Tag Archives: london maps

Geometric London

I once thought that the Great Pyramid of Gaza was at 756ft x 756ft the same dimensions as Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but alas as pyramids by the laws of physics need to be absolutely square and that London square is clearly not those perfect dimensions. The Circle Line never lived up to its name, as being not exactly a circle, nowadays it doesn’t even travel in a circular direction.

So, leaving out ‘squares’, we start with the largest rectangle in London Lincoln’s Inn Fields measuring 821ft x 625ft, closely followed by Grosvenor Square or Grosvenor Oblong at 680ft x 530ft.

The smallest rectangle open to the public is Pickering Place barely large enough to have 4 tenements along one side.

The definition of a circle is that all points in the same plane must lie at an equal distance from a centre point. I’ve found very few true circles, so the largest appears to be the Inner Circle, Regent’s Park at 1,082ft diameter or at 330m diameter, curiously makes it one kilometre in circumference.

At the other end of the circle, so to speak, is Percy Circus just off King’s Cross Road, which by my calculations (I didn’t get out a tape measure) has a diameter of 246ft. It also has the unwelcome distinction of once hosting Lenin and his wife Nadia at No. 16.

For my oval, I have to point you in the direction of London’s most famous – the Kennington Oval a street surrounding the world’s famous cricket ground at 345yds x 230yds.

As for the smallest oval I’m going for Finsbury Circus, for amongst many contenders it actually is a perfect oval at 148ft x 115ft. Located near Moorgate Station on the site of the old Bethlem Royal Hospital from which the pejorative term bedlam originates.

What constitutes a triangle? Well, anyone who has sat through a tedious geometry lesson will know there are numerous examples of that shape. So rather cheekily I’m going for the Shoreditch Silicon Triangle, as the largest with Old Street (65yds along one edge), Great Eastern Street (468yds) and Shoreditch High Street (574yds), all measurements approximate.

As for the smallest triangle, its no contest from an area I know well. The Triangle, Palmers Green measuring not much larger than a substantial garden shed, but famous if only for the departure point of a number of buses.

Back to the question of squares. Manchester Square at 300ft x 280ft almost makes it, while the larger Belgrave Square 636ft x 665ft falls short by 29ft. Parliament Square seems a strong contender but has rounded corners.

So my selection of perfect squares, admittedly I’ve not tested the theory, are in no particular order: Chalcot Square; West Square; Soho Square; St. James’s Square; and Stockwell Gardens.

The A-Zed of London

I was flicking through a facsimile of Phyllis Pearsall’s Geographers’ London A-Z, first printed in 1938 before World War II bombing and post-war redevelopment. Boasting that it contained 23,000 streets, ‘9,000 more than any other similar atlas’ and priced at 1/- or 5p at today’s money.

Using the book’s title as the starting point the first street in their index is Abbeville Road, SW4 and the last that Phillis found on her supposed 12-month trudge around London was Zoffany Street, N19, given as 16E:36 which wasn’t to be found on those coordinates given, or anywhere else I could find. Also were 31 pages set in 8pt of LCC street name changes, all very confusing.

Roll on nearly 80 years and my, now digital A-Z Navigation Master, reveals that both of these streets at either end of the alphabet have been eclipsed by later contenders, and within a nanosecond, my device points me in the correct direction.

Digital speed

The single keystroke gave me the first street in London as Aaron Hill Road, Beckton.

Beckton is renowned for its vast sewage works and what was once the world’s largest gasworks. Just around the block from Aaron Hill Road stands a surviving Victorian street of workers’ homes, that’s Winsor Terrace, but that’s very much atypical from its near neighbours.

In 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation moved in and started transforming the area into a huge housing estate, of far lower density than you might expect today. But Aaron Hill Road is of slightly later vintage, carved on the edge of an industrial estate in 1999, along with its neighbour Angelica Close.

On one side of Aaron Hill Road are the back of warehouses, occupied by logistics companies like TNT. A warren of three-storey blocks with courtyards is to be found on the south side of the road, each grouped around spaces for cars rather than anywhere a child might play.

