After Lost Rivers, Vanished Neighbourhoods
In 2011 I wrote the foreword for a book called ‘London’s Lost Rivers’ by Tom Bolton. Unlike other books on the subjects it was the first comprehensive walker’s guide, and showed you how to trace the path of the rivers overground. Along the way there were tidbits about the rivers themselves – but as a book it was quite tricky to read without actually taking the routes while you were doing so.
Tom is now back with ‘Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighbourhoods’, which is a far more enticing project because it gives full rein to his excellent prose style and works as a history book. Also, in the crowded area of London books, it occupies a unique space with many original stories to tell that have not, to my knowledge, been covered elsewhere.
First up is the missing neighbourhood of Clare Market, which ran between Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It was the centre of a web of confusing alleys and backstreets with a reputation for prostitution and hard drinking. In the early 1700s there were at least 107 pleasure-houses within it, and William Hogarth used to meet at the Bull’s Head Tavern in Clare Market. The area’s fetid atmosphere is illustrated, Tom says, by the chapel that illicitly buried the dead, selling their clothes after boiling them and leaving the rotting bodies piled in the basement. Excavations in 1844 revealed 12,000 bodies even while the building above was still being used as a casino and a theatre.
So what happened to Clare Market? It was gradually demolished in an effort to improve the area, but now the site is inhabited by the London School of Economics (Mick Jagger and Monica Lewinski went there, so maybe it’s still a bit disreputable), and the LSE has largely preserved the maze of alleys, courtyards and unexpected bridges, remaining a notoriously difficult area to navigate.
Other neighbourhoods explored include Cripplegate, which entirely vanished in one night of the Blitz, Limehouse, London’s first Chinatown, Norton Folgate, between Shoreditch and the City of London, Horselydown by London Bridge, once known as ‘London’s Larder’, Ratcliff, known as Sailortown, White City, the first Olympic park, and others. Tom is a natural storyteller, and this is his best book yet, well worth £11.99 and a must for Londonists. It’s published by Strange Attractor Press.