The extraordinary Survey of London

The extraordinary Survey of London

An eyebrow was raised by the man I met for coffee near Piccadilly Circus the other day. I’d said I wasn’t aware of the Survey of London, an exceptionally detailed piece of ongoing research into the architecture of the capital, which began in 1894. I was as surprised as my companion. But it turns out that I am, in fact familiar with the Survey – I’ve been encountering bits of it for years through British History Online, without appreciating its importance, origins or scope.

The Survey was begun Charles Robert Ashbee, an English architect closely involved with the arts and crafts movement of his time. His aim was to record and preserve London’s streets, monuments and buildings. The first volume, covering Bromley-by-Bow, was published in 1900. Nine years passed before the next volume appeared, part one of the documentation of Chelsea, compiled by Walter Godfrey. Chelsea part two came out four years later.

In between, came part one of St Giles-in-the-Fields, focussing on Lincoln’s Inn Fields). This was edited by W.Edward Riley and Sir Laurence Gomme, who produced part two in 1914. The following year, a volume on Hammersmith appeared, then Chelsea part three in 1921. Since then, rather amazingly, volumes of the Survey have continued to be produced, their subjects ranging from Brooke House in Hackney (1960), the site of which I can see from where I live, to Knightsbridge (2000), which I can’t. There was a Chelsea part four, by the way, in 1927, which focussed on the Royal Hospital.

This remarkable enterprise, which will take many more decades to complete, continues under the auspices the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. Its volumes are currently published as books by Yale University Press. And on 6 February, The London Society, a friend of this website, will present a talk about the Survey of London by Bartlett’s Peter Guillery, who has been one of its writers and researchers since in 1980s.

He will, as it were, survey the Survey from its beginnings to its two most recent volumes, numbers 51 and 52 both covering Marylebone, which were published in October. Studies of Oxford Street – very timely, in view of the Mayor’s pedestrianisation plans – and Whitechapel will follow. Read more about the Survey of London event and buy tickets for it here.

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