Discovering London with Interdisciplinary Resources

Last week I attended a really interesting session, aimed at postgraduate students, to introduce us to a range of of interdiscipinary archives and institutions relevant to researching the history of London, organised by two Senate House librarans. The day included short introductions to the collections at Senate House Library, the Centre for Metropolitan Studies at the IHR and British History Online.

The day brought a number of archives and sources to my attention that I hadn’t known about, including the Guildhall Library and Bishopsgate Insitute. I am also excited to investigate the colletions of Victorian visitor and walking tour guides that may prove particularly useful in trying to understand the experience and perception of landscape in the pre-embankment period. I also discovered the Talis views of London, which sadly don’t seem to cover Chelsea, probably becuase the area was considered outside of London in the early 1840s when his images and guides were written/drawn.

The Literary London Society were also in attendance, an organisation whose stated aim is to ‘foster interdisciplinary and historically wide ranging research into London literature, in its historical, social and cultural contexts’. The LLS pulls together a wide range of people researching London, but from varied different angles, with varying relationships with London literature, including historical geographers, urban historians alongside the expected English Literature researchers. I have previously looked into the possibility of using contemporary literature to provide some indication of how the pre-Embankment landscape was perceived and experienced at the time, but suspect that becuase the volume of mid-late 19th century literature on London is so huge, scouring it for references specifically to the riverside or Chelsea speifically may be beyond the scope of my PhD. Michelle Allen’s book Cleansing the City (2007) gives an indication of how this might work, using detailed analysis of Dickens’ literature to explore the ‘geographies’ of 19th century London. However, one potential way into yet another discipline that I have no experience in, may be the 2017 Literary London Society conference. I am wondering if a session to discuss riverside landscapes in litereature might provide the opportunity to talk to other people who have more expertise and experience in this area? I will ponder.

We were also given a brief introduction to the Layers of London project, being coordinated by the Centre for Metropolitan Research at the Institute of Historical Research. The project is digitising and georeferencing a number of historic maps of the Barking and Dagenham area, however the project may provide both an unusual source of information, and an interesting output for my research. In addition to traditional map regression type work that the project is doing, they are collecting oral histories, biographies and photographic collections to tell a variety of stories. Of particular interest is the collection of oral histories, biographies, and personal photographs from residents of the Gasgoine Estate, which is due to be demolished and ‘regenerated’. Whilst I haven’t had a look at these archives yet, they might provide a fascinating insight into people’s connections with homes and place within the wider estate, thereby providing a contemporary ethnographic view of the impact and effect of imposed housing demolition and landscape remodeling.

Sarah Milligan from British History Online provided an excellent run through of some key sources available through the BHO website. Sources include the Victoria County Histories, the Survey of London and Old and New London, Volume 5 (1878), which provides fabulous descriptions of the changes that the construction of the Chelsea Embankment brought:

At its commencement by Battersea Bridge very little land has been reclaimed from the Thames; but one alteration is worthy of mention—the old awkward way down to the steamboat pier under the archway of a private house has been cleared away, and the pontoon, moored close to the wall, is reached by a bridge resting in an opening in the granite. An old block of houses, too, which stood between this spot and Chelsea Church has been entirely removed. They formed a narrow quaint looking old thoroughfare, called Lombard Street, one part of which was spanned by the upper rooms of an old house. The backs of one side of this thoroughfare overlooked, and here and there overhung, the river; but they have all been cleared away, and the narrow street converted into a broad one, so that one side of it faces the river.’ From <>

Leila Kassir gave a fascinating talk discussing the links between writers of London fictional literature and London historiography, and astutely identified that ways in which these writers become implicated in the creation of London’s identity when they write about the city. I felt slightly shamed by the small volume of ‘London Literature’ that I’ve read, but feel inspired to explore more.

The librarians/archivists had kindly brought a number of interesting volumes for us to look at. One of them was titled ‘London on the Thames: Life Above and Below Bridge’ by Angus B. Reach. Whilst the book itself doesn’t have a publication date, the Birkbeck online catalogue suggests 1848. In this lovely little book are a series of descriptions of the river and riverside, including this passage, which provides a lovely evocative description of the Thames at mid-century:

This chapter is merely devoted to a cursory glance at the river in its now-a-days’ condition, and to attempt to convey to the reader’s mind a general notion of the mass of elements, which, when united, produce the Thames.

Let the student, then, conceive an agglomerate mass made up as follows: – mud banks, dead cats, dead dogs, slimy hurdles, coal-barges, grimy wharfs, common sewers, police galleys, dishes of whitebait, coal-heavers, water-side public-houses, penny steam-boats, mudlarks, Jacks in the Water, tiers of colliers, ugly ballast boats, Dutch craft with Kennet eels, Boulogne steamers with railway defaulters, yachts going as far as Erith on  a voyage to the East Indies, gents conducting gentesses to the Red House at Battersea; stokers fastening down safety-valves, reading penny newspapers, and drinking beer instead of attending to their work; foreigners in funny hats and coats going to see the Tunnel; touters on all the piers shouting ‘Now then, London Bridge, Thames Tunnel, Lime’us, Shadwell, Greenwich, Blackwall, and Woolwich’; rowing-men in flannel shirts and straw-hats, in training for a match; halfpenny boats, penny boats, two-penny boats, three-penny boats, four-penny boats, five-penny boats, six-penny boats –  all puffing, paddling, snortin, blowing- boys in all of them, screaming “move her ahee-id, a turn a sta-arn, ease herrr, stop herrr, back herrr;” imagine all this and a great deal more-tiers of shipping, lines of old tumble-down houses, rigging, chimneys, wharfs, bridges, boats, and everywhere muddy water and restless currents-all moving-all comingling-and all over a canopy of ever-rolling smoke; gather together, we say, all these elements in your minds-eye, and before that eye will be displayed the idea to be conjured up by these magic words “The Thames”.


From: Angus B. Reach, 1848, London on the Thames: Live Above and Below Bridge.