The London Topographical Society: A Brief Account

This article, written by the Hon. Vice-Chairman Stephen Marks FSA when Hon. Secretary of the Society, appeared in Volume 24 of the London Topographical Record published in 1980.  Stephen died in May 2020.

Among the plethora of societies which are concerned with the history of London, many, especially the local societies, have been formed in recent years, but a few have their origin in the last century. The earliest of these, the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, began in 1855 and when that society was no more than twenty-five years old our own was founded.

The original suggestion was made in Notes and Queries in 1873 by Major-General J. Baillie writing from India. He thought there should be a ‘Topographical Society as well as Geographical and Geological Societies, to perform the same office for art as they do for nature. There is,’ he continues, ‘an immense mass of unappropriated material which would naturally fall to it, such as plans and views of towns, parishes and estates, plans of railways, etc., and engineering projects, views of the same at different periods and last, not least, photographs. Now that we have arrived at permanence in printing, such an association, indeed, should retain a permanent photographical establishment to reproduce rare plans and views that may come into their possession, and supply copies of anything that might be called for at a minimum rate of reproduction’.

His note brought some response but no action. In 1879 he wrote again to the same journal and prompted a detailed reply from Henry B. Wheatley. Wheatley, born in 1838 and energetic in the cause of London history right up to his death in 1917, was, among other things, Secretary of the Royal Society, founder of the Index Society and Secretary of the Early English Text Society; he produced a standard edition of Pepys and other books but his most important work is the three-volume London Past and Present (1891), still the standard dictionary of London.

Wheatley proposed a society whose purview was restricted to London; this was certainly not what General Baillie had in mind. It could be either an antiquarian society – but this, Wheatley thought, would overlap with the existing London and Middlesex Archaeological Society – or it could be an association on a much wider basis. This he favoured: its ‘main object should be to collect in one focus all materials for the history of ancient and modern London, and to arrange these is such a way that they could be easily consulted …… Every Londoner with a guinea in his pocket ought to become a member.’

The seed was thus sown and Wheatley took the initiative in forming a society. Notes and Queries on 10 April 1880 briefly records that ‘in accordance with the suggestion General Baillie made in these columns, a Topographical Society of London is in the curse of formation. The following gentlemen have formed themselves into a provisional committee:- Major-General A. Stewart Allan, Major-General J. Baillie, Hyde Clarke, F.S.S., G. Laurence Gomme, F.S.A, Edward Solly, F.R.S., Cornelius Walford, F.S.S., Henry B. Wheatley, F.S.A., H. Trueman Wood, B.A.’ The first meeting, at which four of these gentlemen, including Wheatley and Baillie, were present, is recorded on an undated slip at the front of the first minute book of the Society.

The provisional committee gained the favour of the Lord Mayor towards the proposed society and were able to hold their inaugural meeting at the Mansion House on 28 October 1880. Extracts from a prospectus, read at the meeting, show the considerable ambitions of the committee: of the numerous topics for the Society the most prominent were considered to be the collection of books, etc. on London topography, the collection of documents and deed, the etymology of London place name, the preparation of maps and plans showing buildings, etc. at different periods, records of buildings before demolition, a bibliography of London topography, an index of drawings, etc. in collections, and the publication of copies of old London engravings and unpublished drawings and of documents relating to London. There were to be an annual report and committees to watch over topographical changes and demolitions in several districts. In short, there were two broad visions of the work, collection and consultation, and publication. It was recognized, however, that there were limits to what the Society could do to begin with and priority was accorded to the latter, i.e. the various aspects of publication, and to the district committees.

The inaugural meeting approved the formation of the Society with the object as set out and gave authority for an organizing committee of twenty-nine persons, including T. Fairman Ordish as Honorary Secretary, to act till a council was appointed at the first Annual Meeting. Wheatley, the founder of the Society, became its Director and was to superintend the arrangement of publications.

The Society was not formed without opposition, however. Before the inaugural meeting the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society approached Wheatley with the suggestion that a topographical section of that Society should be formed instead. The Topographical Society’s provisional committee thought that there was no advantage in this, and that there would be a disadvantage in trying to raise an extra guinea for a section from existing members of a society. The London and Middlesex then asked the Lord Mayor to receive a deputation; he invited them to attend the inaugural meeting to which the joint secretaries replied on an open letter ‘… It is clearly out of the question that we, who think the proposed Society is (to say the least) unnecessary, should attend a meeting so called and so constituted. We once more renew our offer made to Mr Wheatley …. And we leave with your Lordship and the meeting the responsibility of rejecting it, and of adding another to the list of Societies which, by their multiplication, tend rather to hinder than promote the sciences they profess …’

However, a member of the Archaeological Society, Cornelius Walford, also a member of the new society’s Organizing Committee, thought that this was not the general feeling of the members of the former, a number of who had joined the Topographical Society. Walford rightly identified the Topographical Society’s work as ‘the reproduction of maps, drawings and charts of London … This work no other Society has attempted to accomplish’.

