Space odyssey

An exhibition illustrating how Londoners have used their open spaces is a testament to The London Metropolitan Archives, says Dan Carrier

Thursday, 21st July — By Dan Carrier

Open Spaces

Benjamin Read’s depiction of Londoners promenading in early 19th fashions in Green Park evokes a spirit recently captured by the Bridgerton drama series. All images: London Met Archives

THE storerooms have shelves that run for more than 100 kilometres, and on those shelves is the largest collection of archive material relating to a capital city in the world.

The London Metropolitan Archives, based in Clerkenwell, has an astonishing range of material that casts light on London – and now one of its chief curators and archivists has scoured thousands of documents, images and other material to create a new exhibition that considers our relationship with London’s open spaces.

Archivist and head of digitalisation Laurence Ward has had the enjoyable – if arduous – task of sifting through the archives to find items that are illustrative.

The exhibition, to be displayed at a number of City of London-managed sites, including Hampstead Heath, takes the year 1560 as its starting point, due to a document in the archives.

“We have what we think is the earliest surviving complete map of London,” says Mr Ward.

“It dates from the 1560s, and shows a view a bird would have from the south. The City walls are still intact but London has began to spread. Westminster is being developed and the South Bank used for leisure.

“In the north, there is pasture and field. Hampstead, Highgate and Islington have a rural scene. It is one of the first London images we have and is the starting point for the journey.”

After deciding on a starting date, Mr Ward could begin to look for pieces that would provide a far and wide sense of the importance of parks.

“Our collection has over two million images and there was a lot to look at,” he adds. “We wanted to tell the story of how Londoners have used green spaces and their relevance in people’s lives.”

A picnic in Coombe Wood, Croydon, in the late 1890s

The archive has pieces donated from individuals and businesses, societies and organisations. One key tranche came from the London County Council, who handed over files dating from the 19th century up to its abolition in 1965.

“They used the images as a library, as we may use a street scene app today,” says Mr Ward. “They had a photograph collection of every street. We found in there 40,000 pictures of places.”

The Heath’s long-held place in Londoners’ affections is illustrated by a picture of Whitestone Pond, dating from 1920.

“The pond is full of children paddling, and parents standing around the banks,” says Mr Ward.

Another shows picnickers – “It looks like an Impressionist painting,” he adds.

Another Heath view dates from 1832 and is published in a book, The Environs of London. It lays bare the agriculture nature of the common land.

“It is a very rural scene,” says Mr Ward. “It is full of carts, horses and cattle. It gives a very different sense of space, and what Londoners used it for.”

In Holborn, Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the 1950s has been captured.

“The picture shows a lunchtime concert in the bandstand in Lincoln’s Inn,” he says.

“The place is packed. You can see lawyers from the courts sitting on their briefcases, having a sandwich.”

Other shots show how parks were used to promenade and socialise.

“Parks were of course used for exercise – but your walk was also about seeing and being seen,” adds Mr Ward.

The images are a miniscule selection of an extraordinary cache that has been built over 1,000 years of capital history.

The earliest document dates from 1067 and is a message from the Norman invader, William the Conqueror, to the City of London. It is an attempt to curry favour with powerful London barons.

Performers on stage at the ‘At the All Together Now’ Festival in Deptford, photographed by Chris Schwarz in 1978

“This is a tiny piece of parchment and is a bit of a spin exercise,” said Mr Ward. “He wrote to say London will continue to benefit from the rights it already has, and can continue to operate as it has done.

“And as London grows as a place, so does our collection. In the 19th century there was an explosion of archive materials, due to the creation of new bodies such as the Board of Works. We have the story of London right through to the present day.”

Primary sources from companies and organisations, community groups, publishers, schools, hospitals and churches fill the shelves. They include books and legal papers, letters, video, film, audio files, personal histories, photographs, paintings and maps.

“We have all the elements to create a picture of everyday life in London. It is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – city archive in the world, and reflects on London’s place in the world. It is a staggering amount of material.”

With so many sources, the Clerkenwell building attracts academics, researchers, professionals – but also the amateur historian and part-time detective, seeking to find out about their family, their neighbourhood or their work.

“We have a lot of people come in to research the story of their street or house, for example,” he says.

“London has so many layers of development over a long period of time and we can trace it through the archives.”

Mr Ward has overseen some digitalisation of some areas – but the sheer scale of material means it would not be practical or necessary for everything to be available online. And seeing the archive in the flesh is inspiring for researchers, adds Mr Ward.

“While there is a digitalised future, there will always be a place for holding a historic item in your hands. It can be easy to lose that sense of connection to the past, and when you physically search an archive like ours, you are likely to come across pieces of interest that you did not expect.”

Green City: A Visual History of London’s Parks and Open Spaces is a free exhibition touring the City and London’s open space this summer. Details of venues at:

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