The architecture has little to commend itself, and unsurprisingly a 2-bed flat on Aaron Hill Road sells for around £300,000, but this is, of course, London.

Who, or where was Aaron Hill

And who was Aaron Hill? A quick search, something unavailable to Phillis Pearsall finds that 400 years ago he was a poet and dramatist, renowned for his adaptations of Voltaire. His first Newham connection is that he married an heiress from the ‘Great House’ in Stratford Langthorne, close to where West Ham station is today. His second Newham connection is that after retiring from public life he came to live in Plaistow, then a ‘pleasant rural village’ on the edge of the Thames marshes, where he enjoyed reading, writing and doing the garden. Devoid of adequate gardens the road named after him lacks adequate horticultural challenge, but I’m sure Aaron would be pleased to have bequeathed the first street in London.

As the other end of the alphabet, and at a price range of £1,600,000, is Zulu Mews, Battersea SW11. Zulu Mews is a relatively recent construction, squeezed into a gap beside a railway viaduct in Battersea in 2010.

When Alfred Heaver laid out the Falcon Estate in 1880, the terraces of Rowena Crescent were set back at a discreet distance from the railway to give residents some peace. But the land is much more valuable today, so the scrappy dogleg behind their back gardens is now filled with ten sleek modern terraced dwellings.

It may not come as a surprise to hear that this is a gated development to seal off Zulu Mews from the hoipolloi. Similar to Aaron Hill Road in that the architecture is hardly ground-breaking, but the rising street has an almost Mediterranean feel, with pristine shrubs potted outside front doors in lieu of an actual garden. Each house has an integral garage, even if at first glance they don’t look large enough, bedrooms and utilities are downstairs, then above is an open plan living/dining/study area. Gardeners need not apply because the only outdoor space is a roof terrace on top of the garage, amusingly smaller than the residents of Aaron Hill Road enjoy.

You can also get a good view of these expensive properties from an Overground train, immediately to the north of Shillington Park. A long drab brick wall rises up, deliberately windowless to shield out the rattle of trains, and daubed with graffiti along its entire length. How the residents must deplore the scribble on the other side of their luxury bathroom wall, and not being able to do anything about cleaning it off.

Why Zulu Mews?

And why is it called Zulu Mews? All the original streets on the Falcon Estate commemorate British Army victories which took place while the houses were under construction, including Afghan Road, Khyber Road and Candahar Road. The list also originally included Zulu Crescent, but that name proved too bloodthirsty for some of its residents so within a couple of years was it was renamed Rowena Crescent.

When the new mews development was slipped in behind Rowena Crescent it was gifted the original Zulu name as a nod to the past, and perhaps in recognition that society’s no longer quite so squeamish.

Had the developers not chosen to name their mews development after a war that the British army was nearly defeated at Rorke’s Drift, and made famous by the film Zulu starring Michael Caine, who lives nearby, Zoffany Street would have been the last street in the London A-Z, and indeed in every edition since 1938 . . . but where would be the story in that?

Dead boring

It’s the stuff of a science fiction writer’s dreams. Excavating in London one finds something buried that should have remained entombed forever.

In the late 1950s, BBC Television transmitted the Quatermass trilogy, culminating in Quatermass and The Pit, in which a dangerous object is unearthed at a building site in Knightsbridge (of which later).

[B]ringing this film genre up to date the 2002 film Reign of Fire has London Underground construction workers penetrating a cave in which a hibernating dragon is awoken.

This year Crossrail, Europe’s largest construction project, of over 26 miles of tunnel beneath London should be completed, in a city which has after two thousand years has many buried secrets.

The Black Death of 1348-49 wiped out half of London’s population and put such a strain on traditional churchyards two new internment areas were created. “No Man’s Land” was located just outside Smithfield and its annex at Spitalfields which is was reported swallowed over 50,000 souls.

