5 ‘Lost London’ Books



Pictured above: The King’s Cross Aerodrome, an eight-runway nightmare developed by British Airways to balance on the tops of central London buildings and deliver plane passengers by lifts to the stations. There are a great many books about the London buildings that no longer physically exist, or never came to be. What we become aware of when reading them is the short-sightedness of architects and borough councillors. The best (and most lavish) volume of them all is London’s Lost Panoramas from English Heritage Books, a vast photographic record of streets and buildings that have gone, but here are a further five excellent volumes that will show you a city you’ve never seen.

1. Lost London by Richard Guard

Here’s the story of London simply told through buildings, parks and palaces that no longer exist, like the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the leading venue for public entertainment in the city for over 200 years, or the Palace of Whitehall, whose 1500 rooms made it the largest royal residence in Europe until it was destroyed by fire. There are bull rings, ice fairs, plague pits and molly houses, although it’s a fairly cursory jaunt with only a page on each – but a good introduction to the subject.

2. London As It Might Have Been by Felix Barker & Ralph Hyde

These are the buildings and schemes planned for London that didn’t make it off the page. There’s a lot of detail here taken from public archives and collections, and much of it is fascinating. There was going to be a sixty foot pineapple on top of St Paul’s and a railway down the middle of the Thames. I like the plans for the ornate French chateau that would have been the Foreign Office, and the fabulous 230 foot high statue of Britannia that nearly got built in Greenwich – instead we got stuck with boring General Wolfe.

3.  The London We Have Lost by Richard Tames

This is about buildings that were constructed, only to be torn down, and they’re listed alphabetically from the staggeringly vulgar Egyptian Hall (not unlike Harrods) in Piccadilly to Collins’ Music Hall in Islington, which now houses a bookshop. There were things that deserved to be destroyed, like pillories, prisons and pest houses, and buildings foolishly abandoned, like the glamorous Holborn Restaurant and the Ring boxing arena in Blackfriars.

4. The Lost Rivers of London by Nicholas Barton

This is the third edition of a fairly definitive book, although it doesn’t show you how to find the remnants of the rivers. The author locates the ones which were once above ground in London, though now mostly or completely buried and only occasionally apparent. He surveys what we know of them and their courses, their uses and their effect on London’s development. It’s a bit of a dry work compared to other books on the rivers, but thorough. Check out also, London’s Lost Rivers, with a foreword by Admin.

5. Lost Victorian Britain by Gavin Stamp

This is about how the twentieth century destroyed the architectural masterpieces of the nineteenth, an erudite and passionately angry book about the astonishing buildings that were thrown away by morons, many of them on the take from developers. From the Metropolitan Theatre to the Holborn Viaduct Hotel, Stamp has dug out astonishing photographs of exteriors and interiors that are lost and can never be replaced. The stories of some buildings are not just of mismanagement; some failed to flourish because they were constructed in the wrong areas, and fell foul of the taste for modernism.

11 comments on “5 ‘Lost London’ Books”

  1. pheeny says:

    I would love to read “London as it might have been” but blimey!
    the price of it, even second hand in paperback

  2. Vivienne says:

    Pheeny, get your library to order it, please make use of libraries while they still exist.

    Hope the Chiswick Empire appears in one of these books: sad loss replaced by boring glass box office block.

  3. Janet Wilson says:

    Vivienne is right- any library will get any available book for you, in my experience- use it ir lose it… I borrowed a volume on lost London vernacular- south of the river were many weatherboard cottages, as are still found in des res Kentish villages; nearly all London ones condemned and demolished in early 20thc. But my most regretted lost London building is Northumberland House, a bloody great Jacobethan palace that survived long enough to be photographed just across from Trafalgar Square. I believe it was gutted by fire and demolished in the 1870s..?

  4. Janet Wilson says:

    ( No Snowy, that ‘ir”s not a West of England burr, just a typo. And having always lived in south Bristol, I know nothing of The Gas..!)

  5. snowy says:

    *giggle* 🙂

  6. Me says:

    The number of buildings that have suffered the fates described is criminal, it isn’t just London either. Photos of how my home town looked 40 years ago compared to the dead soulless place it is now could make you weep.

  7. Vivienne says:

    Once had a wonderful book on Paris: pictures now (except in about 1975) and nineteenth century of exactly the same places. The contrast was shocking: it was the ‘street furniture’. We are so used to all this clutter, but it really brought home how awful all those signs can make a place, and the way the trees have been cut down, yellow lines painted and so on. Lent the book to someone so haven’t got it now. Anyway, Kensington High St and Exhibition Road are turning the clock back, so there is hope.

  8. glasgow1975 says:

    There was a serious plan to bulldoze most of Glasgow including Charles Rennie Macintosh’s School of Art, City Chambers, Kelvingrove Art Galleries and Central Station and replace it all with spiffing concrete brutalist blocks – there was a very interesting documentary on about it recently – the irony is the few blocks that did get built are now being demolished . . .

  9. Janet Wilson says:

    Glasgow brought to mind Osbert Lancaster’s ‘Draynefleet Revealed’. In each era of Draynefleet, the same beggar is shown- in ‘the Draynefleet of the future’, he’s by a subway under a flyover.

  10. pheeny says:

    Yes, Vivienne and Janet I will go to the library – (I am a big fan and generally have about ten or eleven books out at any given time!) but I was hoping to get a copy as a present for someone else …
    socks it is then!

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Am so *very* glad the bulldoze Glasgow plan came to nowt. The Art School and all were wonderful to see and a local lady pointed out the best side to view at the Art School. “We’re very proud of it,” she said.

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