The provisional committee met altogether four times in 1880, thrice before the inaugural meeting in October. After the inaugural meeting there were 139 members and by November 1881, 166. The committee proposed an ambitious programme of publication for its first year, 1880/81, comprising part of Wyngaerde’s View, Braun and Hogenberg’s map, Norden’s 1593 map and a volume of extracts from State Papers, etc. relating to Elizabethan London. In the event the Society published Wyngaerde’s View on seven sheets for the first two years, Braun and Hogenberg for 1882/83 and Visscher’s 4-sheet view for the next two years. In the fifth year there were less than 50 members and publications then ceased.

Wheatley and Ordish were between them the active members of the committee but were so busy with their own affairs that there were, if the record in the minute book is correct, meetings only in 1881 (once) and 1885 (twice) after the promising start of 1880. The Society languished with rapidly diminishing subscription income and must have been thought defunct, but in 1896 Ordish called a meeting ‘to explain the cessation of the work of the Society’ and ‘to consider the advisability of re-starting the Society’.

The old Society had been called the Topographical Society of London: restarted it became the London Topographical Society, with the same objects and many of the same people involved. Wheatley and Ordish, Director and Honorary Secretary of the Topographical Society, G. Laurence Gomme (later Sir Laurence Gomme, Clerk to the London County Council) and two others of the former Council were on the new Organizing Committee. Among the new members of the committee were Sir Walter Besant, Edwin Freshfield, Philip Norman and J.P. Emslie. An inaugural meeting of the new society was considered but not held because it was in continuation of the old. The Organizing Committee held seven meetings between 1896 and 1899. Regular publication began in 1898 and the first formally constituted meeting of the Council of the new society was held in 1899.

Since that time there has been no significant interruption in the Society’s work. This has always been limited to publication, a purpose reaffirmed from time to time in the minute books. On occasion excursions out of the publishing field have been suggested but the Society has always resolutely refused to so anything that was not ancillary to the publishing function. Inevitably there have been special occasions for some other activity, such as an exhibition and conversazione at Drapers’ Hall in 1905 and another exhibition in 1947 at Guildhall, and a special committee to consider what could be done about the dispersal of the splendid Gardner Collection of London views, letters written to petition the Prime Minister to set up a commission on ancient and historic buildings (the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments) and to petition the Benchers of Lincoln’s Inn not to destroy their gatehouse, but too often the Society has decided not to support a particular worthy cause because it was outside the Society’s terms of reference. Moreover, there are now numerous bodies, not least the Royal Commission referred to, created since 1880 and performing many of the tasks which the Society set itself at the onset.

The old society possessed money and property in the form of publications of considerable value. In 1898 the new society took over the stock from the printers who had looked after them and, because of certain variations in the paper on which the Wyngaerde view was printed, an expert was called in to advise. The expert was Emery Walker; he became the Society’s technical adviser on all important questions concerning the reproduction of maps and drawings, and personally supervised their execution by his own firm. Walker was one of those who with William Morris were responsible for the renaissance of fine printing and book production and he had in 1896, shortly before his avocation with the London Topographical Society, started the Doves Press with T.J. Cobden-Sanderson: the Society was extremely fortunate to have the benefit of his interest and skill. His work for the Society was generally executed by collotype, undoubtably the most suitable process for continuous tome reproduction but one requiring a very high degree of care and more expensive than other processes.

The Society has always had on its Council men and women whose names are household words in London studies. Many have made a great contribution but none can match that of Walter H. Godfrey. His first contact with the Society was his unsuccessful application for the post of Secretary, then salaried. He was one of four applicants and came second in the assessment. He actually joined the Society in 1916 and was elected to the Council in1919, became Chairman and Editor in 1928 and held those offices till his retirement in 1960, a year before his death. As Editor he was responsible for eight volumes of the Record and for a large number of other publications and he kept the Society going during the Second World War almost single-handed with the issue of a publication every year except 1943. At the same time he was responsible for the publications of the London Survey Committee and for the establishment of the National Buildings Record.

