Time Travel Explorer Blog

The Mysterious Mound of Shoreditch

by Matt Brown 24. December 2011 12:22

Shoreditch, 1746, and the area that would later become the junction of Curtain Road and Great Eastern Street. Neither are yet present in this view. London's centre of creativity, digital culture and all things cool was, back then, characterised by orchards, courtyards and open fields.

And a giant, mysterious mound.

The origins of the so-called Holy-Well Mount are uncertain. It takes its name, as so many features on this early map, from a 'holy well', source of water for the medieval Holywell Priory founded (probably) in the 12th Century and swept away during the Reformation. The only other online representation of the mount is an etching of burials on the site during the plague of 1665. According to an archaeological survey (PDF) by Museum of London Archaeology, the mound is either a defensive feature from the English Civil Wars, or an artificial hill created from eariler plague burials. No one is sure. 

What we do know is that the mound did not survive for long beyond the time of this map. It was cleared away in 1787 after becoming a notorious site for robberies and rapes. A later chart from 1799, available in Time Travel Explorer, shows that the hill has been cleared and its site taken up by housing. 

Today, the spot is occupied by artists studios and a particularly friendly branch of Pizza Express. While there's no obvious mound, a slight gradient can still be perceived in these backstreets.

Explore for yourself by downloading Time Travel Explorer for iPhone or iPad.

Eddies in the Space-Time Continuum

by Bill Visick 16. November 2011 08:41

I'm sorry to report that the Time Travel Explorer team has been trapped by this phenomenon, although unlike Arthur Dent we do at least know who Eddy is. One side-effect of the temporal turbulence is that while we think we've been working hard, it might easily appear that this blog has been untouched for months.

Over the summer a straightforward exercise to streamline the app and enhance the time travel engine, as well as to scrape the barnacles off the bottom of the blog, has turned into an extended period of silence. I'm pleased to say that is now behind us and all systems are go.

We have been able to introduce a couple of major enhancements to the app which you will have discovered if you've installed the recent versions. Firstly, the size of the initial download has been drastically reduced from over 300M to about 10M. This makes installing it much easier, to say nothing of testing new versions, while all the map, image and audio data remains available to be streamed when needed or downloaded in bulk. We hope this makes life easier for everyone.

More excitingly we've been able to tweak the time-travel engine so that it is now possible to slide between any combination of maps, not just the two that were previously available. Sounds simple, wasn't! It's switched on as usual in Settings and you set your time destination by dragging the slider at the bottom of the screen. Then sit back and enjoy as the maps slide from one to the next. The stop button (bottom right) halts time travel at any point and you can move backwards or forwards:

By judiciously enabling or disabling the maps that are displayed in Map Manager, it's possible to time travel between any combination of maps. If you zoom right out, this is a really good way of seeing how London has grown and the centre has shifted westeards from the City. Here it is in 1682 (more on this map to come):

And now...

That's it, really. We think it's pretty cool. More to come, provided the Vogons don't get us.

Where am I?

by Peter Watts 6. June 2011 11:53

So where do you think this is then?

It's now part of Central London, but all you can really tell from the 1746 map is that it was once a body of water surrounded by fields. Is it even worth taking a guess?

Shall we step forward in time and see if it helps?

Hmmm, 1799 and not much has changed, although if you look carefully you can just make out the words 'Pimlico Wharf' on the road encircling the north of the water. So at least we have a vague location to work with.

Need more clues?

Here we are in 1830, and still not much has changed, other than that the water is a more fetching shade of blue, there are considerably more streets and houses, and the words 'Pimlico Wharf' are impossible to miss. Here's a nice view of Pimlico Wharf from the London Metropolitan Archives. 

The view from 1862 is very different, so before I reveal exactly where we are let me tell you a little bit more about the area's history. This was the basin for the Grosvenor Canal, which was begun in 1725 as a way to get access from the Thames to the Chelsea Waterworks Company, the crucial pumping station that supplied water from the Thames to much of London. However, in 1852 it became illegal to take drinking water from the Thamas and the Chelsea Waterworks Company moved to Surbiton. So what to do with the basin that remained? Any guesses?

Well, by 1860 it had been filled in and this had been built on its site.

As the images show, Victoria Station fits snugly into the space once filled by gallons of water. But there is just about no other indication of what the site was once used for. Still, at least we have our maps, eh?

The Polygon: where has it gone?

by Peter Watts 19. April 2011 13:52

What's the Polygon?, somebody asked me, the other day.

