “ancient and gigantic as it is, will in vain seek, amidst new streets, and squares, and railway stations for the site of that dwelling” which was in their youth the centre of their lives or destinies. Leigh Hunt, in The Town of 1848, observed of the city, “nor perhaps is there a single spot in London in which the past is not visibly present to us, either in the shape of some old buildings or at least in the names of the streets.” At the very beginning of the nineteenth century a London journalist known as “Aleph” wandered down Lothbury, recalling its previous “tortuous, dark vista of lofty houses” lit only by oil-lamps; since Aleph’s journey it has changed many times, yet it still remains unique and identifiable, most particularly with its recurrent “darkness” and “loftiness.”
It has been said that no stone ever leaves London but is reused and redeployed, adding to that great pile upon which the city rests. The paradox here is of continual change and constant underlying identity; it is at the core of the antiquarian passion for a continually altering and expanding city which nevertheless remains an echo chamber for stray memories and unfulfilled desires. That is perhaps why, as V.S. Pritchett noted in the late 1960s, “London has the effect of making one feel personally historic.” “It is strange,” he once wrote, “that although London wipes out its past, the Londoner does not quite forget.” Every journey through the streets of London can then become a journey into the past, and there will always be Londoners who thrill to that past like an obsession. In the early 1920s another London visionary, Arthur Machen, walked through Camden Town and found himself witnessing like a revenant the city of 1840, with pony gigs and dimly lit interiors, all of it conjured up by the sudden glimpse of a “little coach-house and the little stables; and all a vision of a mode of life that has passed utterly away.”
Until recent years it was possible to find inhabitants of Bermondsey who were, in the words of one reporter, “enthralled by the history of their borough.” It is a genuine London passion. Where Thomas Hardy could hear “the voice of Paul” in ancient stones exhibited within the British Museum, Londoners hear the voices of all those who came before them in the smallest houses and meanest streets. Charles Lamb remembered a cashier in the South-Sea House, Mr. Evans, who was eloquent “in relation to old and new London—the site of old theatres, churches, streets gone to decay—where Rosamond’s pond stood—the Mulberry Gardens—and the Conduit in Cheap.” The author of Highways and Byways in London, Mrs. E.T. Cook, stood upon Westminster Bridge in a winter’s twilight, when “as the light faded, and the mist rose, I seemed to lose the forms of the modern buildings, and to see, as though in a vision, the ‘Thorney Isle’ of the dim past.” Yet even as this early twentieth-century observer sees intimations of the eighth century, her meditations are broken by a beggarwoman’s plea for money. “I ain’t got a place ter sleep in this night. Gawd knows I ain’t, dear lydy.” Past and present collide in a thousand different forms. When Rose Macaulay visited the wilderness of a bomb-site in the Second World War, she had an intimation of “the primeval chaos and old night which had been before Londinium was.” In the preceding century Leigh Hunt observed that St. Paul’s Churchyard was “a place in which you may get the last new novel, and find remains of the ancient Britons and of the sea.” Despite his fear of the city’s immensity Henry James himself experienced “the ghostly sense, the disembodied presences of the old London.” There is a foot-tunnel under the Thames, linking Greenwich with the Isle of Dogs, which seems to harbour something of its mystery; for Stephen Graham, the author of the lachrymose London Nights, it “told of an enigma which would never be solved; the enigma of London’s sorrow, her burden, her slavery.”
There have always been solitary Londoners meditating upon the past, musing, even, upon civilisations which like their own had fallen into decay and dissolution. Edward Gibbon sat alone in his lodgings in Bond Street and, to the sound of rattling coaches, reflected upon the fall of Rome. The young John Milton sat up half the night in his bed-chamber in Bread Street, his candle glimmering at the window, while he dreamed of ancient London and its founders. There have been such men in every generation, men who have spent “their lives in the disquisition of venerable ANTIQUITY concerning this city.” One of the first, Fabyan, a sheriff and alderman of London, wrote a Chronicle or Concordance of Histories of which the first edition was published in 1485. Among other topics he compiled a chronology of the successive weathercocks upon St. Paul’s. Arnold’s Chronicle, or Customs of London appeared in 1521 where among a record of the charters of the city can be found “an estimate of the livings of London” and a recipe “to pickle sturgeon.”
The work of Stow himself was successively edited and corrected by Munday, Dyson and Strype who also considered themselves the faithful recorders of London, “being birthplace and breeder to us.” They were followed by William Stukeley, who found evidence of Julius Caesar’s camp by Old St. Pancras Church and traced the line of Roman roads through eighteenth-century London. He “appears to have had all the quiet virtues and gentle dispositions becoming an antiquarian—one living in the half-visionary world of the past,” as so many other Londoners have done. He died in Queen Square and by his particular direction was buried in the forlorn churchyard of East Ham.
The most elaborate and extensive antiquarian studies, however, can be dated from the middle decades of the nineteenth century. It was the time of encyclopaedic surveys, including the six great volumes of Old and New London edited by W. Thornbury and E. Walford. There are literally hundreds of other volumes chronicling the “curiosities” and “celebrities” of what had become the largest and wealthiest city in the world. This was also the period in which were completed various histories of London, a tradition which was maintained into the early twentieth century by Sir Walter Besant, the founder of “the People’s Palace,” whose memorial can now be viewed beneath Hungerford Railway Bridge. It was Besant who remarked, on his death-bed, “I’ve been walking about London for the last thirty years, and I find something fresh in it every day,” an observation which could be confirmed by almost any admirer of London.
By the 1870s, at the time when urban chroniclers were extolling the size and variety of the new city, there were others who, like their predecessors in earlier centuries, mourned the passing of the old. The Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was established in 1875, as a direct result of the threat of demolition of the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, and its work was complemented by such books as London Vanished and Vanishing and Unknown London. There were individual writers, many of them journalists from London newspapers, who explored the vestiges of the past concealed in old courts and antique squares. Their labours were in turn continued in the twentieth century by books such as London’s Secret History, The Vanished City and Lost London. The city has always provoked sensations of loss and transitoriness.
Yet antiquarianism can take many forms. At the turn of the twentieth century Sir Laurence Gomme, a great administrative historian, wrote a series of volumes which suggested, even if they did not entirely prove, that London had retained a territorial and judicial identity since the time of the Roman occupation. The permanent and unchanging nature of London was, thereby, affirmed in the very face of change. Gomme’s work was in a sense complemented by that of Lewis Spence whose Legendary London connected the history of the city with the tribal patterns of the Celts as well as the magic of the Druids.
Their contributions to the history of London have been sadly neglected or derided, partly as a result of the more precise and “scientific” record of the city’s growth maintained by the various London archaeological societies whose own work has proved invaluable. A more fundamental challenge came from the numerous sociologists and demographers who in the postwar years were more concerned with rebuilding and with new forms of urban planning.
Antiquarianism might itself be considered outmoded, therefore, except for one curious ceremony which is conducted every year at the church of St. Andrew Undershaft. Here rests John Stow’s tomb, with a memorial figure of the Tudor antiquarian resting upon it. He holds a quill pen in his hand and every year, at the beginning of April, the Lord Mayor of London and a distinguished historian proceed to the memorial where a new quill is placed in Stow’s stone hand. So the city honours one of its greatest citizens, with the changing of the quill a solemn token of the fact that the writing of London’s history will never come to an end.