Monthly Archives: May 2015

London Streets In The 1980s

The 1980s in London was a decade of considerable change. Long established industries, street scenes, shops and ways of life were being swept away and the often divisive politics of the time were visible painted along the walls.

The mid 1980s are only 30 years ago but walking along London’s streets today I still find it surprising how considerable the change has been in many areas.

For this week’s post, I would like to take you back through a snapshot of London Streets in the 1980s, with some of the photos we took, mainly of south, east and north London.

Local, independent shops once served the majority of London’s residents, often run by the same family for many years. Many of these were in their final years, clinging on whilst much around them had closed:

Street Scenes 1


Street Scenes 4


Street Scenes 5

Many had already long closed, waiting for demolition and the rebuilding of whole streets:

Street Scenes 18

What Londoners would look for when eating out would also soon change. This was before the streets were populated with identical coffee shop brands:

Street Scenes 19

The corner shop was a standard feature of many residential streets. Many of these had closed or were put into some temporary use whilst awaiting either redevelopment or demolition:

Street Scenes 20


Street Scenes 21

A somewhat forlorn tribute to West Ham waits for what will become of these buildings:

Street Scenes 22

The Isle of Dogs is an area where much has changed beyond all recognition. Here a newsagent has found a novel way of continuing business using a shipping container:

Street Scenes 16

But there were large areas of the Isle of Dogs where businesses had closed down for good:

Street Scenes 15

Much of the old industrial and dock areas of the Isle of Dogs were a wasteland with the redevelopment of Canary Wharf, housing and riverside apartments yet to come. Closed gates, vacancy signs that would never again advertise another vacancy sat alongside graffiti that emphasised the perceived lack of concern from the government of the time to the plight of those affected:

Street Scenes 14

There had also been the rise of far right groups. Joe Pearce was imprisoned under the Race Relations Act for publishing the Bulldog magazine and became a cause celebre for these groups. Free Joe Pearce slogans could be found across the east of London, usually with a different slogan added underneath by groups opposing the far right:

Street Scenes 17

Whilst for some groups, anarchy was the only route:

Street Scenes 23

The start of redevelopment was also in evidence across the Isle of Dogs. This is Maconochies Wharf  where clearance and preparation was underway for the building of houses. A mural on the adjacent building emphasising the historical traditions of the Isle of Dogs:

Street Scenes 26

Street advertising for cafes and restaurants was much in evidence. This one in central London at Holborn – the “Perfect Businessman’s Venue” where you could get a 3 course set menu for £7.50

Street Scenes 13

Similar advertising signage could be seen across London’s streets:

Street Scenes 3

At least they were very colourful, even if the representation of what was on offer was probably not very accurate:

Street Scenes 11


Street Scenes 6


Street Scenes 12

This was a time when murals were very much in evidence. Ranging from those that would cover the whole side of a building:

Street Scenes 24

Street Scenes 25

More London Murals from the 1980s can be found in one of my earlier posts here.

Through to more individual efforts:

Street Scenes 8

Signs from a much earlier period were also much in evidence on buildings that would soon be lost:

Street Scenes 7

Only 30 years ago, but in many ways the London Streets in the 1980s were very different to those of today.

A Walk Round The Shell Centre Viewing Gallery

Shell Centre is an office complex on the Southbank, located between Hungerford Bridge and the old London County Council building. The most obvious part of the complex is the 26 storey tower.

Designed by Sir Howard Robertson and built between 1957 and 1962 for the Royal Dutch Shell group of oil companies, the office complex set new standards for staff facilities and building automation. Originally two main blocks, one either side of Hungerford Bridge, the “downstream” building to the east of Hungerford Bridge was sold during the 1990’s and converted to apartments.

Although large buildings above ground, there is a significant part of the complex below ground with a large swimming pool, theatre and bar being among the facilities for the original 5,000 staff to enjoy. Two underground tunnels connected the upstream and downstream buildings, running underneath the rail arches leading to Hungerford Bridge and being just above the underground train tunnels running north from Waterloo.

The building also had a tunnel out to the Thames so that river water could be used for cooling.

