‘Lost London’ in colour: Fascinating book brings scenes of WWII bomb devastation, floods and the Victorian everyday in Britain’s capital ‘back to life’ with incredible colourised photos

  • Colours of London by Peter Ackroyd explores how London’s ‘many hues’ have shaped its ‘history and identity’
  • The colourised images in the book are an ‘authentic colour interpretation of the black and white original’
  • ‘What I found extraordinary was not how much, but how little has changed,’ says the colourist of the images 
  • The book is said to show us ‘that colour is everywhere in the city, and each one holds myriad links to its past’

These photographs promise to ‘bring a lost London back to life’.

They are black-and-white images that have been specially colourised to illustrate the captivating new book Colours of London: A History, by biographer and critic Peter Ackroyd, published by Frances Lincoln.

The book explores how London’s ‘many hues have come to shape its history and identity’. ‘Think of the colours of London and what do you imagine? The reds of open-top buses and terracotta bricks? The grey smog of Victorian industry, Portland stone and pigeons in Trafalgar square? Colours of London shows us that colour is everywhere in the city, and each one holds myriad links to its past,’ the publisher notes.

A shocking picture of an upturned bus in the aftermath of a World War II bombing raid, a poignant shot of the London floods of 1928, and a 1950s image of children paddling in the Thames are among the eye-opening colourised pictures in the tome.

Jordan J Lloyd of Dynamichrome colourised many of the images in the book. Reflecting on the process, he writes: ‘What I found extraordinary was not how much, but how little has changed; the view would be as familiar to a Londoner during the reign of Queen Victoria as it would be today.’

He explains that experts were consulted to create an ‘authentic colour interpretation of the black-and-white original’. ‘I stress the word authenticity (rather than accuracy) because, like any period drama, we take clues from the real thing in order to inform a version which is not intended to be a substitute for a historically accurate original,’ he adds. Scroll down to see a handful of the pictures in the book that take you on a colourful walk through history…

The colourised snapshot above portrays children paddling at low tide in the River Thames on June 2, 1955, with Tower Bridge in the background. Ackroyd describes the Thames as ‘neither safe nor peaceful… sometimes a treacherous ally of the city’, noting that there ‘have been floods throughout the tempestuous history of both’, with six in the 19th century that caused ‘much destruction of life and property’

LEFT: This poignant picture shows the aftermath of a German bombing raid on September 9, 1940. In the shot, a bus lies against the side of a terrace in Harrington Square, Mornington Crescent. Ackroyd explains that the ‘first assaults on London from the air’ began in July of that year, and they were initially aimed at outer London. ‘At 5pm on September 7, the German air force came in for a major attack on London itself. Six hundred bombers, marshalled in great waves, dropped their explosive and high incendiary devices over east London. Beckton, West Ham, Woolwich, Millwall, Limehouse and Rotherhithe went up in flames,’ the book reads, adding that ‘the Thames was described as a lake in Hell’. It continues: ‘The German bombers came back the next night, and then the next. Between September and November, some 30,000 bombs were dropped; almost 6,000 citizens were killed, and twice as many badly injured. It seemed to some that the end of the world had come.’ Ackroyd says that at that time, the ‘predominant colours’ in London were ‘of light and fire’. RIGHT: This atmospheric shot shows a bus stop near Trafalgar Square in 1953. The book notes that the city became known for its foggy conditions by the mid-19th century, caused by emissions from the likes of coal fires, furnaces and gas works. Ackroyd says: ‘When the fog was overtaken by the smoke and industrial pollution of the 20th century there emerged the phenomenon of smog, as widespread and deadly as any disease.’ The year before this picture was taken, the city was struck by the Great Smog of 1952. ‘It is estimated that 4,000 Londoners died of its effects, and an unknown number became ill,’ Ackroyd says. adding: ‘Between December 4 and December 8, the measurements suggested that the PM concentration, or the amount of noxious particles in the air, was 56 times more than average and that the levels of sulphur dioxide in the air were multiplied by seven’