The Society’s membership has never been large when one considers the enormous number of people who might be interested. In 1899 when it restarted it had 114 members; the number climbed steadily till in 1906 it reached 220, at which level, give or take a score, it remained till 1930. In 1913 warning noises were sounded by the Treasurer who advocated a policy retrenchment after three years of overspending, but mounting balances during the Great War indicate that the Society was well able to continue its existence although conditions were more difficult. It was after 1930, in the years of the depression, that numbers fell steadily till in 1938 there were 151 members, described as ‘very low’, and the the lowest ebb coincided with the blackest year of the war, when in 1942 there were only 111 paid-up members and only three people at the Annual General Meeting.

Fortunately Godfrey had prepared in advance a series of plans which he was able to issue for 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941; he brought out a volume of the Record in 1942 (vol. XVIII, the scarcest of all), and in 1943, on the reasonable assumption that there would be ‘few, if any, original members on the roll of the Society, the Society was able to save expense by offering a choice of past publications to its members. After the war membership began to pick up, with a boost from the publicity of the 1947 exhibition already mentioned. The increase from 184 in 1947 was slow and irregular till 1960 when there were still only 208 members, but from then the numbers increased much more rapidly till today they stand at almost 500, of whom 80 are overseas with a large proportion in America.

For ninety years the subscription remained at the original guinea; in 1971 it was rounded up to £1.10 to simplify calculations in the new decimal currency. The first substantial increase, to £2.50, came in 1974, and contrary to fears very few members were lost as a result of the increase. Now, in the centenary year, the annual subscription is £5.

In earlier years the Society’s publications were strictly reserved for members and could not be purchased by the public. The Society was thus outside the provisions of the Copyright Act and the British Museum was obliged to acquire the publications by purchase. The Society still maintained that the same situation applied in 1917 when the National Library of Wales asked for publications but in fact well before that Stanford’s, as the Society’s agents, were selling to the public at prices which were at least 50% over members’ prices. At what point the Society changed its attitude is not clear.

The numbers printed were related to a great extent to the membership. Print orders were often for 250 copies. The plates would be available for renting, but there is not much evidence in the minute books of their use; perhaps it was a routine matter to re-order without reference to the Council. Since 1959, however, it has been the Society’s policy to print much larger numbers, typically 1000 copies, of which between 300 and 500 only have been needed for distribution to members, backed up by an increased drive to sell past publications both to the public and to members. Whereas previously the sales of publications were a useful but usually not significant contribution to the Society’s income, since 1960 sales have exceeded subscription income in 13 out of 19 years and have made it possible to undertake more ambitious work such as Milne’s Land Use Map of London and Environs in 1800 (publication No. 118/119), to reprint out-of-print items, and to produce other publications extra to the subscription issue.

In this period the Society has also been greatly helped by receiving the residual funds, about £750, of the Survey of London Committee, to whom our reproduction of Horwood (No. 106) is dedicated, and by the very substantial gift of Miss Helen Barlow which enabled the Society to publish Mills & Oliver (Nos. 97-99, 101 and 103) and her legacy in 1976. The Society thus has now established a strong, almost self-priming, financial basis for its publishing work.

A perusal of the Society’s complete list of 124 publications, printed elsewhere in this volume, will show their wide range. The majority are facsimile reproductions, mainly of sheet material, envisaged by General Baillie in 1873 as an important facet of a topographical society’s work. There is also a substantial body of research, in some cases accompanying the sheets, but mostly printed in the London Topographical Record, the Society’s journal, and other volumes. The Record started life in 1901 as the Annual Record but immediately a year was missed and its name was changed; the last eight volumes have appeared at intervals of five to eight years culminating with the present volume XXIV. Other books contain research which either because of its length or because of the nature of its illustrations is unsuitable for the Record; several of these have followed a larger format, as a monograph series, starting with the author’s Map of Mid-sixteenth Century London (No. 100) in 1964. Of less permanent value, but of interest nevertheless, with notices to members, reviews and short articles, is the London Topographical News, a newsletter sent out twice a year since 1975.

Inevitably, many of the most important items, published in the early years, are now out of print. The Society has been aware of the need to make them available again and has reissued two Hollar works (nos. 104 and 112), but the pressure has been much relieved by the increasing activity of other publishers.

In 1900 Lord Welby, the new society’s President, said ‘The Society will then gradually create an illustrated History of London which its citizens can acquire for themselves at moderate prices’. Though less all embracing than Wheatley’s first thought of collecting all materials for the history of London in one focus, Lord Welby’s claim, no doubt reflecting the confidence of the Society, seems too sweeping to modern minds. In its current leaflet the Society’s purpose is ‘to assist the study and appreciation of London’s history and topography by making available facsimiles of maps, plans views, and by publishing research’. That purpose, we might be forgiven for thinking, the Society has truly served in a hundred years of publishing and will do so for another century.

Principal sources