The “upstream” building to the west of Hungerford Bridge has a “U” shape set of 10 storey offices with the 26 storey, 351 foot tower block being the most obvious feature of the complex.

Shell has temporarily moved out of the complex and there is a proposed redevelopment of the site that will significantly change this part of the Southbank, more on this at the end of this post.

Long before the Shard and the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street, one of the innovations for the time was that the tower had a public viewing gallery. This was when there were very few tall buildings across London and certainly nothing built or planned in this part of the city. The viewing gallery provided almost continuous all round views of London.

The viewing gallery closed not that long after opening. I was told this was because that sadly there had been a suicide (although I have no verification of this). I was able to visit the viewing gallery in 1980 and took the following photos which show a very different London skyline to that of today. It always surprises me that it was not that long ago that there were very few tall buildings across London.

We will start with the view across to the Houses of Parliament and walk round the viewing gallery.

This was long before the construction of the London Eye which would now be the main feature of this view:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 3

Moving further to the right we can look straight across the river. The large building to the right are the offices of the Ministry of Defence. Buckingham Palace is to the left of centre:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 15

And further to the right, this is the original Charing Cross Station at the end of Hungerford Railway Bridge. In the years after this photo was taken, in common with many other main London stations, office buildings were constructed on top of the station. This was also before the Golden Jubilee foot bridges were added to either side of Hungerford Railway Bridge. At the time the photo was taken there was a single, relatively narrow foot bridge on the east side of the bridge.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 4

Looking directly onto Charing Cross Station with the Post Office Tower in the background and Centre Point to the right:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 2

Further to the right, the building left of centre is Shell-Mex House. This was occupied by the UK operating company of Shell. To the right is Waterloo Bridge.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 14

And further to the right with the full width of Waterloo Bridge:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 13

We are now starting to look over towards the City of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral can be seen to the upper right of centre and the three towers of the Barbican to the left.

The L shaped building in the lower foreground is the downstream building of the Shell Centre complex, and just above this building is the tower that was for London Weekend Television. The base of this tower still consists of TV studios, one of the few buildings that have had the same function over the last 35 years.

To the right of this is Kings Reach Tower, occupied at the time by IPC Magazines, publishers of magazines ranging from Loaded to Country Life. IPC Magazines vacated this tower block some years ago and it is now in the process of being converted into, yes you have probably guessed, more apartments. The height of the building is being raised with additional floors being constructed in top.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 7

And slightly further to the right, the tower in the distance was at the time the tallest office block in the City of London, the recently completed NatWest Tower, built for the NatWest Bank, now renamed as Tower 42.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 1

This photo is looking down onto the roundabout at the southern end of Waterloo Bridge. The large space in the centre of the roundabout is now occupied by an IMAX Cinema. The church to the right is St. John’s, Waterloo. The church was built between 1822 and 1824 and due to the marshy land had to be built on piles.  I was told at the time that one of the reasons for so much space below ground level at Shell Centre was also due to the marshy ground and the need to keep the overall weight on the site equal. Excavating below ground level to remove sufficient weight of earth equal to the weight of building on top. No idea if this is true, but it does seem plausible.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 5

This photo is looking straight across to the City and Southwark. There is nothing of any height in the far distance. The buildings of Canary Wharf would now be very visible in the distance.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 9

Continuing to move to the right, this is looking over south-east London with the roof of Waterloo Station occupying the bottom right corner of the photo.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 8

And round to the right again looking over south London with the extensive network of tracks leading into Waterloo Station. The lower section of tracks at the bottom part of the photo would soon be converted to the London terminus of Eurostar prior to the completion of the HS1 rail route which transferred Eurostar trains into St. Pancras.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 11

Detail from the above photo showing British Rail rolling stock prior to privatisation of the rail network:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 18And a final view over to south west London. This was as far as the viewing gallery would allow, the gallery did not run along the western side of the tower:

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 12

I cannot remember why I was using Black and White film when I took these photos from the viewing gallery. Shortly after taking the above, I took the following photo in colour showing Shell Centre from the north bank of the Thames. The north facing part of the viewing gallery can be clearly seen at the very top.

