Tag Archives: london maps

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 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.

All mapped out

You know how it is, you have been invited to a little soirée in Belgravia but, try as you might, you cannot find its location. This is what happened to Phyllis Pearsall one evening in 1935.

Even with the most recently published London street map she could find in her hand, a 1919 Ordnance Survey map, and as hard though she tried, Pearsall could not find the address of the party.

[P]hyllis Pearsall decided that night to devise a more efficient means of helping other people to navigate the labyrinthine London streets, much like you have to on The Knowledge. Working from her bedsit on Horseferry Road she set off early each morning to walk – and catalogue – the streets of the city.

The 30-year-old artist is said to work 18 hours a day walking around the 3,000 miles of London’s 23,000 streets. Not only did she map London’s streets she designed and produced the A-Z Street Atlas of London (pronounced A-Zed) and founded her own company to publish it.

Pearsall decided for economies of scale to divide it into different sections, each of which would be coded in an index. Pearsall proofread, designed and drew the map with the help of a single draftsman. Although the original map contained hundreds of combinations of type form: bold, italics, spacing of characters, colour, sans serif, reversed type, size, rotation, upper and lower case, the design and placement of the typography is meticulous.


Once they were drawn, the maps needed numerous checks for spelling mistakes, inaccuracies or omissions, as did the index. Towards the end of the process Pearsall realised that they had left out Trafalgar Square from its index as she had knocked a shoebox full of file cards marked ‘T’ out of her High Holborn office window and not all were recovered. She chose the name of the atlas – inspired by its all-important index – and used an Eric Gill typeface for the visual identity of the title.

Along with Harry Beck’s 1931 iconic map of the London tube, the A-Z remains one of the most ingenious examples of early 20th century information design.

When she failed to persuade any of the established book publishers to accept her atlas, Pearsall published it herself by founding the Geographers’ Map Company. The A-Z Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs was published in 1936 and has remained the principal guide to the city ever since.

It is a very nice urban tale retold time and again. If you said to any Knowledge boy or girl trying to cram the location of all of London’s streets into their head that you could map London in a year they would be incredulous. The fact is that rather than trudging outdoors from five in the morning all she would have had to do was ask London’s local authorities for their street plans. In addition her father Alexander Gross was a map-maker who had himself drawn up a very similar A-Z.

I believe that ‘walking the streets’ has come to be a metaphor, as you go through the records you are walking the streets, much like when aspiring cabbies call over, they are recounting a journey they made possibly three years ago.

Whatever the truth, perhaps her creation’s greatest significance was its much-imitated visual language, with its wide streets, clean lines and san serif fonts. Though early A-Zs were black and white, the eventual, striking colour scheme – orange for A-roads, yellow for B-roads – helped shape the vocabulary of London taxi drivers, who as a result refer to them as ‘oranges’ and ‘lemons’. It’s a design classic because it’s taking what is a very complex area and rendering it very simply.


Mrs.P’s Journey: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Created the A-Z Map by Sarah Hartley


From Bedsitter to Household Name: The personal story of the first 50 years of the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company by Phyllis Pearsall

Bomb Sights

In my house in suburban North London we had a joke about my Father’s war wound. Thankfully his war service concluded without injury, his garden fence on the other hand did not survive unscathed.

Returning from a day working in what is now
the MI5’s headquarters, my Mother was
confronted with the back door hanging
off its hinges, a bomb had fallen some way away.

[I]t was, apparently the result of a stray German bomber’s attempt at hitting the nearby railway siding, missing its intended target, the resulting shrapnel decapitated Dad’s fence. Thankfully, I believe no injuries were sustained; others where bombs fell were, of course, not so lucky.

I was reminded of this when reading of a huge project which aims at mapping the location of every bomb dropped during World War II. The reasoning, apart from the obvious danger of unexploded ordinance, is that bombs contaminate the surrounding land with copper, zinc, lead and mercury as they corrode.

It is estimated that one in ten bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe failed to explode; this was in part due to sabotage. Unlike bombs assembled by the allies much of the German ordinance was produced by slave labour who took every opportunity to thwart Germany’s ambitions. Some failed to explode on impact, others with delayed timers have jammed, and their clockwork mechanisms could still explode if disturbed.

In all 21,000 locations where bombs have fallen are logged on the website Bomb Sight. The culprit for my garden fence I found was a high explosive bomb, falling between 7th October 1940 and 6th June 1941. Present-day address: Norfolk Close, Cockfosters, London Borough of Enfield, EN4 0BX, London. Source: Aggregate Night Time Bomb Census.

Because of these unlocated bombs construction in London tends to be higher as provision for locating buried bombs has to be written into any costings. During the construction of the Olympic Park work had to be halted when a 1,000kg device was found. Estimates at the time put at 200 the number of unidentified bombs within the Olympic site.

Now experts have studied aerial photographs taken by the RAF after the war and maps created by insurance companies to assess the extent of the bombing damage which hopefully will minimise injury and reduce construction costs.