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Histories of London

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For 125 years, the Survey of London has been recording the past and present of the capital's built environment.

Histories of London

All Saints, Margaret Street, W1, from volume 52 (2017), photographed for the Survey of London by Chris Redgrave, copyright Historic England.

Histories of London

Interactive map from the Survey of London’s Histories of Whitechapel website.

The Survey of London is a unique enterprise. Started in 1894 to identify and describe historic buildings and monuments, the Survey (as it is known for short) emerged years before a Royal Commission began a limited inventory of national heritage, and more than half a century before Listed Buildings were introduced.

Those state-based initiatives could have made the Survey obsolete, but for its broader purpose – set out by its founder, the architect and social reformer C. R. Ashbee – to enlighten and educate the public. Under the London County Council, the Survey built on this, developing into a pioneering work of urban and architectural history. It has continued to evolve in scope and methodology, during many years under central government, lately at English Heritage, and, since 2013, as part of The Bartlett School of Architecture.

The Survey has been influential in the study of London generally, the building world, and architectural history; it is routinely cited in books and articles at all levels of scholarship, and in conservation and planning reports. Today, its work feeds into the listing of buildings, into broadcasting and journalism, and is widely used by bloggers, family historians, homeowners, architects, planners, estate agents, developers – and campaigners against developers.

Making history available to everyone

There are 52 volumes to date in the main Survey of London series and 18 monographs on individual sites. Each volume describes an area’s buildings past and present, their origins, significance and associations, and is illustrated with archive views, new photographs, and maps and measured drawings produced in-house.

Acknowledged for scholarship and accessibility, the works have been consistently praised by reviewers in the mainstream press, academic journals and local history publications, and latterly through social media. The latest, South-East Marylebone (2 vols, 2017) won the 2018 Colvin Prize, a prestigious award from the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain.

All but the most recent volumes are accessible digitally through British History Online, where they are the second most consulted source after Ordnance Survey maps, with 561,775 page views (average view time about two minutes per page) in the year to May 2018.

Current projects are diverse: Oxford Street, due for publication in 2020; South-West Marylebone, on which work is well advanced; and Whitechapel, a double volume scheduled for 2021. Research is also underway for a monograph on UCL to mark its bicentenary in 2026.

Histories of London

A detail from 59-61 Riding House Street, W1, photographed for the Survey of London by Chris Redgrave, copyright Historic England.

Histories of London

Whitechapel Road, photographed for the Survey of London by Derek Kendall.

Capturing the complexities of an area

With the support of a major AHRC grant, work in Whitechapel has incorporated a new approach to research that reflects the Survey’s public-history roots and creates a new kind of impact outside academia. Research is being conducted and material accumulated through an interactive website ‘Survey of London – Histories of Whitechapel’ , to which the public has been invited to contribute research, information, memories and images; oral history is an important aspect.

Since September 2016, the website has attracted more than 600 collaborators. The Whitechapel History Fest in October 2018 was a programme of talks and discussions to celebrate the concluding phase of this AHRC-funded part of the project. Few of the contributors or 200-plus people attending were from academia. Architecture and its social implications were emphasised, while elements ranging from poetry readings to the premiere of a commissioned film on the history of Whitechapel’s Bangladeshi restaurants were designed to widen the Survey’s audience.

Days later, a booklet produced for the occasion was spotted in the hands of a guide showing students from the University of Oregon around Whitechapel. In-depth study of Whitechapel’s Jewish history and the attractively interactive qualities of the website – designed and built by colleagues at The Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis – have led to a spin-off project, ‘A Memory Map of the Jewish East End’. This has secured its own funding through a Bartlett Research Materialisation Grant and will be curated by artist Rachel Lichtenstein in collaboration with Bartlett staff.

Other aspects of the Survey’s impact (in line with the Oregon anecdote) are hard to gauge. From time to time the team recognises chunks of Survey text repurposed (generally without attribution) in documents ranging from developer brochures to local newspaper features and restaurant menus. But as Peter Guillery, Principal Investigator for the Whitechapel Project and an editor of the Survey, explains: “As a work of reference, the Survey of London is intended to be plundered in this way. “We are generally delighted to be plagiarised; however, measuring this kind of impact would be impossible beyond an anecdotal level.”

Survey of London sits within the School of Architecture, which is internationally renowned for innovative research and teaching that is academically rigorous, critically informed, design-led and interdisciplinary. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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