Shell Centre Viewing Gallery 17

The building is one of the few immediate post war developments that works well. If the proposed redevelopment of the site gets approval, it will be very different. The plans propose the demolition of the “U” shaped 10 storey office block at the base of the tower, and a whole new cluster of towers built around the original tower.

To see the proposed development, look here.

It was quite a surprise to see how much this area will change, and in my view, the close proximity of towers of very different materials and design to the original tower just does not look right.

It was fascinating to look back on these photos of the London skyline from 1980. It looks very different now, and the almost continuous development of tower blocks look set to continue transforming the skyline for many years to come, although unlike the original Shell Centre complex, with almost identical glass and steel towers that are removing so much of the local character of London.

A Brief History Of Aldersgate Street

The following photo is from 1947 and shows a street with a very large heap of rubble on the land to the right. When I scanned this negative, I was doubtful as to whether I would find the location. There appears to be a sign on the wall to the left of the pillar in the centre of the photo, but this cannot be read when zooming in due to the definition within the original 35mm film stock.

I was sorting through some boxes with photos that my father had printed from the original negatives and I found the same photo, and on the rear was written Aldersgate Street.

Although I cannot be sure where on Aldersgate Street the photo was taken, I am very sure that it is looking north. Most of the wartime damage in this area was to the east of Aldersgate Street on the land that would be redeveloped as the Barbican estate. The west, whilst suffering bomb damage did nor suffer the same extensive fire damage caused by incendiary raids. including the one on the 29th December 1940.

The huge heap of rubble must be from the buildings demolished on the future site of the Barbican. Comparing the height of the rubble with the lamppost gives some idea of how much must have been removed from the site.

Aldersgate 1

It is impossible to know exactly where on Aldersgate Street this photo was taken, but to give an idea of how the area looks now, I took the following photo on Aldersgate Street, looking north. The Barbican development is on the right. The road has been considerably widened, and the photo would have been somewhere along this scene.

Aldersgate 2

Aldersgate Street is an old street and was so named after the northern gate of the city.

Although originally it did not go any distance as Bishopsgate received the traffic from the north, Aldgate from the east, Newgate from the west and Bridge Gate from the south.

Aldersgate appears to have simply opened out upon moor land, but gained greater significance when it was used as an access point to Smithfield when the area began to be used as a market for horses and cattle and a number of religious establishments.

In researching the street, there are a few very different explanations for the name.

Starting with Stow, whose Survey of London is used by many later historians as a source of historical fact, Stow states that:

“The next is AEldresgate, or Aldersgate, so-called not of Aldrich, or of Elders, that is to say, ancient men, builders therefore, nor of Eldarne trees, growing there more abundantly than in other places as some have fabuled, but for the very antiquity of the gate itself, as being one of the first 4 gates of the city and serving for the Northerne parts, as Aldegate for the East.”

Walter Thornbury in Old and New London partly quotes Stowe:

“Aldersgate was one of the four original gates of London, and formed the extreme corner to the north. Some say it was named after Aldrich, a Saxon, who built it; others, says Stowe attribute it to the Alder trees which grew around it.” 

Sir Walter Besant writing in 1910 in his History of the City of London states:

“Stow’s derivation from the “Elder” or “Older” gate is too far-fetched. It is named probably from one Ealdered, its earliest name being “Aldredesgate”.

Two books published in the early 20th century give different interpretations. Harold Clunn in the Face of London writes:

We pass next to Aldersgate Street. This thoroughfare is so names from the northern gate of the City, the name of which in turn is derived from the alder trees which once grew around the gate”.

Whilst Gertrude Rawlings writing in The Street Names of London states:

“In the laws of Ethelred, c 1000, Ealdredsgate (and variations). The gate of Ealdred or Aldred, a Saxon Londoner of whom nothing more is known.”

A number of recent London street name books I have checked seem to be playing safe by not including Aldersgate Street.

I am inclined to go for the Saxon name of Ealdred or Aldred as the source of the name. Fascinating to think that someone living at that time could have given his name to one of London’s major streets, but it also demonstrates the difficult in establishing the truth behind many of the older street names in London and that you should not always believe the explanation given in a single book, always best to seek as much evidence as possible.