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The exact date of this picture of Buckingham Palace isn’t known, but the book explains that it must have been taken before 1911, because that was the year that the Queen Victoria Memorial was erected in front of the palace, and it’s not visible in the shot. The image shows the East Wing of the palace with its original facade, designed by Edward Blore in 1847. The book says of the palace’s early appearance: ‘It had previously resembled a fortress or castle constructed out of soft creamy-yellow Caen stone, which quickly darkened and deteriorated in the pollution of the city. It had become brown. The brown was mournful rather than decorative.’ In 1913 the decision was taken to renew the facade, the book reveals. Its current facade – designed by the architect Aston Webb – is made from Portland Stone, transforming a ‘rather dour and dilapidated structure into a bright and brilliant new creation’. ‘The white facade of the East Wing is known throughout the country and the world,’ Ackroyd adds

LEFT: This colourised picture was snared in 1875 by Alfred and John Bool of the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London. Ackroyd explains that it shows The Oxford Arms on Warwick Lane, ‘one of the last surviving galleried coaching inns in London’. Speaking of the colours of London’s architecture at that time, specifically the houses of the wealthier classes, Ackroyd says: ‘The houses of the late 19th century might seem to be the colour of sepia or russet verging on rust red, with brown or green doorways, while the backs of houses tended to modulate between all the varieties of grey and brown brick.’ He notes that the ‘houses of the poor’, meanwhile, were ‘slums or tenements, obscure and brown as mud’. ‘It was a world of brown dilapidation,’ he declares. RIGHT: This photograph shows the interior of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park during the Great Exhibition – an 1851 showcase of 100,000 exhibits from countries around the world, from mechanical inventions to sculptures. Touching on the Crystal Palace’s construction, Ackroyd says that ‘glass had never been employed on so large a scale, stretching over some 226 hectares (560 acres)’. According to the tome, the glass structure reflected the ‘light of the sun as never before seen in London’. The Great Exhibition was ‘in some respects a multi-coloured extravaganza’ with ‘colour everywhere’, from blue and white paint on the exterior to strips of red, white and blue in the interior. The author says: ‘The Crystal Palace resembled a magic lantern that burned as brightly as the day… it astonished and eventually changed architectural taste.’ The Crystal Palace was subsequently moved to Sydenham, ‘where in 1936 it was destroyed by fire’

This photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral was captured from the South Bank of the River Thames in around 1875. Discussing the colour of the river, Ackroyd notes that the Thames has been ‘generally depicted’ as blue on maps of the city, ‘when in truth it has a hundred different hues’. In paintings of the late 19th and 20th centuries ‘it is predominantly grey, silver or brown’ with ‘glimpses or slivers’ of the blue, he says. Looking to contemporary times, the author says that today, the Thames is ‘continually illuminated’ thanks to the ‘street lights and the light blazing in innumerable adjacent buildings’

This picture of Covent Garden Underground station winds the clock back to around 1927. Ackroyd says: ‘The greenest or the most intense green spot in London was the fruit and vegetable market of Covent Garden.’ Touching on the history of the market, the book says that in the early 1700s, shops were set up in two rows in the area. This market expanded in the middle of the 19th century, selling vegetables, fruit and flowers. ‘It became the most famous market in England,’ the book reveals. Today, the ‘bustle of the old trades has gone from Covent Garden but the spirit of the market survives in the new life of the piazza where the street musicians, jugglers, acrobats, as well as the shops and restaurants of the present consumer period, still thrive’ 

A rainy day on Fleet Street in October 1915 is depicted in this picture. Discussing the presence of advertising on the streets of London, Ackroyd writes that by the middle of the 19th century, London’s business premises had ‘a variety of papier-mache ornaments or paintings to denote the trade of the occupant’. ‘Many coffee houses had a symbol of a loaf and cheese together with a cup… the destruction of Pompeii seemed a fitting advertisement for a patent cockroach exterminator,’ the book says. By the end of the 19th century, the ground-floor shops of the city provided ‘bursts of colour and variety’ with their signs 

This striking colourised picture depicts the London floods of January 1928, when the Thames’ tide ‘peaked at its highest recorded level of 5.5m (18ft)’ and ‘parts of central London resembled Venice’. The book notes that the basement of the Tate Gallery was flooded to a depth of 2.4m (eight feet); some ‘important paintings’, including artworks by JMW Turner, were submerged. The area of Millbank was ‘so badly affected that it had to be rebuilt; the old dwellings and warehouses were washed away or damaged beyond repair’ and the moat around the Tower of London was ‘filled for the first time in eight decades’. The book notes that there were several fatalities and altogether some 4,000 Londoners were rendered homeless in the tragedy 

Colours of London: A History by Peter Ackroyd is published by Frances Lincoln. It’s available from bookshops now, priced at £22

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