Saturday, December 23, 2006

Maps and Legends

Well after having seen the British Library's latest free exhibition London: A Life in Maps it has made me think about the fascination that maps hold for me. I always find historical atlases particularly fascinating both for the old maps they contain and the ones using modern topography that show events developing in history. I think part of it is being able to think what might have been and how things are often driven by landscape in the past with the low countries being fought over so much because of their location and topography.

It was striking seeing how long the roads that I know even in the outskirts of London have been there with 18th century maps of the environs of London having familiar roads like Ferry Lane, Wood Street and Marsh Street (now the High Street) in Walthamstow. Though from the rest of the content there is little around them except for farms and houses of the wealthy as retreats from the city, with Samuel Pepys amongst them. This applied to many other parts of outer London that I've been too with the development of the Railways showing up as the critical driver for growth. The outer areas and the East End are relatively little mapped until the 19th Century when the city was growing outwards and social reformers wanted to make their mark.

One of the most striking things is Henry Mayhew's maps of the social standing of areas showing that many areas of poverty were close to those of extreme wealth in a pattern that still continues today in London and in some other cities like New York. This survey called London Labour and the London Poor was one of the influences which lead to proper slum clearances in London and some efforts to replace the desparate conditions of the poor with housing by the London County Council and the Peabody Trust.

Inner London has seen remarkably little change with parts of the City of London still having the medieval street plan, with this really showing up on the ground in the narrow alleyways say between St Paul's Cathedral and the Thames. The area of the Great Fire was originally planned to be replaced with a gridded system, but Wren and co were not able to get this adopted leading to the traditional roads largely surviving. Indeed it is still possible to navigate through many areas using Victorian or earlier maps. This is less true of the West End where schemes like the building of Kingsway or Shaftesbury avenue have changed the road layout considerably. A major driver has been commercial speculative development and this is shown by exhibits where a developer was soliciting contributions before building new roads and the shopkeepers would have pre allocated areas.

Another striking feature is areas changing name as some of the old names have fallen into disuse for example at one time Elephant and Castle was known as Newington as was Stoke Newington in north London.

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