It is interesting to understand what was on the east site of Aldersgate Street as a large network of streets were lost under the Barbican development.

The following map is from the 1940 edition of Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of Great London. Unfortunately this area is to the edge of the page, but it does show that to the east of Aldersgate Street were a network of streets and courts. All of these have since disappeared, indeed the only remaining landmark is the Ironmongers Hall which is still there, hidden behind the Museum of London which has been built over Maidenhead Court and Blue Lion Court.

Aldersgate 6

The 1910 map published alongside Besant’s History of the City provides more detail of the network of streets and courts to the east of Aldersgate Street:

Aldersgate 5

Going back further to John Rocque’s map of London published in 1746, Aldersgate Street is also on the edge of the map sheet, but we can see the network of streets and courts on the east side that had already been in place for many years, and would last to the second half of the 20th century:

Aldersgate 3

Going back further, Aldersgate is mentioned many times in medieval records, for example:

In 1339 the Chamberlain of Guildhall spent 20s and 4d on the pavement of the gate of Aldersgate, the pavement being one of cobbled stones laid close and rammed. This being an indication that there was a good amount of traffic through Aldersgate as money was only spent on the provision of a cobbled pavement where there was significant traffic.

In 1346 a certain Simon is hanged for robbery at Aldersgate.

In 1350 there are records of the shops within Aldersgate.

In 1391 a scrivener stands in a pillory without Aldersgate for forgery.

The original gate at Aldersgate was in a very bad state by 1510. Recorded in the Presentment of the Wardmote Inquest of the Ward of Aldersgate is:

“Item: we present Aldrygegate in Joberdy of fallyng downe, yt synkys so sore”

The original gate was taken down in 1617 and rebuilt to a new design. In honour of the king an equestrian statue was included in the new gate just above the arch. The cost of the new gate was £1,000 and was funded by a bequest from a certain William Parker, Merchant Taylor.

The new Aldersgate gate:

Aldersgate 7

William Maitland’s History and Survey of London from 1756 provides a view of how the ward was kept safe at night:

“There are to watch at Aldersgate, and other stands in this Ward, every Night, one Constable, the Beadle, and 44 Watchman. And in the liberty of St Martins-le-Grand, which is in this Ward, 12. In all 56.”

Maitland also described the state of the street in 1756:

“Aldersgate Street, very spacious and long, and although the Buildings are old, and not uniform, yet many of them are very good, and well inhabited.”

The gate at Aldersgate was removed in 1761. As with other City gates, it was too narrow and restricting on the amount of traffic that was now travelling in and out of the city.

To mark the northern limits of the City, two pillars were erected in 1874 as shown in the following drawing from the time, looking down Aldersgate Street with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance:

Aldersgate 4

The 1932 edition of The Face of London provides a view of Aldersgate Street shortly before the last war:

“Thirty years ago Aldersgate Street was a shabby thoroughfare, but during our own century it has greatly increased in importance. On the west side, at the corner of Long lane, is the Manchester Hotel, and next door is the Metropolitan Railway station which was opened for traffic in 1865.”

As with many other streets across London, the coming of the railway provided an incentive for new developments and new trades in the local area.

The same book also states that in 1932 the Corporation of London was considering an investment of £1,500,000 to widen Aldersgate Street to 80 feet from St. Martins le Grand to Goswell Road as the road was very narrow.

The wartime devastation to the east of Aldersgate Street shown in my father’s photo at the start of this article provided all the opportunity needed to widen the road, and it is this incarnation of Aldersgate Street that we see today.

The sources I used to research this post are:

  • Old and New London by Walter Thornbury published in 1881
  • London, The City by Sir Walter Besant published in 1910
  • The History of London from its Foundations to the Present Time by William Maitland published in 1754
  • The Face of London by Harold P. Clunn published in 1951
  • Stow’s Survey of London . Oxford 1908 reprint of 1603 edition
  • The Streets Names of London by Gertrude Burford Rawlings
  • Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of Greater London published in 1940

VE Day In London – 1945 And 2015

Friday, 8th May was the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, the day in 1945 when the war in Europe officially came to an end. There are plenty of photos and film showing the celebrations in London on the day and throughout the night. The lights are starting to come back on and crowds throng the West End.

