“Oh yes, I’m helping to build a scale model of London, the way it was in 1840!”
What?? Sane people were building a three-dimensional model of ALL of London, which in 1840 was the largest city in Europe, twice the size of Paris?
Can you imagine hearing a 21st century man you admire and respect, saying this in a perfectly serious and even casual tone of voice? The scale of the undertaking was so great that at the time it sounded daft to me, but my good friend David Armitage was dead serious.
Secretly I liked the idea because I enjoy history and I love London, but this venture was hard to get my mind around — until I learned a bit more about it and had the chance to see part of the project itself.
I was also impressed that a model made from a very small portion of the project blueprint was featured at a two-month exhibition offered over the 2013/14 holiday season by English Heritage, custodian of at least 400 historic sites and therefore possessor of a singular interest in the three-dimensional character of Olde Englande. The exhibition was titled “Almost Lost: London’s Buildings Loved and Loathed.” The 1:500 model represents part of 1840 Bloomsbury, a high-end residential development in London’s West End, built in the 17th and 18th century and made famous in the early 1900s by author Virginia Woolf and her famed “Bloomsbury Set” of writers and artists.
So, far from being a fusty old keeper of relics, English Heritage turns out to be very much at home in the 21st century. Britain may be famous for its touristic re-enactments of historical events, but in this exhibition English Heritage was showcasing its use of leading-edge digital technology to preserve historical information, including graphics. As one of the charity’s web pages points out, “Gone are the days when people learned about history simply from reading books.”
The new project is LONDON 1840. Brainstormed into existence by architectural historian Andrew Byrne, it is taking shape in the London Borough of Greenwich at the imposing Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) with support from the arts charity 1st Framework. Byrne sees LONDON 1840 as a generator of historical record as well as a user of it. His research files include material that ranges from Ordnance Survey maps to stacks of faded photos of the East End as it looked at the time of the increasing spread of rail, road and waterway systems and before the widespread destruction of two world wars. Newly-compiled research, of which the 3D model is one crucial beneficiary, could be blended into a huge amount of digital data that is capable of yielding specialized information “such as population densities, building dates, poverty mapping, estate boundaries, present-day listed building locations.”
How’s it being done? David, an expert explainer, told me the process starts with early British Ordnance Survey maps – those amazingly intricate productions that seem to include, in writer Bill Bryson’s words, “every wrinkle and divot on the landscape, every barn, milestone, wind pump and tumulus” (Notes from a Small Island, 1995). Using technology that no one in 1840 could have dreamed of, an old map of the city was selected from this enormous collection of cartographic minutiae, converted into digital form, edited, and laser-etched onto large interlocking slabs of maple plywood.
“These are almshouses, that’s a tollbooth,” David tells me, waving at tiny landmarks as we stand hunched over the etched maple with its tracery of thoroughfares and its part-finished collection of tiny buildings. “The railways are slicing through, too. A big part of what’s happening is the organic growth to redevelopment. In 1840 there were already six railway termini in London.”
A former teacher of musical instrument making and the renovator of his own Georgian home (Andrew did the same at his own house next door), David picks up a pair of self-locking tweezers and shows me a finely machined wooden part that he made. Less than half the size of my little finger, it turns out to be a connected length of miniature Georgian row houses. Each house naturally has its own roofline, and the choice of roof takes architectural knowledge – unless you have are lucky enough to have a photo of a building that has survived the elements, war, and property developers. There can be catslide, mansard, butterfly, all sorts of roofs, and this single quarter of the full London 1840 model contains at least 25,000 buildings.
This quarter spreads across the Thames north and west from Greenwich and the East London neighborhoods in what is now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, shrunk to a minuscule fraction of its old self. It accounts for 17 sq km (6.5 sq mi) of territory. The full model, roughly from Greenwich in the southeast to St. John’s Wood in the northwest, will cover an area of 5 by 11 meters (16 by 35 feet) – about the area of 13 ping-pong tables. At 1:15000 its scale is one-third that of the Bloomsbury model.
Urban history has attracted increasing interest in Britain since the 1960s, generating books from Christopher Hibbert’s London, the Biography of a City (1969), Roy Porter’s London: A Social History (1998), and Jeremy Black’s London: a History (2013) to Edward Rutherfurd’s fictionalized London: The Novel (1997). These naturally cover centuries, not a single year, and discuss the manifold changes that occurred within them. While LONDON 1840 cannot include such detail it provides something that books lack – the opportunity to visualize the architectural and transportation fabric of the city in three dimensions and with unprecedented accuracy. When completed it will open all of a London that is mostly pre-Victorian (Victoria was crowned in 1837), for use in cinematic or virtual-dimension educational and entertainment productions that have unmatchable physical accuracy. “We will be able to produce an 1840 ‘Streetview,’ build a database of all the inhabitants and users of the buildings both demolished and extant, map the trades, the poverty and the wealth, building dates – all as virtual reality apps,” Byrne says.
Fuelled by this vision. the LONDON 1840 project continues. Lovers of history and the cultural geography of a great metropolis are modelling the old city as it was during the ignition of the industrial revolution, chip by chip. It is a challenging finger thrust at those who proclaim the death of history. When it’s completed the world and particularly the Brits will be better off, and wiser, for it.