How London Has Changed

by | Spotlight

For over 70 years, Colin O’Brien has witnessed and recorded the changing face of London. His journey of photography began in 1948 when he took a picture of his two Italian friends with his family’s old brownie box camera in Clerkenwell. The Clerkenwell – or ‘Little Italy’ – O’Brien was born into in 1940 is now a long distant memory, compared to today’s loft apartments and designer shops along Clerkenwell Road.

Looking at O’Brien’s images of day to day life in the 50s and 60s – of children playing among the rubble, lovers ambling along uncrowded streets, cars crashing or nuns sweeping – we are reminded that the pace, the scale, the very shape and character of London has changed almost beyond recognition.

Although the London that he has recorded is not so long ago, the exponential changes particularly since the 80s that have now made London the capital of the world, have been so great, that it is easy to agree that the past really is another country – in which people do things very differently.

A personal view by photographer Colin O’Brien.

On a recent visit to an old haunt of mine in the City I was amazed at what had changed. I used to go to Sir John Cass School at Aldgate and after school I would meet with my friends and play near the Monument in a street called Arthur Street, which led down from London Bridge to Lower Thames Street and the Thames itself.

In those days the mid 1950’s the bombed sites had not been built on and we played in and around what used to be Swan Wharf. The area had been badly bombed during the war and not much was left of the wharf, mostly just mud and gravel. From the wharf we could get down to the Thames and when the river was low we played on the beach, which looked across towards London Bridge, Hays Wharf and Southwark Cathedral.

Swan Wharf 1956 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Swan Wharf, 1956.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

In those days the mid 1950’s the bombed sites had not been built on and we played in and around what used to be Swan Wharf. The area had been badly bombed during the war and not much was left of the wharf, mostly just mud and gravel. From the wharf we could get down to the Thames and when the river was low we played on the beach, which looked across towards London Bridge, Hays Wharf and Southwark Cathedral.

Arthur Street was where my school friend’s parents ran a pub called the Ticket Porter. I’m not sure of the origin of the name but it must have had something to do with London Bridge Station just across the river. On the corner of Swan Lane and what is now Lower Thames Street (not a very busy road in those days) stood the Devon Dairy from where they delivered milk to residents, cafes and offices in the City; and from where we bought our ice creams and lollipops whenever we had a few pennies to spend.

banks of Swan Wharf 1956 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Swan Wharf, 1956.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

Arthur Street survived most of the bombing and was more or less intact with its low rise Victorian architecture on either side of the road. Over the years the street changed gradually and eventually the pub was closed, but mostly the Victorian buildings were still standing and had not been demolished by the developers.

What a shock it was on my recent visit back to my old playground. The changes were dramatic.

Half of the street had been demolished and was now an enclosed building site, surrounded by fencing and hoardings. It was something to do with extending and redeveloping Bank station and re-laying underground drains and cables etc. The devastation was amazing.

Demolishing Victoria Dwellings. Clerkenwell Road, 1970s Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Demolishing Victoria Dwellings. Clerkenwell Road, 1970s.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

I know that transport is an important part of the City’s infrastructure but the damage to the existing fabric was to my mind totally disproportionate to the, so-called improvements, being carried out. We have seen this massive disruption wherever Crossrail is being developed in other parts of London.

I wonder sometimes how many more people will be transported into the already overcrowded city centres. There were headlines in the Evening Standard saying that commuters should avoid Victoria station underground in the rush hour due to dangerous overcrowding, as was also the case at Euston. It is thought that in a few years time the population of London will be heading towards ten million.

Junction of Arthur Street and Upper Thames Street, 1956 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Junction of Arthur Street and Upper Thames Street, 1956.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

My photographs of Arthur Street in the 1950’s show it, as it was, a quiet backwater in the City. In one image a single car can be seen ready to turn right by the Devon Dairy, into what is now a four-lane motorway.

Many of my pictures taken in the fifties and sixties show a much sparser population. Where the bombsites were, there are now huge office buildings blocking views across the river. The Victorian pub is no longer there and the Devon Dairy has long since been demolished.

My photographs show a time and a place that had survived the ravages of war and had settled into a quieter more pastoral existence, where life moved at a much slower pace than today; where people were more important than today’s constantly changing infrastructure. I feel sorry for anyone who lives or works anywhere near the mayhem that is taking place in Arthur Street.

Thames Embankment, 1950 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Thames Embankment, 1950.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

I visited Clerkenwell recently to an area once called ‘Little Italy’ because of the large Italian population who lived there, cheek by jowl with a smaller group of Irish immigrants. The focus of the community was Saint Peters, the Catholic Church in Clerkenwell Road.

This is the area of London that I was born in and where I grew up. Things have changed here but not so dramatically as in other parts of the city. The neighborhood is still more or less low rise and there have not been many taller buildings erected.