Apart from being evacuated for a couple of weeks at the very start of the war, my father lived in London throughout, in flats which still exist, just off Redhill Street in Camden. As well as a large collection of photos, he also left a detailed account of his experiences in London during the war. Written shortly after, these tell of the horror and also the sense of adventure that comes from the perspective of someone growing up in London.

His account finishes with a few paragraphs covering VE Day, written from the perspective of someone who has spent all their teenage years in London during the war, and for that generation, VE Day meant not going back to normal, but rather a future with plenty of uncertainty.

I decided to take a walk on Friday night and follow his footsteps exactly 70 years after his walk through London on VE Day, 1945, but before my account, the following is how my father saw VE Day on the 8th May 1945:

So now the long war was finally over, in Europe at least, which to many seemed the real war. Locally, as throughout the country preparations were quickly made for a celebration. Trestle tables magically appeared, placed end to end in the courtyards beneath the blocks of flats, where they could be fitted in between the surface shelters and the bicycle sheds, for a grand children’s party. Similarly, flags and bunting appeared at windows and were strung between balconies, reminiscent to me of my last children’s party, for the Coronation of 1937. Indeed, it was clear that cardboard cut-outs of their Majesties, together with slogans of “God Bless The King And Queen” had been safely stored since then.

Elsewhere bonfires in the streets were made ready for the evening of the 8th. A huge bonfire was prepared on part of Cumberland Market, the local boys dragging old doors and any timber they could lay their hands on to add to the pile.

As for myself, I had made arrangements with my friend Gus, whom I had known since infants school days, that on that evening, we would make our way to the West End to watch the celebrations.

Outrageous it may sound, but I didn’t feel like celebrating, and it became clear that Gus felt the same. The war had begun when I was eleven and, now being seventeen, the whole of those six years, despite every hardship, had been the only real and normal life that I could recognise, for I was a child before September 1939. therefore peacetime presented a prospect of the Great Unknown, in which the unity of wartime would vanish.

So it was that I felt a complete outsider, observing only the dancing, singing and general merrymaking taking place in the West End. Servicemen would now rightly look forward to a return to civilian life, with the promise of a better life than the one they had left; but with the war in the far east not yet over, Gus and I had to await our call-up to the services and I, as a temporary Civil servant, would be without a job to return to, if and when I did.

Darkness had fallen by the time we had managed to reach the end of Regent Street, where the crowds were vast and well lit by the unaccustomed brilliance from the lights, made even brighter by roving searchlights picking out the revellers for the benefit of the cine cameras.  On one of the balcony’s overlooking Piccadilly Circus, the musical star, Zoe Gail appeared, dressed in top hat and tails to sing “I’m Going To get Lit Up When The Lights Go On In London” which was rapturously received by the crowds.

However as observers, we eventually left the Circus, walking south along Regent Street to Waterloo Place. Here we came across the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall, which to me presented the most spectacular illumination of the night. The building, constructed in Ancient Greek style, had been freshly painted a pale yellow colour and subtly lit. The balustrade bordering the Club surmounted by torches. Each had been filled with oil or similar and lit, producing a spectacular dish of flame, adding to the warm light bathing the building.

And so we made our way through central London taking it all in, the lights, the shop windows, the decorations and individual celebrations, until we found ourselves in Chiltern Street, which runs parallel with Baker Street. Celebrations at the London Fire Brigade building were well underway. The station gates were wide open and in the drill yard blazed a large fire. In one corner a piano was playing old favourites, while several elderly ladies performed a nifty “Knees Up Mother Brown”. We didn’t join in the dancing or sing any songs, but the beer and food was welcome, and I felt at home in the fire station.

Now the early hours of the morning, V.E. Day was over. we made our way home both wondering what life held in store for us.

