When the German novelist Sophie von La Roche visited Oxford Street in the 1780s she saw watchmakers and fan shops, silversmiths and spirit booths, and a Pantheon that rivalled the one in Rome. Edward Gibbon called the domed ballroom, which hosted glitzy concerts, ‘the wonder of the eighteenth century and of the British empire’, but Von La Roche could not agree. The Pantheon’s architect, she concluded, ‘only half knew what he was about’. The young James Wyatt, who went on to design some of the loveliest college buildings at Oxford University, had apparently given little consideration to the acoustics of his Pantheon, ‘as the sound becomes diffused’.
The building caught fire in 1792, was rebuilt and later became an elegant bazaar selling framed pictures and cabinet china. Then in 1937 it was torn down. Where once Londoners danced between columns they now shop for ready meals and caterpillar cake. The uglier of the two Oxford Street Marks & Spencers stands on the old site. Look to the top of the supermarket façade for the final insult: a sign, in neon green,‘The Pantheon’.
Eyeing the spread of photographs, watercolours and prints of Picturing Forgotten London which went on show at the Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell last month, I sigh sarcastically: ‘Progress’. Architecture has always been divisive but really. They knocked down that and replaced it with that? The day I visit, a few dozen sheets from the extraordinary 100 kilometres of documents stored here have been laid out ahead of the exhibition. Amid the lost houses, lost districts and lost masterpieces, it’s the lost wonders and enticements of the high street that shine most brightly.
While some mourn the disappearance of independent boutiques and greengrocers, the gravest loss from our city centres has to be the Cow Keeper’s. A vibrant watercolour from 1825 shows the shop in all its glory: an enormous pat of butter in the window, a few sacks of feed on the floor and, a table’s width from the entrance, a teeming cattle-pen. Place your reusable pail on the counter to be filled with fresh milk.
Many of the shops went the same way as the Pantheon bazaar. Quicker to pop to the supermarket or Woolworths than weave through the market stalls or along the length of the high street. Quicker to Ocado than to leave the house. Some of the quainter shopping streets were also swept away in a bid to clean up and speed up central London. Holywell Street (see p29) was a narrow row of tumbledown houses and shops with precariously tilting wooden façades. In a photograph from the 1890s one of its shops carries a handwritten sign for Christmas cards. But the gentlemen in top hats aren’t looking at those. Pretty Holywell Street, with its bookshops and hosiers and broken upstairs windows, was porn central — ‘an opprobrium of the town’, said the Times.
Holywell Street publisher William Dugdale became particularly notorious for peddling profanities. He was apprehended repeatedly for his trade in scurrilous literature before being arrested under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. He died in prison at Clerkenwell, not far from the present archives. Holywell was soon flattened to make space for Kingsway, a new artery to connect Aldwych and Holborn. A striking lithograph from 1932 promotes its respectable new face, a sparkling red double-decker tram full of commuters zipping through the city — ‘Westminster to Bloomsbury in 7 minutes.’
There is no doubt that parts of 19th-century London were in dire need of rejuvenation. Large areas were given over to slums. For Charles Dickens, writing in the first issue of Household Words, ‘the moral plague-spot not only of the metropolis, but also of the kingdom’ was to be found between Tothill Street and Strutton Ground — a mere splutter away from The Spectator’s offices in Westminster. Known as ‘Devil’s Acre’, the area overflowed with the ‘most deplorable manifestations of human wretchedness and depravity’. And that was before The Spectator moved in. It was bad enough, thought Dickens, that criminals should operate in the vicinity of the law-makers. It was worse that they did so in plain sight of God, as Westminster Abbey chimed overhead.
Dickens’s friend Angela Burdett-Coutts, the philanthropist and dedicatee of Martin Chuzzlewit, turned her attentions to improving the East End. With Dickens’s support she poured money into an enormous new market at Columbia Road, near today’s flower market, with housing for the traders and their families. A magnificent Gothic revival building — a rival to St Pancras in its grandeur — was designed by H.A. Darbishire. Its cathedral-like central hall opened out on to a covered courtyard. There was space for 400 stalls. A drawing shows a swarm of shoppers pointing and bartering between the cloisters. Those crowds soon dwindled. Unable to compete with Billingsgate, and upset by general reluctance among the traders to work in such proximity to one another, the market closed less than two decades after it opened. The building was requisitioned during the second world war and pulled down in the 1950s.
Too often it proved cheaper to demolish a historic building than to repurpose or rebuild it. Euston Arch was needlessly destroyed in 1961 during the expansion of the station. An archived letter from the British Transport Commission that year estimates the cost of knocking down the arch at £16,500, and that of dismantling and re-erecting it elsewhere at in excess of £190,000. No surprise which way it went. Yet the dismantled arch did not vanish entirely. Decades later, Dan Cruickshank lifted blocks of its distinctive Yorkshire Bramley stone from a tributary of the River Lea.
A few years ago transport minister John Hayes proposed resurrecting the arch to ‘make good the terrible damage’ caused by its destruction. The rebuild would cost in the region of £10 million. In today’s money that’s around £6 million more than the original estimate given for reassembling the arch at the time of its demolition. It says something about the state of modern architecture when a lost Victorian arch garners such enthusiasm. Could James Wyatt’s glorious Pantheon also be rebuilt from the surviving drawings? The Cow Keeper’s too? The archive of the capital’s forgotten buildings is so rich and attractive that you wonder whether it’s not historic London that’s lost, but rather the modern city that continues to be built on top of it.
Picturing Forgotten London is at the London Metropolitan Archives until 31 October. Admission free.