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Survey of London --- back in production after 22 year hiatus

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  • Michael Robinson
    Survey of London: Secrets of the streets Last Updated: 12:01am BST 12/04/2008 Christopher Howse celebrates the return of a monumental guide to architecture #
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 14, 2008
      Survey of London: Secrets of the streets
      Last Updated: 12:01am BST 12/04/2008
      Christopher Howse celebrates the return of a monumental guide to
      # In pictures: The London survey

      Clerkenwell is full of secrets. It is the London village with most
      surprising medieval survivals - the hidden Charterhouse, like a
      transplanted Oxbridge college; St John's Gate, resembling the entrance
      to an ancient walled town, and the Well itself, with its healing
      waters, rediscovered in 1924 in a lane next to the Underground railway.

      Exmouth Market
      A stroll into the past: Clerkenwell's Exmouth Market (1968)

      In the past two decades, Clerkenwell has turned from a post-industrial
      enclave of decay and poverty to the estate agent's upwardly mobile
      dream, full of warehouse conversions, desirable Georgian streets and
      cleverly keyed-in new flats. Now the ancient parish of St James,
      Clerkenwell, is packeted up in two splendid volumes by the resurrected
      Survey of London.

      There is rejoicing at the publication next week, after years of work,
      of these 800 learned pages. The Survey had been a bit in the doldrums
      since the GLC, its former protector, was abolished.

      Now its publications have been taken on by Yale University Press, with
      the backing of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. The
      Survey's work comes under the behemoth English Heritage. But if a
      perfect ménage can be imagined between a quango, a publisher and an
      educational charity, this is it.

      It comes at a time when more people take a serious interest in
      architecture. The Survey is a Pevsner for grown-ups. It is madly

      While Nikolaus Pevsner gave a paragraph to a building or a page to a
      church, the Survey brings out fat folio volumes for each of the old
      parishes of London, with supplementary volumes for single buildings
      such as the London Charterhouse (due next year). It is a grand project
      comparable to glorious monsters of British scholarship like the Oxford
      English Dictionary and the Dictionary of National Biography.

      A strange man, CR Ashbee, founded the Survey in 1894. He was a
      socialist and arts-and-crafts practitioner, and the son of a collector
      of pornography. Ashbee's collecting instincts went into gathering data
      on old buildings before they were demolished.

      He saw a palace built for James I in Bromley-by-Bow pulled down in
      1894, and he was determined to stop an almshouse, Trinity Hospital in
      Mile End, going the same way.

      It was the subject of the first monograph in the Survey, and it still

      "Ashbee got together with friends to record old buildings within 20
      miles of Aldgate pump," explains Andrew Saint, now general editor of
      the Survey.

      "He thought they might do it in 10 years or so." After 114 years, the
      series is up to volumes 46 and 47 (of which 31 volumes are already
      online, free).

      Saint, who made his career in Cambridge and took on the editorship two
      years ago, is planning volumes for Woolwich and Battersea.

      "We haven't ventured south of the river since 1956," he says.

      "But with the backing from the Mellon Centre, Yale can publish a
      volume every couple of years with luck. We'll be more thematic with
      Battersea. In Clerkenwell we cover pretty well every bloody building."
      He says it with pride.

      As well he may. For the first time, 800 photographs, colour or
      historic black and white, are integrated with the text instead of
      sitting coldly in a section of "plates". One sepia photograph from
      1910 shows draymen standing by loaded wagons next to new tramlines in
      St John's Street, where a century later restaurant-goers eat
      sweetbreads and suckling pig from nearby Smithfield.

      Clerkenwell is good at hiding its treasures. Beneath St John's church
      lies one of London's finest 12th-century structures, a crypt chapel
      built for the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem.

      The river by which Clerkenwell stands, the Fleet, is buried where once
      it rolled a "large tribute of dead dogs to Thames", in the words of
      Alexander Pope, who in the reign of George II staged his imaginary
      Olympics for dunces by its stinking waters. It was a fine joke on the
      developers of the Underground in 1862 when the Fleet burst open, swept
      away their workings and filled the tunnel with sewage.

      By then, Clerkenwell was renowned for hundreds of workshops making
      clocks, watches and scientific instruments. In Pentonville Road, John
      Betjeman's father's firm, G Betjemann and Sons, showed off its
      rosewood cabinets and its patent lockable tantalus, designed to stop
      servants and younger sons getting at the whisky.

      "Clerkenwell's population reached its height in the late 19th
      century," says Saint.

      "Then skilled workers began to move away, and more of the houses went
      into multiple occupation. The first half of the 20th century was a
      rotten period for the people left."

      Today, the hub of yuppiedom is Clerkenwell Green. On one side, in a
      former neo-classical charity school of 1738, stands the Marx Memorial
      Library, with 40,000 volumes from the dustbin of history.

      Even grander is the former Middlesex Sessions House of 1780, above
      which rises the steeple of St James's church (by the local architect
      James Carr). This cluster, with its old-fashioned pubs, does feel like
      a village. But a street or two away are dives for clubbers. Takes all

      Professor Saint jumps with enthusiasm for Finsbury Health Centre,
      designed in 1938 by Berthold Lubetkin, best known for the penguin pool
      at London Zoo. I can't see it myself. But if anything can convince me
      of its worth, it's the Survey of London.
      # The Survey of London: Vol 46, South and East Clerkenwell, and Vol.
      47, Northern Clerkenwell and Pentonville, are published this month by
      Yale (£135 for the pair)

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