Preliminaries to the 1945 General Election being contested by our great wartime leader, Winston Churchill, for me set the seal on the end of an era. I watched Churchill campaigning at Mornington Crescent, Camden Town, his open car surrounded by a rather hostile crowd. The great man was standing, raised hat in his left hand, cigar in his right. from an onlooker came a cry “Ere, Winston, try one of our fags!” followed by a Woodbine pack hurled at Churchill who turned the other cheek as his car drive on.

The future must have seemed very uncertain at the time. I suspect that he “felt at home in the fire station” was due to his grandfather, my great-grandfather being the Superintendent of East Ham Fire Station.

On Friday night, I set out from the West End to reach Chiltern Street by dusk and find out if the fire station was still there, and then walk back during the late evening to photograph the West End as it is now, very different to the same night 70 years earlier.

Turning off Baker Street and a short walk down to Chiltern Street, it was easy to spot the old Fire Station, the exterior looks much as it must have done when my father and Gus stopped here 70 years earlier, although now the building has a very different purpose. The building is now the Chiltern Firehouse, a bespoke luxury hotel and restaurant.

I took the following photo of the Fire Station as the light was fading on Friday evening. The original function of the building is very clear, the three large doors providing access to where the fire engines would have been waiting for a fast exit to the street.

VE Day 1

Just to the left of the main building is the old drill yard mentioned in my father’s account. This  also forms part of the Chiltern Firehouse and the original entrance still remains.

I stood for a while looking at what is a wonderful building, the architecture a clear statement of the standing in which the Fire Service at the time was held. As I waited, there was an almost constant stream of taxis dropping people off for either the restaurant or hotel and entering via the old drill yard entrance. Very different to the same place, 70 years earlier.

VE Day 2Pleased to have found that the Chiltern Street Fire Station building is still there, I then headed back through Manchester Square, to Oxford Street and then to the top of Regent Street.

In Regent Street looking back up to Oxford Circus:

VE Day 4Regent Street is still lined with shops as it was in 1945, but the shops are now rather different than they were. Walk down the street now and you pass the status shops of global brands:

VE Day 3

Shops with displays, variety and colour that would still have been a distant dream along the Regent Street of 1945:

VE Day 5

Regent Street is well-lit, but on reaching the end of this part of the street, the brighter lights of Piccadilly Circus beckon:

VE Day 6Piccadilly Circus is brilliantly lit at night and was one of the centres of celebration on the 8th May 1945. Late evening in 2015 and it is still busy, but nothing like the crowds my father was in, that were here in the same evening in 1945.

VE Day 7Eros as it is now generally known, or the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain to use the original and full name is the focal point of Piccadilly, but sits almost in the shade of the surrounding buildings:

VE Day 8

Illuminated advertising has always been a central feature of Piccadilly Circus:

VE Day 9I followed my father’s route through Piccadilly Circus and down to the lower end of Regent Street to Waterloo Place.

Waterloo Place is at the junction of Pall Mall and Regent Street and leads down to the 1834 column that forms the monument to the Duke of York. Much quieter than Piccadilly Circus and Regent Street.

Steps lead down from Waterloo Place to The Mall and I can imagine that in 1945 this was a far busier celebration route from Buckingham Palace to Piccadilly Circus.

Looking from Waterloo Place, up Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus:

VE Day 10

The Athenæum Club still faces onto Waterloo Place and as my father described in 1945 is still “painted a pale yellow colour and subtly lit” although on this 8th May the torches, which can still be seen around the 1st floor balustrade were unfortunately not lit:

VE Day 11The Athenæum Club on the left with the Crimean War memorial in the centre of Waterloo Place, looking up to the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus:

VE Day 12He did not say where else he walked on VE Day, but having been in Waterloo Place, there is a good chance that he probably walked down to The Mall and to Trafalgar Square, so I took the same route. Looking from the centre of The Mall towards Admiralty Arch:

VE Day 13Flags on Admiralty Arch with the light from the searchlights in Trafalgar Square shining on the clouds. The searchlights had been set-up for the weekend as part of London’s celebrations of the 70th anniversary.

