Circa 1896: reinventing the wheel
The images from 1896 are accompanied by the original text in Round London; the captions for the images from today are mine. All images from the work Round London are part of the author's collection and under my copyright. Please also note that the descriptives used in the ‘then’ section have been abridged from the full text. I should add that my efforts here are work-in-progress that I hope to expand when I get the opportunity to return to London.
Some time ago I unearthed the most amazing find in a second-hand bookshop on the Lower Marsh in London, close to Waterloo Station: a well-worn late Victorian work called Round London. Roughly A3 in size it was filled with view after view of London street scenes and famous landmarks circa 1896, the year it was published. Below each image was a long description that outlined the scene for the reader, including several interesting facts that might pique their interest still further. The commentary style was reflective of the late Victorian outlook: self-assured, proud and with a tinge of jingoism. However, the inclusion of so many unusual views and locations – the shots of Whitechapel or the East London docklands area, for example – made this more than just a prototype of a coffee-table travel book. The book's goal was clear: it tries to provide the readers with a visual smorgasbord of London.
Most of the readers would have been members of the middle or upper classes in order to afford a work of this type. I wonder, too, if it was aimed at those who visited London infrequently or who had never been before and were intrigued to find out more. In part, this curiosity to understand and to see London was born of the city's rapid development. Stephen Inwood in his work on the late Victorian and early Edwardian London, City of Cities, argues that this was the era in which today's modern metropolis was laid down. The forces engendered by late Victorian's growth are still with us and include mass immigration; the endless round of housing and office redevelopment; roadworks and road improvement; extentions to the underground tube and overland rail network, to name just a few.
And yet the London of today is also a very different beast. For a start it is much, much taller, with every passing year witnessing another addition to a skyline that was, historically speaking, flat – save for the spires, bell towers and dome of St. Paul's. Still, today's city tries harder now to preserve its past for future generations, particularly buildings listed for historical merit. And this is a lesson for other cities across the world should probably heed. Are more bland condominiums really needed? Then again, will the bland condominiums of today become the listed buildings of tomorrow? With our towers of glass and chrome or other engineering feats of recent years, such as the Millennium Dome, we might feel tempted to feel superior about our innovative use of space, But it is worth remembering that our late Victorian ancestors could be just as imaginative and daring as we are within the confines of the technology available to them. Take the late Victorian Earl's Court wheel. The concept was identical to that of the London Eye's...