Friday, 25 April 2008

It was all fields in my day

It doesn’t take an archaeologist to recognise that London is a city of layers.

In the centre of the city, two thousand years of history stacks up, mixed together, a live interaction of old and new. This makes the City a fascinating place, full of historical clues and curiosities.

But the old city (with a small c) of London is very small, only a mile or so wide. Smithfield, which now seems so central, was until recent centuries outside the north boundary of the city (and was where cattle were drove ahead of market, hence the meat-market there).

Looking at historical maps of the city one sees a sudden expansion only in the late nineteenth century, a pattern replicated across many cities in the country. Trains, industrialisation and urbanisation swelled the nation's cities at an incredible pace.

The maps say it all. And what amazing places they show!

A look outside today, one looks at the terraces of London, the roads and cars, the high rises and the bleak urban spots.

But maps show that just over a hundred years ago much of what we call London was a place of small villages, market gardens, fields, quarries and canals.

Finding new maps on the internet is always exciting. Thanks to Transpontine I came across a map of London from 1862-1871. It is well worth a look, there are historical tales everywhere.

The town that I live in, Brockley, is at a really interesting stage during this time.

Most of the town is fields and market gardens. But in the north, bordering Deptford, builders are starting to put up big houses. The main road on which these houses were built – Wickham Road - ends in a field!

The main roads that we know now, around Brockley Cross, do not exist. Instead, there is Brockley Lane that meanders around, and a couple of footpaths.

Though villages, fields and footpaths sound a lot more pleasant than congested roads, and high-rise concrete blocks, a look at other parts of the city show that the Victorian era was also a place of dark industry. Chemical plants and gas works, tanners and foundries. These would have been dangerous and polluting places.

Now compare the map above with that of the map of the area in 1833. Very little of London has crept into the area. In those days it really was all fields. Note that the railway was once a canal, with many, many locks (which made it uneconomic).

And then look at a later map, from 1890, and much of what we know as Brockley today - particularly the northern end (Brockley Cross) has been laid out. We would recognise these streets, as this picture of Upper Brockley Road from 1905 demonstrates.

These maps – and there are others – help give us a real sense of history, of life as it was.

The past is a foreign country they say. However, a glance at these maps show both how near and far the past is.

1 comment:

Nina said...

I got a little over excited when I noticed that Rokeby Road was on the 1862 map!