VE Day 14And in Trafalgar Square with the National Gallery in the background, the “V” searchlights pick out the top of Nelsons Column:

VE Day 15After Trafalgar Square I took a quick walk down to the footbridge alongside Hungerford Railway Bridge to see if the “V” searchlights from St. Paul’s Cathedral were visible. The view along the Thames to the City from here is fantastic during the day, but takes on an additional dimension at night. 70 years ago, this view would probably still have been dark, although searchlights that had been used a few years earlier to pick out enemy bombers were being used that night to illuminate the Cathedral.

VE Day 16And a final close-up clearly shows the V searchlights from St. Paul’s Cathedral:

VE Day 17It was fascinating to walk the same route as my father and his friend Gus, exactly 70 years later and consider how London has changed. I was really pleased to find that the Chiltern Street Fire Station is still there.

My father’s account of his life in London during the war was written soon after. The lack of much detail about VE Day itself, rather thoughts and concerns about the future probably reflect how many Londoners of the same age were feeling. After six years of war, the years of bombing, the V1 and V2, the threat to London had at last been removed, however the war in the far east was far from an end and National Service was imminent.

He did not take any photos on the night, as he did not get his first camera until 1946. When he did, one of the first photos was of St. Paul’s Cathedral lit up by searchlights. So, to finish off, this must have been how the Cathedral appeared on VE Day:

VE Day 18


The Royal Festival Hall – Dramatic Effects Of Space And Vista

I recently scanned some of my father’s photos which included the last photos he took in the early 1950s of the Royal Festival Hall. These photos show the area soon after the closure of the Festival of Britain when much of the infrastructure for the Festival was still in place.

At the end of this post I have put together a time sequence of photos of the site from 1947 through to 2015 showing the original site, during construction and photos taken in the early 1980s and 2015.

But first, the recently scanned photos, the first is of the Royal Festival Hall taken soon after closure of the Festival of Britain exhibition, from the footbridge alongside the Hungerford Railway Bridge.

Festival H4

And from the same location in April 2015:

Festival H6

The overall shape of the Royal Festival Hall is exactly as it was when first built, however there have been a number of cosmetic changes to the front with the middle tier window line now stretching across the full front of the hall and changes to the top tier with a balcony now between the glass and the front of the hall.

I planned to take the 2015 photo before the trees had come into leaf as when the leaves are fully grown the trees considerably obstruct the view of the hall. I was not early enough!

Please do not get me wrong, we do not plant enough trees, within the city and across the country, however there are some places where trees are in the wrong position. The Royal Festival Hall is, in my view, one of the very few buildings constructed soon after the last war that works well architecturally and is in the right location. The Royal Festival Hall was always designed to be seen from and across the River Thames and to provide views along to the City.

The trees in front of the building considerably obscure the building from the walkway across Hungerford Bridge and from the north bank of the Thames.

As the original Festival Guide stated:

“The Royal Festival Hall can claim to be a work of art in itself. The superb dramatic effects of space and vista, within the building and beyond it to the river and the city, are things which the visitor will discover for himself.”

Note also how in the original photo the Royal Festival Hall did not have any buildings in the background to detract from the view of the hall. A very different situation in 2015. To the right of the hall is the building that was the downstream building of Shell Centre, but has now been converted from offices to apartments. To the left is the Kent House Tower above the London TV Studios and behind that with the crane on the top is the South Bank Tower, again another building being converted from offices to apartments.

Walking a short distance further along the Hungerford footbridge, we can take a look down at the walkway in front of the Royal Festival Hall:

Festival H3

The poles are part of the decoration from the Festival of Britain. The photo also shows the observation platforms which I have heard of, but not seen photos of until scanning these negatives. There were six of these raised platforms extending just over the river wall and must have been a fantastic place to sit and view the surroundings.

At the far right of the photo is the Shot Tower, to the left can just be seen the walkway to the river pier, and in the distance is an excellent view over towards St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The view is very different in 2015:

Festival H7

The observation platforms are unfortunately long gone, and later replicas of the poles that can be seen in the original photo are just visible, however the view is considerably obstructed by the trees. Again, an example of why I would argue that this area of the Southbank is the wrong place for trees and their removal would open up both the view of the Royal Festival Hall and the views along the river and to the city.