I had no idea.

It's marked on old maps next to Euston Station, they said.

So it is. Look.

In 1799, it stands almost alone at the edge of London, a distinctive shape surrounded by half-built streets and fields.

By 1830, London has appeared around it and the Polygon's distintive shape now sits in Clarendon Square. The empty land just to the left is Rhode's Farm. It will very soon disappear beneath Euston station, one of the many stations to appear along an east-west axis in this part of north London, transforming the area for ever,

In 1862, the unmistakable shape of the Polygon now sits next to the red lines of Euston. Its presence already seems to give Somers Town a new, cramped, more uncomfortable atmosphere.

And now? Like so much of London, all that remains of the Polygon is its name, preserved in memory by Polygon Road. The building itself has disappeared beneath the gargantuan Somers Town estate - one of a string of council estates to be constructed in this hinterland land north of the Marylebone/Euston Road that collectively form the largest estate in Europe.

So what was the Polygon? Was it a theatre? A police station? Some futuristic entertainment palace for Georgian Londoners?

Fittingly for Somers Town, the Polygon was a housing estate, a Georgian building with 15 sides and three storeys that contained 32 houses. It was demolished in the 1890s, by which time Somers Town had become a cheap and run-down neighbourhood, almost entirely because of its location. Railways were loud and smelly places, and they depended upon cheap labour - and that combination was a killer for an area's aspirations.

Two of the most famous residents of the Polygon were William Godwin and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Another former Polygoner was Charles Dickens, who lived at No 17 in the 1820s shortly after his father, John Dickens, was released from debtors prison. Dickens later made the Polygon a home for his 'Bleak House' character Harold Skimpole, and he in turn may well have been modelled on Godwin. 

Mapping street names: knaves, brewers, Gazza and kebabs

by Peter Watts 14. April 2011 16:03

London's street names are changing all the time. To take one example, let's look at a single street in Soho.

On John Rocque's map of 1746 it is marked quite clearly as Knaves Acre. What a fantastic name!

It is at the eastern end of Brewer Street and leads on to what is marked Old Soho Street but is now Wardour Street. Brewer Street itself was originally known as Wells Street, but was renamed after two breweries - Thomas Ayres and Henry Davis - opened there in the 1700s.

In John Strype's survey of London in 1720, he writes: 'This Knaves Acre is but narrow, and chiefly inhabited by those that deal in old Goods, and Glass Bottles.'

A name as fine as this was sadly never going to last, and by 1799, Knaves Acre had formally been renamed the far more sober and less interesting Little Pulteney Street.

Pulteney was Sir William Pulteney, a landowner who had purchased the estate in the 1660s. It was named Little Pulteney Street to differentiate it from the nearby Great Pulteney Street, then as now a nondescript street in the unfashionable end of Soho.

It remained Little Pulteney Street for a long time after: here it is seen as such in both 1830 and 1862.


But at some point thereafter - most likely between the wars - a decision was made to simplify London streetnames, and dozens of Littles disappeared forever. This website chronicles the vast number of lost street names we have in London. Now Knaves Acre/Little Pulteney Street is simply Brewer Street, its proud history as a place where people dealt in bottles all but wiped from the memory.

Or is it?

Rather wonderfully, it was at this exact end of Brewer Street - at No 4 in fact - that Paul Gascoigne purchased London's most infamous kebab in 1998. It was 3am, he was tired, emotional and with Chris Evans and Danny Baker, and he never played for England again.

Once a Knaves Acre, always a Knaves Acre.

Mapping Museumland: London's forgotten exhibition.

by Peter Watts 8. April 2011 09:28

We now take the cluster of museums in South Kensington - the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the V&A - somewhat for granted, but they are all relatively recent additions to the London landscape. Here's that part of London as recently as 1830, when there was very little sign of inhabitation in the area south of Hyde Park. Brompton was best known for its market gardens and nurseries - you can see them marked on the map below - and these had a reptutation that made them known across Europe. These had been established in the 1600s, but were not to be around for much longer.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition opened on the site, transforming this hitherto quiet corner of London. When the Crystal Palace was take down and moved to Sydenham, it was almost immediately followed in 1862 by the International Exhibition. That is the structure that dominates the Stanford map of the same year.