The plague of 1665 was for London much worse. At least 68,000 people perished, that was out of a population at the time of half-a-million. To put that into context, should it occur in modern London it would equate to 800,000. With London having grown exponentially in the succeeding years since the Black Death, by 1665 it was now one of the world’s largest cities. The cramped and unhygienic living conditions, coupled with one of the hottest summers London had known, meant that plague spread fast, and this was not helped by the culling of cats and dogs who had helped keep down the rat population, the carrier of the infected fleas. Although recent research has hypothesised that humans were the main culprit of the plague’s spread.

Within just a few months, with graveyards overflowing, plague pits were sunk in Fulham, Gypsy Hill, Tothill Fields, Westminster and Kensington – the site of the fictionalised Quatermass Pit. Another, the Great Pit of Aldgate, measured 40ft x 15ft and was 20ft deep which consumed 1,114 bodies within a fortnight.

In modern times when the Piccadilly Line was being constructed, in a scene reminiscent of Quatermass, workmen found that the section between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations had to be rerouted to avoid a plague pit, this has resulted in the line swerving dramatically.

Modern Aldgate station is built above the Great Pit of Aldgate, while at Green Park during tunnelling for the Victoria Line the boring machine ploughed straight into an unmarked plague pit. On the Bakerloo Line at the south end lie two tunnels; one exits to the line at Elephant and Castle, the other to a dead end to stop runaway trains and behind the end, wall is another plague pit.

The majority of records for the location of burial pits are piecemeal and parochial. Most parishes had to resort to larger pits simply because of the sheer number of bodies they had to dispose of. These pits can be traced in the parish churchwarden’s accounts, where payment for digging was recorded. A rather illuminating if gruesome map has been produced by Public Grief Junkie.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 17th February 2012

Dying for a drink


John Snow
The next time you find yourself in Soho, go to Broadwick Street where at one end you’ll find a village pump, while standing on the junction with Lexington Street is a pub rejoicing in the name John Snow which looks inviting for a swift half in this pub that takes its name from one of London’s forgotten heroes. In 1832 London was to experience a brand new epidemic imported from India, a disease which would strike fear into every person in the Metropolis.

Cholera became known as ‘the poor man’s plague’, with a mortality rate of 50 per cent and most victims coming from poor areas of inner cities the disease was dismissed by the well to do as a consequence of “the Great Unwashed” as William Makepeace Thackeray dubbed them.

[B]UT THEN CHOLERA BEGAN to strike in middle-class neighbourhoods too, making it truly a disease to cause panic. One could awake hale and hearty, develop diarrhoea, vomiting, agonising cramps and by teatime succumb to delirium and death.

Now contagion became a national obsession, and incredibly between 1845 and 1856 over 700 books on cholera were published, most expounding the common belief that it arose from impure air, blaming a miasma, or any smell, and in Victorian London there were no shortages of miasmas.

Surmising that ‘All smell is disease’, the founder of the workhouse, Edwin Chadwick managed to keep the scientific establishment off the scent (if you’ll excuse the pun) for two decades declaring if you removed the smell, cholera would go away.

The miasma theory had just one serious flaw: it was entirely without foundation, and one man alone identified this fact, his name was John Snow.

Born in York in 1813 and having a father who was common labourer served him well in terms of insightfulness and unlike his colleagues, he did not blame the poor for their own diseases. Snow had studied medicine and became one of the leading anaesthetists of his day, attending Queen Victoria’s eighth childbirth while administering chloroform a dangerous and virtually untried practise.

Snow spent his spare time trying to understand where diseases came from; why for instance was the rate of cholera six times higher in Southwark than neighbouring Lambeth, if the infection was carried by a miasma? Furthermore, if smells caused disease would not toshers, flushermen and nightsoil handlers be the most frequent victims?

Snow collected recorded cases in a scientifically robust manner making careful maps of the outbreaks. He found the people of Lambeth drank water piped in from clean sources outside the city, whereas neighbouring Southwark obtained its water from the polluted River Thames.

In 1854, a particularly virulent outbreak hit Soho. In a single neighbourhood around Broad Street (now renamed Broadwick Street) more than 500 people died in 10 days, making it, as Snow notes, probably the most devastating occurrence of sudden mortality in history, worse even than the great plague. The toll would have been higher except that so many people fled the district.

