Unknown London by Walter George Bell


Unknown London is a small book published slightly before the First World War. Walter Bell’s thesis is that London is full of artifacts which have links to fascinating stories, but that people do not comprehend their importance. This failure occurs for a mixture of reasons. Sometimes an artifact is ignored because the glamour of another experience overwhelms it. An example he gives is an altar in a great cathedral, which goes ignored among the tombs of kings and poets. Often, the object is ignored simply because its history is superficially unknowable. In Bell’s pre-internet life, a person seeing a block of odd masonry could only discover it was a chunk of Roman wall through academic research or folk history.

Bell’s book is not folkloristic in the sense of having ghosts in it, but it reminds me of certain types of fairy story. You won’t find Narnia in the back of any of his cupboards, but you might find the head of an earl, or the ashes of a saint, or a stone reputed to be magical. In its own modest way it’s a brilliant little work of oral history.

Bell’s artifacts did not, in many cases, survive the Blitz. This makes his book the final record of them: the point where his stories preserve a lost oral tradition. Bell himself does not know this, of course, but it adds an extra layer of tragedy to the book for modern readers.

I listened to the book as a free Librivox download, but it is also available as a free e-text. There is a sequel, More about Unknown London, which has not yet been recorded.