London from the air

Vanishing London

by Paul Joseph

London is, and always has been, a vortex of perpetual change. The 7 million people that live in the city today are presented with a volume of commercial, technological and cultural choice that dwarfs any other period in its history. As each new high street brand and high-tech building appears on the urban landscape, it becomes increasingly difficult to recall what once came before. This sense of loss is exacerbated by the sheer pace of life that creates an almost ‘tunnel vision’ effect in its citizens and visitors.  Below are just four examples of changing or disappearing features of London:

Temples of Trade
London is proud of its inimitable market culture. But whilst many of its markets date back to mediaeval times, some have not stood up to the 21st century, and have faced a combination of disrepair, displacement and commercial development.

In 1982, Billingsgate, the fish market famous for the bad language of its traders, relocated to a new building complex close to Canary Wharf in the Docklands, east London. The previous building, known as Old Billingsgate Market, is now used as a corporate events venue. In 2005, a review of London’s wholesale markets left a question mark hanging over the future of Billingsgate that remains today. The review centred on the question of whether it would be better to have a smaller number of markets all selling a full range of fresh produce, rather than separate specialist markets.

Smithfield Market alone has remained in the city centre. This huge temple of meat has retained its ancient working practices though it too has seen the encroachment of the twentieth century: the advent of Mad Cow disease coupled with deadly E Coli bacteria strains have seen it modernised in recent times – shedding the market of much of its charm and character. Additionally, like its Billingsgate counterpart, Smithfield seemed under threat of demolition in recent years, as plans to replace it with office blocks were put forward. However, the proposals were shelved after Government intervention and the market’s immediate future appears safe.

Fleet Street
One of the curiosities of London is what the eminent London author Peter Ackroyd describes as the city’s “territorial imperative”. This geographical quirk has seen both trades and communities dominating specific areas of the city, uninterrupted by demographic or economic shifts.

For nearly three centuries, Fleet Street in Central London was the de facto home of the English newspaper industry. By the mid-twentieth century, the imposing thoroughfare boasted the headquarters of virtually every major daily newspaper in the country. By day the street buzzed with the machinations of journalism – including an infamous pub culture – and by night it hummed to the sound of the printing press.

However in the final quarter of the century, the majestic old buildings that housed these national mouthpieces began struggling to keep pace with the demands of technology. The 1980s saw most of the papers relocate, with Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch leading the charge by moving his own newspapers to Wapping in Tower Hamlets. Others set up camp in the heart of London’s Docklands, in the centrepiece Canary Wharf tower.

Today Fleet Street is more associated with the industries of banking and law. But in one sense its legacy lives on, with the name of the street remaining shorthand for England’s newspaper business.

The legendary Routemaster
To casual observers, the iconic red London bus may appear alive and well. But the reality is that over the past 35 years, a much cherished incarnation of the famous vehicle has suffered a steady and terminal decline.

The Routemaster bus was developed between 1947 and 1956, offering unique features including an open platform which allowed boarding and alighting away from stops, and the presence of a conductor enabling minimal boarding time and optimal security.

For over a decade they proliferated and became part of the London street furniture. However, the late 1960s saw a transition towards buses operated solely by the driver, and production of Routemasters was halted. The existing Routemaster fleet remained largely intact for around fifteen years, but in the early 1980s a gradual withdrawal of the vehicles began.

During the new millennium, debates surrounded the issue of whether to replace or retain the Routemaster. Supporters cited its speed of boarding and tourist appeal, while opponents pointed to the economics of running increasingly elderly buses when more advanced designs were now on the market.

In 2004, Mayor of London Ken Livingstone announced the phasing out of the Routermaster in favour of a new bus service fully accessible to wheelchair users. The Routemaster was officially withdrawn from general service in December 2005, although it remains in regular service on two “heritage” routes.


Industry on Water
London’s waterways were once at the heart of the city’s trade and industry. The River Thames was permanently clogged with ships from across the world and London boasted more shipyards than anywhere on earth. The London Docks, built in 1815, were its main trading post, dealing in products such as timber, grain, wool, sugar and rubber.

German bombing during World War II caused huge damage to the docks, leaving substantial rebuilding required. Despite a resurgence during the 1950s, the Docks eventually succumbed to advancements in cargo transportation following the introduction of a newly invented container system. The 30 acre site could no longer accommodate the size of vessels required and the shipping industry moved to deep-water ports outside of London. Between 1960 and 1980, all of London’s docks were closed, leaving around eight square miles of derelict land.

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in the 1980s, she decided to use the prime chunk of real estate to redevelop the docks as a second financial hub – a rival to the Square Mile. From this vision came the modern day Docklands we see today, where the old world of ships, wharves, cranes and warehouses has been replaced by offices, shops, wine bars, Canary Wharf hotels and exclusive apartments.


About the Author: Paul Joseph is a London-based writer and journalist. The above text is gleaned from his latest book, called “Vanishing London”. He also works for, where you can book London hotels close to train stations.

Photos courtesy of mealy and bobcatnorth

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