The lost photographs of Historic England
- Credit: Archant
Former English Heritage planner Philip Davies has trawled the archives to reveal moments of life in Victorian and Edwardian England ‘frozen in time’
Philip Davies’ Lost London was a remarkable collection of photographs depicting the streets of yesteryear that became the biggest selling book on the capital ever.
Now he’s trawled the archives to open a fascinating window on life in Victorian and Edwardian England between 1870 and 1930.
“People were captivated by the images in Lost London and have been clamouring for more of the whole country,” says Davies, a former planning and development director at English Heritage.
“I’ve spent a lot of time unearthing amazing pictures many of which have just been discovered, picking out the best quality gems of historic interest.”
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The bulk of the images come from Historic England’s eight million strong archive and date back to when the boom in photography enabled Victorians to capture the ferocious industry of the era on camera.
Lost England (Atlantic £45) shows them at work in factories and shipyards, travelling on buses and trains, and at leisure in the new seaside resorts.
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“These images have frozen a moment in time,” says Davies. “It’s like stepping into a time machine and seeing Victorian England as it was, a time of urbanisation, growth of the cities and railways when as people became better off they had more leisure time, and opportunities to travel. The most compelling photographs are of the people. I have given talks on Lost London where audience members have identified relatives in the photos.”
As someone once responsible for protecting London’s heritage including Royal Palaces and Government buildings, Davies believes the Victorians can teach us vital lessons about urban design.
“Some of the city centres were being completely redesigned to create these vibrant harmonious streetscapes, wonderful commercial streets with buildings of different heights and scales that hang together as a whole. Rather than an exercise in nostalgia and idealising the past, I wanted to show just how brilliant the Victorians and Edwardians were at place making, often from scratch. This subtle urban design is a lesson we have lost today, It would be difficult to find an architect now who could design a whole street.”
But Davies also includes pictures of older slum dwellings to “dispel this myth that Victorian England was somehow a golden age”.
“Lost London genuninely shocked people at the conditions people were living under. The Victorians had as many challenges and social problems as we do today, similar issues of housing, immigration, poverty, the role of women, free trade, and Britain’s place in the world. The book is an instructive exercise to understand how places change so we can plan better for the future.”
It was growing up in the scrupulously ordered surroundings of Hampstead Garden Suburb, where he still lives, that inspired Davies to enter a career in planning.
“It fired my interest. From an early age I was conscious of this order, hierarchy and planning, it seeps into your bones that’s why I am so interested in the complete opposite, intensely urban places. But there is a direct link to the Garden suburb which was created by Henrietta Barnett in response to the appalling poverty and slums in Whitechapel.”
Davies’ personal favourites in Lost England include the “extraordinary picture of the Navvies digging the Manchester Ship Canal with shovels - one of the greatest pieces of Victorian industry.” He also likes the Liverpool shoeshine boys standing by a drinking fountain. “Two of them don’t have shoes, that tells you a lot.” And the image of the Midland Grand Hotel in St Pancras is “very personal” because he began his career at Camden and wrote a conservation plan about the vital need to save the Victorian gem.
“We were openly laughed at by British Rail who said it had no value whatsoever but it was the heroic age of conservation with people fighting battle after battle to save buildings.” Satisfyingly Davies went on to oversee the works to restore St Pancras station to its former glory, and is now a trustee of the campaign to rebuild Euston Station’s arch.
“Instead of learning those lessons the pendulum has swing back against conservation. Today it’s a speculative free for all, a rash of high rise buildings in inappropriate locations with a total lack of strategy that have transformed London’s skyline and affected historic protected views like St Paul’s from Richmond Park.”
He adds: “Managing change in communities requires a real understanding of what makes them special. That ought to influence how we design for the future.”