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victor keegans lost londonFull disclosure. Vic Keegan is a Founder and still active Member of London Historians, known and admired by all of us. As a semi-retired career journalist (decades in harness at The Guardian), what emerges from his pen is an easy and fascinating read.

One is usually suspicious of books with titles such as ‘Secret London’, ‘Hidden London’, ‘Vanished This’, ‘Forgotten That’. But Keegan’s curiosity for London’s story is indeed burning; beyond deeply held, and genuinely felt. He puts in the miles. He knows the cracks in the pavement, the nooks, the crannies and the wrinkles. Hence one’s cynicism evaporates on discovering (for example) that we lost a massive 2,000 seat opera house on the Embankment when the developer, one James Mapleson, ran out of money in the 1870s when all that was still required was the roof. The site was subsequently built upon by what are now known as the Norman Shaw Buildings, home (for the second time) of the Metropolitan Police’s Scotland Yard. I knew that bit, but not about the lost opera house. ‘Of all the lost buildings of London, this is surely the saddest’, writes the author.

The book comprises a further 159 snappy chapters in similar vein. We all know and adore the Holborn Viaduct, don’t we? I didn’t realise, however, that it was here that Thomas Edison made an early foray into metropolitan electric lighting; or that within the fabric are the remains of The Three Tuns, a pub dating from medieval times, throwing more fuel onto the fire called what-was-London’s-oldest pub. This ‘lost’ pub has its own chapter elsewhere in the book.
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What we have here, as it says on the tin, is a London which largely no longer exists. Or where it does, it’s no longer as it once was or meant to be. In most cases, though, there are tantalising clues, such as the post on the corner marking the extent of the old Millbank Penitentiary; a section of wall which is all that remains from the Marshalsea debtors’ prison which was the dominant setting in Little Dorrit. Prisons loom fairly large in this book, perhaps inevitably so; elsewhere we visit Newgate, the Fleet, the Gatehouse, Clerkenwell House of Detention.

Geographically, the book is very much focussed on the centre, from Victoria in the West to roughly Whitechapel in the East (the Bell Foundry (Chapter 31), once London’s oldest business until its tragic closure just a few years ago); Clerkenwell in the North down to Lambeth Bridge in the South. Every chapter is a nugget (or several) which you can read, enjoy and where possible, visit. If lockdown continues to ease, I’d urge you to do so. Some of my favourites include St Pancras Old Church, Eleanor Coade and her products, St Mary Woolnoth, Ragged Schools and several dozen more. Of course, London is all about its people: meet the Watermen; the Fishmongers; shipbuilders, dustmen, Colonel Blood, boxers, brewers and milkmaids, music hall turns, communists and queens.

This is a wonderful dip-in, dip-out book which you can digest in any order; fascinating, well-written yet undemanding. I haven’t quite finished it yet – I’ll be sorry when I do.

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Victor Keegan’s Lost London (278pp) is published in hardback by Shakespeare’s Monkey. It is richly illustrated with many images, mainly colour. Cover price £25. The author recommends the best place to buy is online via Waterstones, here.

Vic Keegan’s web site, London My London.

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