Sometimes described as the 'forgotten exhibition', this covered a site of 23 acres - four times larger than the Great Exhibition - and almost six million people came to see a curious collection of objects housed in a huge domed building. Exhibits included telescopes, organs, lighthouses, obelisks, pickles, furs, dolls and statues. Also on view was the groundbreaking 'folding furniture' - a bed, six chairs, armchair, two sofas and gaming table that could somehow fit inside two wardrobes.

The building was meant to be permanent, but was pulled down at the end of the decade as the government baulked at the cost of preservation and decided the site would make an ideal location for the Natural History Museum, which at the time was crammed into the British Museum. Part of the fabric was taken away and used in the construction of Alexandra Palace.

Alongside the International Exhibition site you can see the South Kensington Museum, which had opened in 1857. Built by William Cubbitt, this was nicknamed the 'Brompton Boiler', in reference to its utilitarian design of long galleries covered by corrugated iron. Housed in these factory-like conditions were a variety of competing museums - the Museum of Manufacture, the Museum of Construction, the Museum of Animal Products, the Food Museum, the Education Museum, the Economica Museum, the Museum of Oriental Art and the Museum of Patents. These were eventually pulled down in 1889 when the V&A was constructed, and the Brompton Boilers were taken to Bethnal Green and re-erected, now covered in bricks, as the Museum of Childhood. The contents of the Brompton Boilers were divided between the V&A, the Science Museum (1913) and the Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881.

Which brings us to South Kensington as it is today.

London's first lido

by Peter Watts 15. March 2011 11:43

Just behind Moorfields Eye Hospital off City Road is one of those London streets with an intriguing name. It's called Peerless Street, and a clue to the origin of its name actually lies in the name of one of the streets it ajoins - Bath Street. For here in Clerkenwell, just north of Bunhill Fields and adjacent to the unmappable confusions of Old Street roundabout, sat London's first public swimming pool.

The Peerless Pool opened in 1743 and can be seen in tremendous detail on our first Time Travel Explorer map of 1746.

This was the first open air pool in London for 'all gentlemen lovers of swimming and bathing'. It was fed by a nearby spring but there was a problem. The pond had been known as 'Perilous Pond' for three hundred years thanks to the number of people that had drowned there. However, a jeweler called William Kemp was not concerned. He converted the pond into a pool 170 feet long and 50 feet wide, filled the bottom with gravel and, in a stroke of marketing geniusm renamed it Peerless Pool.

The pool was advertised as a 'place where gentlemen could without danger learn to swim' and was a great success, surviving for more than 100 years.

Here it is in 1799, almost unchanged although with encroaching buildings hinting at what was to come. The pool is actually the body of water on the right with the distinctive semi-circular knob on the end; the water marked as the pool was a fish pond (as seen in the more accurate 1746 map) filled with carp and tench for anglers. The area also had a bowling green and dressing rooms.

By 1830, things were starting to change. Joseph Watts took over the pool and built Baldwin Street over the fishpond. However, Peerless Pool was still in regular use, even if it was now increasingly hemmed in.

Onward to 1862 and it's just hanging on, although its days are clearly numbered. Whereas the map of 1746 had shown Peerless Pool as a bucolic spot in the countryside with barely a house or road in sight, the view from poolside in 1862 is very different: streets and houses are all around; to the south looms St Luke's Hospital For Lunatics and the bowling green is now covered by almhouses. 

Which brings us today and those suddenly tell-tale names, Peerless Street and Bath Street, all we have remaining of what can rightly be considered London's first lido.

The Aylesbury Estate: Walworth in maps

by Peter Watts 9. March 2011 14:02


This is the Aylesbury Estate, a vast block of concrete that was plonked down in Walworth, near Elephant and Castle, between 1967 and 1977 as part of an extraordinary plan to revolutionise and regenerate working-class living in South London. The idea was that the Aylesbury, the largest estate in Europe, would link up with the Elmington Estate in Camberwell and the North Peckham Estate by overhead pedestrian walkways that meant Londoners could travel three miles across South London without touching the ground. Needless to say, this utopian dream never quite came off and the Aylesbury has come to be seen as emblematic of the worst kind of post-war planning. It is currently scheduled for a second round of 'regeneration', which will began with its demolition.

The building of the Aylesbury in Walworth was controversial even at the time. It took over a site of 285,000 square metres previously occupied by the sort of ramshackle Victorian terraces you can find all round inner London. Here is the site in 1830, when Walworth was well on the way to expansion. 

