Official Site of Speaker, Historian and Author Sean Munger

Photos, Spotlight

Historic Photo: Fleet Street and St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, 1890.

This photo, obviously of London, was taken about 1890, probably for use as a picture postcard by the James Valentine company. It shows a view of Fleet Street, one of the most well-known streets in the city, and the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral hovering in the distance. I love old urban photos like this because they give you a sense of the crowd and bustle that characterized cities in the late 19th century, and there are some very interesting human details here. The “Hancock Chemist” appears to be a drugstore. I think the building next to it may be a hat store. I can’t quite read the round sign above it, but what letters I can make out may spell “HATTERS.” Note the boy carrying the bundle at the bottom of the photo, and also the well-dressed gentleman with the top hat looking into the window at the lower left. The traffic is heavy on this street but there are no automobiles–1890 was just about the last time in London’s history you could go down a main thoroughfare and not see a car of any kind.

St. Paul’s looks surprisingly bright, although in this photo you can still see some of the streaking down the dome caused by coal dust. The “new” St. Paul’s, rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London, was completed in the 1710s but unfortunately no photographs exist of what it must have looked like before coal dust and smoke permanently etched its dome and facade dark gray in the early Victorian era. This photo was taken toward the end of Victoria’s reign, and the changes that London saw in those few decades were like nothing else in the previous thousand years of its history. Indeed this photo is interesting because you can sense the city moving toward a new and much busier era, but at the same time some things about it are still firmly rooted in the past.

I fooled around on my Google Earth and managed to find a street view shot taken from approximately the same place. This picture was taken in 2015. I believe the building at left under remodel (the scaffolding) is the same one you see in the left of the 1890 picture. Bizarrely the street is much less busy in 2015 than in 1890, but that may just be a function of what time of day the photo was taken.

fleet street london modern day

The original London photo is in the public domain.

1 Comment

  1. The exact view shown in the photograph is protected, meaning any buildings constructed in the area cannot block the view of St Paul’s from Fleet St. Interestingly, the railway bridge you see crossing the road in the mid-distance in the 1890s photo was removed in the 1980s (the railway now running underground), to actually improve the view of St Paul’s from Fleet St. And yes, most of the time the street is incredibly busy, despite what the Google Street View picture shows.

    Oh, and there’s a pub on the left hand side of the street, just out of shot (maybe a few yards behind the photographer) called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which has been there since 1667. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Sir Athur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and others all drank there. It even contains a cellar from an earlier, medieval building, that is now part of the pub. Whenever I meet people from anywhere in the world who have never visited London before but are planning a trip, it’s the place I always recommend they go.

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