“London in 1891”
The painting made in 1891 is, as far as Fleet Street is concerned, almost timeless. It is still possible to stand at the same spot and see a similar view today. The street-seller is something that you will not see. During working days the traffic is in almost constant grid-lock as it approaches Ludgate Circus and nobody would be foolish enough – even it is were to be allowed – to sell food beside the heavy traffic belching out diesel fumes.
The men in top-hats are a ‘blast from the past’. Fleet Street in the 1890s and, indeed, up until the 1870s was the centre of the newspaper industry. Every important newspaper had its head offices in Fleet Street, often with the giant printing presses out of sight of the street but at the back of the premises. Many of the men in this picture – yes, it was mainly men in those days – would be Fleet Street reporters or office staff.
Notice the number of large ornamental lamps hanging over the pavement on the left. Most of those lamps hung over the entrance to an alleyway in which there was a tavern. The most famous in Fleet Street was then (and still is) the Olde Cheshire Cheese.
Looking down Fleet Street in this painting we see the magnificent dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and in front of it is the narrow spire of St Martin, Ludgate Hill – one of Wren’s fine churches. The ‘classic’ view is to walk down Fleet Street a little further and photograph St Martin’s spire in line with the cross on St Paul’s. The artist has obviously resisted that temptation.
Another reminder that the scene has changed since 1891 is the large cloud of smoke issuing from a steam engine travelling north over the railway bridge at the lower end of Ludgate Hill. Of course trains are electrically powered these days but that is not the point. The railway bridge was removed in 1990 and the road surface was raised slightly so that trains could travel under Ludgate Hill on the Thameslink line between Blackfriars and Farringdon stations.
The vehicle that has just passed the street-seller is a horse-drawn bus with a narrow staircase at the back for the use of passengers who wished to sit upstairs. In the days of bus conductors, the older ones would often shout ‘Plenty of room outside’ as the bus filled up. They were, of course, referring to days when people literally sat outside on the top deck. It is just possible to see the word White’s near the bottom of the stairs which was an advert for ‘White’s Lemonade’ a product which is still going strong to this day.