The site of the Aylesbury is just north of the main street along at the bottom, Albany Road. This looks like a fairly uncluttered area, but it was already much more heavily populated than much of the rest of South London - which is why the 1830 map reaches this far south. This population growth had occured in a relatively brief space of time. Here's the same site (or slightly to the north, anyway) in 1746, when it was all fields.

And here it is now. It's easy to see the appeal of high-rise housing when looking at maps, as it shows how you can cram a huge number of people into a relatively small footprint. The Aylesbury was big enough to contain 10,000 people. The population of Walworth had grown from 15,000 in 1801 to 122,000 in 1901, but by the 1970s had decreased to around 30,000 - so around a third of the area's residents were expected to live on the Aylesbury.

Burgess Park just to the south of the Aylesbury was a relatively late arrival to an area that was famously bereft of green spaces. It was partly reclaimed from housing in the 1970s, but the bulk is built over the old basin for the Grand Surrey Canal, which went from Bermondsey to Camberwell and was concreted over in the 1970s. There's a bridge in the middle of the park that once spanned the canal but now goes to nowhere.

In Michael Collins's excellent book, 'The Likes Of Us', about the working-class population of Southwark, the author wrote of how his family narrowly escaped being rehoused in the Aylesbury, having moved from the regeneration area shortly before construction began. The settled instead in one of Walworth's few remaining Victorian streets and observed the changes taking place around them: 'The Street began to represent both a haven and a time capsule harbouring the rituals, the routines, the culture that had been the lifeblood of the neighbourhood and the area at large for so long. As the walls came tumbling down all around, as rubble settled and dust rose, it was as though the time capsule itself was being buried underground. But the future would have to wait, whether it was housing estates as wide as their accompanying tower blocks were tall, or the influx of interlopers. Homes, heritage, homogeneity, the holy trinity of the neighbourhood and the wider community, were the territory that was now being protected, defended even.'

London's Lost Map

by Matt Brown 8. March 2011 19:54

The very first detailed map of London is also the most mysterious. The so-called 'Copperplate map' dates back to the 1550s, and the time of Queen 'Bloody' Mary. It's a work of beauty, showing buildings, field partitions, and miniature characters going about their Tudory business. Some shoot arrows in Moorfields, others hang clothes to dry on tenter hooks.

Sadly, only three panels from the map are known, and 12 are missing. You can view two of the panels at the Museum of London, while the third (only discovered around a decade ago) is held by the Dessau Art Gallery. However, a slightly later woodcut map survives, and is thought to derive from the copper plate map.

An excellent documentary about the map is available on BBC iPlayer (for UK licence payers only), and I urge you to listen before it goes away. Towards the end, the programme speculates about the existence of the remaining panels. If you happen to have an old painting of the Tower of Babel laying around, you might want to take it out of its frame and inspect the back.


Clocking docks in Wapping

by Peter Watts 15. February 2011 18:04

If you want to give yourself a shock when using Time Travel Explorer, head for Kennet Street in Wapping, just off Thomas More Street. Here it is on the contemporary map, it's the straight road that runs parallel to the funny looking wiggly street just south of News International.

Now switch to 1830 and there you are, suddenly standing in the middle of the great blue expense of London Docks. Did you bring your rubber ring?

London Docks were built in 1805, three years after the West India Docks on the Isle of Man, and their closeness to the City gave them a great advantage over some of the other dock networks. Here is what Wapping looked like shortly before they were built in 1799.

The London Docks consisted of a large Western Dock (the one pictured above) and a smaller Eastern Dock, both of which had locks that led directly to the river, essentially allowing boats to avoid the bulge of the London mainland at Wapping. They were connected by the tiny Tobacco Dock. (The architect Terry Farrell has pointed out that the net result of all the docks in London essentially had the effect of 'straightening' the river, as they created short cuts to navigate through all the curves.)

The docks were built by John Rennie, who also built London Bridge, and were amalgamated with nearby St Katherine's Dock in 1864. Built for sailing ships, by the 1930s they were already too small for big cargo ships and in 1968 they were closed and sold to Tower Hamlets, who immediately filled them with concrete.

The land was turned into housing in 1981, but a stroll through Wapping still provides many glimpses of what used to be here, from old dock walls to unexpected Port Of London Authority emblems. The warehouse at Tobacco Dock is one of the few buildings to have survived intact. It was turned into a shopping centre in 1990, which proved to be a commercial failure, and now stands eerily empty, a zombie mall for this fascinating, often-changing and unfairly neglected area of riverside London.