The conclusive proof was in finding a victim of cholera who lived in Hampstead who liked the Broad Street water so much she had it delivered to her door.

Snow managed to persuade the parish council to remove the handle from the water pump in Broad Street, after which cholera deaths vanished.

His finding was rejected by the establishment and at a Parliamentary enquiry he was asked ”Are the Committee to understand, taking the case of bone-boilers, that no matter how offensive to the sense of smell of effluvia that comes from the bone-boiling establishments may be, yet you consider that it is not prejudicial in any way to the health of the inhabitants of the district?”

It is hard now to appreciate just how radical and unwelcome Snow’s views were at the time, he was detested from many quarters, in part, probably because of his humble beginnings.

In 1850 London had a summer heat wave and the ensuing drought prevented waste being washed away. Dubbed “The Great Stink” as the Thames grew so noxious no one could stay near it, Parliament had to suspend its sittings and it was only this disruption to Members of Parliament that gave rise to giving London fresh water and sewers.

Snow never got to see his assumptions vindicated, dying from a stroke during the Great Stink at the young age of 45. At the time, his death was hardly noted.

So raise your first glass in the John Snow Public House and toast the hero who has made it possible to drink the water and well as beer in London.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 9th July 2010

The first A-Z

The often related story of Phyllis Pearsall getting up at 5.00 a.m. and walking the 3,000 miles in a couple of years along 23,000 streets of London drawing up a map of the capital after she couldn’t find her way to a party in Belgravia is the stuff of urban legend.

The story is almost certain in the main untrue, the first street-indexed map of London was drawn up in 1623 by John Norden and Phyllis Pearsall probably just filled in the blanks.

[T]hat hasn’t stopped collectors wanting to get their hands on a first edition A-Z published just before the advent of World War II. Seeing these first editions passing hands for thousands the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company has reproduced its original 1936 edition for those with less deep pockets.

2017-03-02 19.59.31

It makes for fascinating reading. What has happened to the Little Theatre on the Strand; the Gaiety Theatre which stood where the curiously named ME London hotel now stands; and who knew the Shaftesbury Theatre was once the Princess?

Most of the clubs still exist but had I been around then I’d like to have belonged to the Eccentric club located in Pickering Place, just down the road from Boodle’s Club.

A quick look at the ‘Underground Railways of London and Suburbs’ map reveals that the Northern Line ended at Archway, even with that truncated line it still probably had the worst service on the network.

On the street maps the detail is so poorly defined it’s surprising that anyone could find their way around the capital’s back streets, and to make matters worse, on the inside back cover is a pull-out three-dimensional map attempting to show a representation of the building as they appeared from the air, printed so small they remain as splodges.

So I decided to put Mrs P’s endeavours to the test. Using one of he most infamous of London’s addresses namely 10 Rillington Place.

We know from numerous contemporary accounts this part of Ladbroke Grove was old, in fact, the buildings were in a state of dereliction by the 1950s. and it was situated west of St. Mark’s Road, just north of Wesley Square.

On the 1936 edition – nothing, nor are many of the surrounding roads at that time are to be found.

A more poignant page is 51 19L to be exact [illustrated below], here is the ancient district of Cripplegate obliterated by German bombing less than four years after this first edition was published. Barbican (a street); Red Cross Street; Playhouse Yard; Jewin Street and Crescent; Paul’s Alley, and more are illustrated, many of which are illegible in this reprint as the streets were so closely packed together.

Cripplegate

Cripplegate before the Blitz

‘Places of Interest’ gave Kew Gardens entrance fee as 1d (12 would equal 5p in today’s money), and my favourite the engrossing Parkes Museum which is described thus: 90, Buckingham Palace Road, S.W.1 Station: Victoria D). Contains exhibits relating to modern hygiene in architectural and food values ; disinfection, etc., for presentation of disease. OPEN : WEEKDAYS, 9.30 A.M. to 6.30 P.M. 9.30 A.M. to 7 P.M.). ADMISSION FREE.

Presumably, the late opening is to cope with the extra demand at the beginning of the week.