London 1896

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...

London Eye today: Located on the Southbank, next  to  old city hall, is the London Eye. A visitor might  hear it being called the Millennium Wheel because it was one of Britain’s special 'Year 2000' projects. It is usually sponsored by a multinational so you might also hear it being called ABC Monkey Nuts’ London Eye or the Acme Poodle Lighters’ London Eye depending on who's to plaster the space with advertising screed. The London Eye was popular almost from the day it was unveiled and affords fantastic views of the city, but particularly of Parliament, which lies just nouthwest of the wheel, across the River Thames. Meanwhile, it is worth reflecting on the late-Victorian Great Wheel as it was an amazing feat of technology for  its time. Incidentally, Earl’s Court was where London's primary exhibition grounds used to be located and the Great Wheel was part of this. It was opened in 1895 and was eventually demolished in 1907 having carried well over 2 million persons. By contrast, the London Eye achieves more than 3 million visitors per year.

Earl’s Court circa 1896: The largest wheel in the world is over 300ft in height, and has taken much more than a year to build. The axle of the wheel is some 7ft in diameter and weighs 60 tons, while the blocks in which the axle-ends work weigh 11 tons each. The wheel is rotated by means of powerful chain gearing, driven by steam engines of 100 horsepower. There are forty cars, each holding between thirty and forty people. All London is spread before the passenger in the topmost car, and on a clear day even Windsor Castle is distinctly visible.

Moving pictures: Finally, it is worth remembering that London in  the late Victorian period was a dynamic, moving city – one filled with hustle and bustle. The images I've presented are just  moments captured by the camera. But a new medium for recording daily life was being painstakingly developed during this period and was starting, ever so slowly, to excite and capture the imagination of millions. I’m talking about film of course. Presented here are some of London's most vivid streets captured in 1903 and preserved by the wonderful British Film Institute. As we watch these images we should consider  the technological revolution underway on these streets: the use of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, which would lead  to the inevitable demise of horse-drawn traffic and change the face of urban planning forever.

Then and now 1896

'The wheel is rotated by means of a powerful chain gearing, driven by steam engines of 100 horsepower'

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Around St Paul's

Fleet street and the Strand

Westminster and Lambeth

Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Street

Around Trafalgar Square

Victoria Station

Marble Arch and Kensington Gardens

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