The guide-book for the Festival of Britain shows the area in front of the Royal Festival Hall including the six observation platforms:

Festival H9

Walking almost to the end of the footbridge, we can look down and watch those out for a walk along the Southbank:

Festival H2

And the same location in 2015:

Festival H8

And a final view across to the Royal Festival Hall, with the Shot Tower on the left:

Festival H1

During the Festival, the Shot Tower had a Radio Telescope aerial mounted on the top. I had always assumed this was for decoration only, however the Festival Guide explains that it was a fully working system that would bounce radio signals off the moon, allowing visitors to see the time delay between the transmitted and reflected signal. The aerial system was mounted on a redundant gun mounting which could be moved to allow the aerial to track the moon.

From the Festival Guide Book:

“The Tower has been one of the landmarks of London since it was built-in 1826. It remains the only old building on the site, to serve as a beacon for the Festival. It is a beacon in two senses: it is a modern lighthouse with a double flashing beam welcoming visitors as far as 45 miles away when the weather is clear; it is a radio beacon directing radio signals to the moon and beyond into space.

The lighthouse mounted at the top will flash from sunset to Exhibition closing time. It has a power of 3 million candles. It is of the most modern all-electric design and so takes up far less space than the older types which needed weighty lenses to intensify the beam. The light itself comes from a lamp of three thousand watts; an automatic device ensures that a second lamp can swing into position should it fail. This lighthouse optic is the work of Chance Brothers Ltd., who made all the glass for the original Crystal Palace a hundred years ago.

The radio beam is above the lighthouse optic. The most obvious part of it is a large reflector which beams the signal from the aerial within it on to the moon. This is part of the radio telescope and is connected with the display in the Dome of Discovery by underground cable. In the Dome visitors can transmit signals to the moon and actually see them reflected back to the earth after about two and a half seconds.”

This was 64 years ago and I wonder if our public demonstration of science has progressed much since.

The following is from the Festival Guide and shows the detail of the top of the Shot Tower. As with the observation platforms, it would have been good if the Shot Tower could have been preserved as part of the Southbank’s history.

Festival H10

Also on the negatives were some photos of the following structure:

Festival H5

This was at the far eastern end of the Festival Hall site (Waterloo Bridge can just be seen at the lower right). The numbers on the central arch are the years 1851 and 1951.

1851 was the year of the Great Exhibition held in the “Crystal Palace” in Hyde Park. This structure looks to be a very rough approximation of the original Crystal Palace building. Both exhibitions had a very similar theme to demonstrate the country’s strength in industry and science.

I have featured this area of the Southbank in a number of posts to highlight different periods in the development of the site. I have brought the photos taken by my father and myself together in the following sequence to show how the site has changed from 1947 to 2015.

Starting in 1947, and the site still retains the original buildings with the Shot Tower on the left and Lion Brewery building to the right:

Festival 4

Construction starts. This is a panorama of several of my father’s photos to show the whole of the building site that would become the Royal Festival Hall:


Construction is now well underway with cranes and scaffolding surrounding the building (compare this with the 1947 photo):

Festival 1

And repeating the photo from this week’s post, the completed Royal Festival Hall just after the Exhibition:

Festival H4

Now fast forward 30 years to the early 1980s and this is one of my photos of the Royal Festival Hall. Still no trees and the hall is an impressive site from the north bank of the Thames:

Festival H11

Summer 2014 and even from the height of the walkway along the side of Hungerford Bridge, the hall is hiding behind the trees:


The guidebook to the Festival in the section on the Royal Festival Hall explains that it is a work of art in itself  and “the superb dramatic effects of space and vista, within the building and beyond it to the river and the city“. With the way that London is growing, the opportunity to appreciate space and vista at ground level is diminishing. It would be good if the area in front of the Royal Festival Hall could be opened up again to meet the original intentions of the architects.

You may also be interested in my other articles on this area:

The South Bank – Before the Festival of Britain and the Royal Festival Hall

The Royal Festival Hall – Before, During And After Construction