J.T. Smith’s Ancient Topography of London

Not all of London was destroyed by the Fire in 1666. It is often said that London was raised to the ground, but there were areas on the fringes of the City, such as Smithfield, that the Fire didn’t reach. The eastern area was largely unaffected too as the infamous wind was easterly, and blew the flames west. London was rebuilt, and new building designs and materials used. Out with the old timber framed structures with wattle and daub walls, and in with the fire-resistant brick-built buildings. 18th century London saw a boom in economy and in building, tearing down the ancient and building new fashionable, taller, large-windowed residences.

By the early 1800s some older parts of the medieval and Tudor London still existed. These were in threat of destruction, not long for this life, and ready to be replaced by the fashionable, tall modern, brick-built structures. At the same time, they were becoming curiosities. John Thomas Smith, artist and antiquarian, set out to record these architectural curios and in 1815 he published the Antient Topography of London. For me, this book has become a “go to” inspiration for the late medieval and Tudor London.

As the title suggest, the book is a record of these old buildings. Smith researched them well. He visited, recording conversations with people who lived there, read older books for research and reference, such as Ned Wards The London Spy, and drew, in detail, the street views with these ancient relics at the centre.

I love the images, and especially the detail within them, and have often used them for exhibitions when looking at pre-Great Fire of London, London. For a long time now, I’ve been searching for a copy, and finally tracked down a 1980s paperback reproduction. It was almost unread and when I opened it, the page fell on a plate I had never looked at before, “View of parts of Duke Street, West Smithfield”, a streetscape of what looked like a row of 16th century buildings. There are many Tudor buildings in the book, and once you have seen a few, you do tend to take them for granted. But I was stopped in my tracks. My attention was grabbed by how the buildings appear to have sunk into the road, or perhaps that it was constructed in a hole. Look at the image. Can you see how short the ground floor is, and steps cut into the pathway leading down the to “ground floor”? There is a person looking round the door frame straight at the illustrator, I presume to highlight this semi-subterranean feature of the building.

Being an archaeologist and knowing how stratigraphy works, I thought straight away that the building had not sunk, but the road had risen. The road surface would have been contemporary with the more modern buildings. A bit further down the road, you can see these contemporary buildings make up a dull background for the Tudor buildings the foreground.  

Generally speaking, the street level of urban centres tend to increase in height over the years. Going back to anything pre-19th century, when constructing a new building the previous one would have been pulled down and the rubble from that was pounded into the ground. This was used as foundations for the next building, creating a higher surface from before. I expect that the same process happened with the road where the surface was built on the previous road surface, and so on. It is only recently that new buildings require deeper foundations and anything previous to that would be dug out of the way.

I also thought that there may be the possibility that sewage systems had been dug into the roads, thus again, creating a risen surface. Looking closely at the image, there are two drainage “gutters” running down either side of the road, which perhaps emptied into a basic sewage conduit. The pathways are higher than the road, keeping pedestrians out of the dirty water. I have encountered this very substance, in the flesh, before in Another dirty book.

In Ancient Towns, Ancient Teeth, I looked at how the roots of buildings stretch down into the ground but keep to the property footprint. I have never seen this though; a building so old, that the surface around the building had risen, giving the feel of it sinking into the very ground. Was the building feeling its age, giving up on life and slowly sinking down into the stratigraphy? There are many analogies we could make there with death and burial.

The main structural timbers have warped under the weight of the building over time. Look at the timbers holding up the first-floor jetty, and how it bows over the length of the building. The building has certainly been extended adding to the weight bearing down on the timber structures. Look at the upper floor in the far end of the building. An ad hoc jetty sticks out in what was the gable of the original house. It almost looks like an upper floor of another house has been stuck to the top of this one. This is directly above the largest bow in the first-floor timbers below.  

JT Smith describes the building:

“The house is represented in the opposite plate display a ruder mode of domestic building, And, perhaps a greater quantity of heavier timber, than any now remaining in London. the walls are lays and plaster; the timber, oak and chestnut; the rooms are small, with low ceilings; their staircases perpendicular and narrow; the windows irregular in their forms, and ill placed.”

“I could not discover that these houses have ever been decorated. Fortunately that is the date 1599 touch in one of the beams at the back of the 4th house, by order of the late reverend doctor Edwards, vicar of Saint Bartholomew the great, to which parish these houses belong. The above date was discovered by the Doctor upon a board from one of the houses when they were repaired, about 25 years ago. the floors off the shops are nearly two feet lower than the present street; and one of the inhabitants informed me, that formerly they were ascended by steps, and that he believes the grounds to have been raised about four feet. Mr. Johnson who, at present, inhabits the 4th of these houses, has assured me that, to a certainty, there is chestnut in his house, and as he is a Turner of every sort of wood, his opinion is of much weight.”

It is very possibly the buildings are late Tudor; the exterior certainly looks like it. But perhaps the 1599 date was a refurbishment? Who knows. 1599 is when Shakespeare was living just around the corner in Noble Street with Christopher and Mary Mountjoy. See Shakespeare in London. I wonder if he ever visited. He must have walked down this street, surely.

A Tudor buidling (with later adpations), from The Society for Photogrpahing Relics of Old London. These photographs were taken a good 60 years after Smith’s Ancient Topography.

Smith goes on:

“this street was formerly called duck lane, as many be seen in many of the old plans and descriptions of London. in it there stood the crown Tavern, notice buy Ned Ward the author of “the London spy”, in 1689…”

Today, Duck Lane is Little Britain, which runds down from West Smithfield. I am guessing here, but maybe the name “Duck Lane” is related to the butcher’s quarter in the nearby area.

Usually, Smith would populate his images with a variety of people, representing the times and the demographics of London. This one is devoid of people. There are three on the street and a couple looking out of the windows, along with the person at the doorway and a chap up a ladder seeing to a lantern. There is even a bit of action with a boy jumping out of the back of a cart where two dogs are fighting. I have an image of one of the dogs stealing a string of sausages.

Smith had an interest in people and often represented actual individuals who were well known. He often looked at and recorded the destitute and disabled. In other images in this book, there are men without legs, those with lifelong injuries from the Napoleonic Wars. In this one, a woman walks away from us on crutches. We do not see her face and her clothes look clean cut, straight forward and inconspicuous. She could be anyone. Her frame is quite rigid and almost devoid of life or personality. This Smith’s description of her:

“The remarkable figure with crotches represents the malignant Ann Siggs, before mentioned, praiseworthy for nothing but cleanliness, a rare quality in a beggar… I collect from a truly interesting work of singular London characters, drawn with great truth, and published by my worthy friends, Mr. James parry, Seal Engraver, that she was the daughter of an industrious poor man, a leather breachers maker, of Dorking, in Surrey.”

Getting back to the building, it is quite a nostalgic view of medieval-Tudor London. The timber-framed structure, the sunken building, warped beams and ad hoc jetties. It all resonates with our image of an older world. Perhaps this kind of picture feeds into our collective perception of a pre-1666 London. I wonder how much this was a romantic, nostalgic view of London for Smith. The main thing to remember is that this was an ancient building when Smith drew it. When these buildings were new, they would have been precise, pristine and a desirable place to live.

For me, for imagining the medieval and Tudor London, Smith’s images are key, and up there with the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London, the Agas Map and the descriptions of London by John Stow and Ned Ward.  

I can’t put this book down. I’ve only just got it and I am sure I’ll be writing about it more in the future. Unfortunately, the version I have is a flimsey paperback, and I suspect it will probably wear it out within a short time. Perhaps I should buy an original.


Smith, J.T. (1815) Ancient Topogrpahy of London.

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