The block of flats I grew up in were called Victoria Dwellings and they were demolished in the 1970’s along with our local pub the Metropolitan Tavern. The site now consists of luxury flats and a branch of Pret-a-Manger. Most of the bombsites have now been built on with not very exciting examples of modern architecture. Clerkenwell, once a run down district in the defunct borough of Finsbury is now very up-market and trendy. One million pounds and more buys you a half reasonable loft apartment.

Accident Daytime. Junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, 1962 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Accident Daytime. Junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, 1962.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

The busy crossing at the Junction of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Roads still has its fair share of traffic accidents many of them fatal. This was always the case nothing has changed. My images of accidents at this road junction show the aftermath of serious car crashes.

Accident Night. Junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, 1960 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Accident Night. Junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, 1960.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

One in which a boy was killed shows a small van on its side just as the ambulance has arrived and another of a car that has crashed into a lamp post, showing the traces of car headlights and ghostly figures in the rain.

Sweeping nun. Clerkenwell Road, 1950s Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Sweeping nun. Clerkenwell Road, 1950s.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

The Italian population has now more or less moved out of the area, but the Italian church is still there in Clerkenwell Road and looks exactly as it did when I photographed the sweeping nun way back in the 1950’s. The area is much busier at the weekends when the Italians come back for weddings and funerals.

Every year the Italian Procession takes place. It starts at the church and progresses around the local streets. It’s not so well attended as it was in the 1950’s but the tradition is still alive and long may it continue.

Woolworths. Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, 1954 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Woolworths. Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, 1954.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

Parts of London have become extremely overcrowded certainly during the normal working day. The City itself is crushingly busy on a weekday but remains refreshingly quiet over the weekend especially on a Sunday.

When I was growing up my father would always take me out on Sunday mornings for a walk around the City leaving my mother at home cooking the dinner.

Whilst he sat and read his Sunday Pictorial I would take pictures with my box camera and later with my prized Leica 111a, which my parents bought me for my birthday when I was 12 years old.

I think I preferred the City when it was quieter, when one could take a step or two back and see the architecture without getting trampled underfoot.

Travellers' Children. London Fields, 1987 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Travellers’ Children. London Fields, 1987.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

I remember the City as a huge adventure playground where as children we jumped off of brick walls, played in bombed out warehouses, kicked a football around derelict land beside the river, from where we could see the smoke coming out of the chimney at Millbank power station, now of course Tate Modern.

Strolling in the city. Queen Victoria Street, 1956 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Strolling in the city. Queen Victoria Street, 1956.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

In one of my images a young couple stroll arm in arm along Victoria Street. Above their heads is a sign which reads ‘Typewriters Sold, Hired, and Repaired”. It is amazing to think that there was a time in the not too distant past and certainly within my lifetime, when there were no computers, nor any mobile phones. Technology has come a long way and has certainly changed how we live and work compared to the early 1950’s.

Whitechapel High Street, 2012 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Whitechapel High Street, 2012.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

Whitechapel is another part of the city that I think will alter significantly once Crossrail arrives. This area has always been a melting pot, changing dramatically over the years with certain ethnic groups and communities eventually being replaced by others. More recently it was the Jews who were in the ascendency but now it is people from India and Bangladesh who are the most prominent group. These latest visitors enable us to enjoy the amazing variety of shops and restaurants producing such wonderful cuisine in Whitechapel and Brick Lane.

When Crossrail finally arrives the area will once again evolve, as a richer, younger, more middle class population moves in enabling them to be closer to where they work in the City of London. Many people will not be able to afford to buy or rent the expensive inner city properties.

The alternative would be to get more for your money further out in London’s surrounding suburbs and commute to the inner city areas, where wages are higher.

Last day of Routemaster buses. Clapton Pond, Hackney, 2005 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Last day of Routemaster buses. Clapton Pond, Hackney, 2005.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

Cities are always evolving, always in a state of flux, especially one as big as London. I have lived here all my life and have seen many changes, not only to the architecture, but also to the people and to the communities that once thrived and existed in these inner city areas.

What we don’t see much of anymore, especially in up market neighborhoods such as Clerkenwell, an area that was once run down but is now very desirable, are families, or close knit community activities.

Woolworths. Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, 1954 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Woolworths. Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, 1954.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

Where I grew up in ‘Little Italy’ it was mostly poor Italian and Irish people whose lives were held together by the church and their Roman Catholic religion. Just after the war poorer people were trying to survive the destruction of their properties and lack of work.

Battersea, 1974 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Battersea, 1974.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

Children played in the streets and on the bombsites. Many of my early pictures show children playing unsupervised, using their imagination to make up their own games and entertainment. We all know that computers are a great attraction, and very addictive, but we learnt so much by just playing with other children away from the supervision of our parents.

Picadilly Circus, 1959 Photograph by Colin O’Brien How London Has Changed

Picadilly Circus, 1959.

Photograph by Colin O’Brien.

I am pleased that I documented a time when how we lived was different. At least we can now look back and see how things were in those threadbare years.

Life evolves and changes, whether it changes for the better or the worse, well, that’s for future generations to decide.

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