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Time Travel Explorer Blog

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. 

Rediscovering London's Rookeries

by Peter Watts 24. September 2010 15:51

As Matt writes in the previous post, one of the great joys of old maps and the TTX app is that they give you the opportunity to virtually explore streets of London that no longer exist. These streets will have disappeared for all sorts of reasons – fire and Blitz being uppermost – but some will have been taken out for what can only be described as social cleansing.

 

These were the Rookeries, the slums of Victorian London, mazes of narrow streets, courts and alleyways that housed London’s poorest citizens. There were half-a-dozen in London, nests of poverty, crime and disease, where families slept ten to a room and criminals could evade police by simply knowing which alleyway to escape through and which cul-de-sac to avoid. For a good read on the Rookeries, try Sarah Wise’s ‘The Blackest Street’, about the Old Nichol slum in Bethnal Green.

 

Victorian planners decided the best way to deal with the Rookeries problem was to remove them from the face of London, and so set about an extensive road-building programme that simply drove huge new roads right through the middle of the worst Rookeries. One such scheme was in Bloomsbury and you can see how it worked by using the TTX app and switching between the modern map and the Greenwoods’ one of 1830, focusing on Tottenham Court Road station.

 

Here, between Great Russell Street and St Giles High Street, was one of the most infamous Rookeries, the St Giles’s Rookery, which the Victorians swept away by building New Oxford Street. Although the streets of the Rookery ceased to exist; the poor simply moved a little further south, to Seven Dials, so the Victorians tried it again by building Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue.

 

You can see slum clearance in action in other part of London using the TTX app. Try exploring the area around what is now Victoria Street for evidence of the Rookery around Westminster Abbey, or the junction of Aldwych and Kingsway, which was intended to destroy the Rookery around Hollywell Street, the centre of the Victorian trade in pornographic literature. Pornography, of course, was never sold on the streets of London again.