The Weekly Machen

Admirers of Arthur Machen’s urban explorations will delight in the following essay on wandering which received two columns of newspaper. Written in his characteristic style, Machen is in his element amongst the twisting trails of London as he guides the reader through beauty, decay, political speeches and Hebrew symbols… all in one breezy stroll! Additionally, we are teased by Machen’s suggestion of a future work never realized, one that no doubt would have been entertaining had it come to pass.

Wonderful London
XCI.More About Back Streets
Arthur Machen
May 3, 1912

It was somewhere not far from the Hampstead-road. Behind a high wall, well bowered with trees, there stands a dignified, one might almost say a pompous, house of the late Georgian or early Victorian period. Its portico is pillared and stately; it is all on the big scale; somewhat, I should think, after the manner of the mansion of the brass and copper founder which Mr. Pecksniff pretended to admire.

Anyone could see that in this house things had been carried with a high hand, that both port wine and sherry wine had been plentiful on a heavy board of mahogany, that someone with a large waist and a large white waistcoat had been master in these halls—and now there is a board upon the wall, above the gate, stating that the place is a manufactory of wholesale millinery.

Thus is change written all over the ways of London. The street I speak of is as near to the heart of things as Kensington; but its day is long done, and sentence has gone forth against it.

I set out on my journey through the bye-ways and the back streets, taking Euston-square—which for so long was Gower-street—as my point of departure, and I steered a course east by north, which led me in a couple of hours to the heights of Pentonville. I saw streets of all kinds, some so dismal that I wondered how anybody at all can be induced to live behind their gruesome bricks, and some so pleasant that I could not make out their faded and disconsolate estate.

Blossoms of the Still Squares

Here you have a quarter of London about ten minutes to a quarter of an hour distant from Piccadilly-circus, you have houses of decent size set in the midst of every pleasant circumstance of greenery, you have peace and quietness, and often goodly gardens; most things, as it seems to me, which make a house in a big town desirable; yet for all that many of these houses have, I noticed, too many bells on their doorposts, and everywhere you see the legends as “A Bedroom” and “Furnished Apartments” displayed in window and fanlight.

No doubt I saw Camden Town and its surrounding regions at their best. As I sauntered from peaceful square to square, from quiet crescent to quiet terrace; here in the heart of London there was a high festival of spring.

The limes (or rather, lindens) were a pure joy of delicate fairy green; a green as dear and piercing and enrapturing in its tone as the voice of a choirboy. Their colour leapt up in contrast with the graver hue of the elder-trees and of the ash, which is now coming into leaf. So far the planes are not at their best; the greenish-yellow of their young leaves is crude and unpleasant; they will satisfy us later on when the lindens have lost all their freshness and almost all their beauty.

But the blossoms in these still squares, in the gardens of those retired houses! Creamy chestnut spires, golden laburnum, the dim purple of the lilac bushes, the radiance of the red thorn; thus are now decked the despised purlieus of Camden Town.

The Maze

On I wandered from peace to deeper peace; noting how, from obscure streets, ways still more obscure branch off and wind and vanish in unconjectured territories.

It was Dr. Johnson, acute as usual, who said that to get the true notion of London into your head you must not so much regard the important monuments and famous public buildings, as wind yourself into the byeways, the hidden and devious maze of unregarded streets. So it is; I stroll on for an hour, for two hours. I have lived in London for more than thirty years, I have always been somewhat of an explorer, and yet every five minutes I see a new name, a strange inscription on a street corner. We are, as I say, about fifteen minutes from Piccadilly-circus; and what percentage of Londoners have ever heard of Tiber-street and Copenhagen-street? Whence do these fairways take their founts; where do they end? These are to ninety-nine out of a hundred of us enigmas as difficult as the question of the song that the Syrens sang. So one realises the immensity, the complexity, the interminable wandering of the ways of tremendous London.

Let me not be misunderstood: Camden Town is not in all its parts a synonym for the earthly paradise. I crossed Great College-street; as ugly and dismal and noisy a thoroughfare as I know. And then there is a horrid little street beyond; it starts from a gloomy factory and seems to end in a railway bridge; its houses are mean and melancholy. And yet even this sad, grimy place is lit up by one tree, a cloud of brilliant green, planted before one of the little grey houses: the eye is refreshed and the soul is refreshed, as it were, by the sight of an oasis in a barren wilderness.

A Cure for Desolation

And I thought, as I have thought for twenty years, of all the deplorable, heart-breaking, soul-destroying streets all over London; and of how their misery and desolation could be taken away by the simple process of planting trees in all available spaces. We know that good drains and trams and tubes are necessary; we know that no man can make a really good impression at a dance or a dinner unless he has a coat on his back and trousers on his legs. But the possession of a decent suit of clothes is not the whole equipment of social success; and men cannot live happily with the absence of typhoid and the presence of rapid communication as their sole assets.

I crossed over a big railway line; from below came the grinding and jarring of goods trains being shunted, and then with a shrill whistle and a whirlwind of movement an express rushed past.

Then dim, grim little streets began to climb up towards the high places of Islington; the May sunshine and the sweet light could not make them look anything but desolate and abominable. Sheer miserable ugliness and gloom were here; and I wonder how long it will be before the people who know that they can talk and think that they can govern find out that this sheer ugliness (quite apart from all considerations of food and housing and wages) works out to very ill conclusions.

The Really Hideous

Street nomenclature suggests odd thoughts now and then. I passed a stupid-looking row of plain houses called Pembroke Cottages, and the public-house on the corner was appropriately named the Milford Haven. And I wonder whether the builder of this row signified in this fashion his fondness for his native county; whether he took the names as a memorial of the great Atlantic deep rolling in on the high rocks, where the ash trees look as if they must be the covert of the Fair Folk.

I came by devious ways into Barnsbury, which has always interested me, a born lover of occult things. I thought I knew Barnsbury to the core; but I found that I was mistaken. I turned a corner at a hazard, and found myself in the most fantastically hideous square that I have ever seen.

It was a large square, and it was built entirely in sham Gothic. The walls were of grey brick, the moulding and arches and ornaments were painted a lively cream colour, and, save that three or four numbers has recessed porches, every house was exactly like every other house. Some day, I am to write an exhaustive history of Sham Gothic Architecture, and so, as an expert, I may say that this square was intended to be of the style of 1500. Its stillness was appalling; I suppose the painted mouldings had scored the inhabitants into silence, and I fled shuddering.

A Place of Many Noises

And in three or four minutes from this deadly place I found myself in a crowd noisier the than loudest mob in a West End Shakespearean production.

The clamour was outrageous; it burst upon me as I turned a corner. A narrow street lined with small shops, a row of costers’ barrows on each side, and all the roadway jammed and crammed with people; such was the picture.

The shopmen bawled at their doors, the barrow-men bellowed their wares, there were two piano-organs, and a cornet solo within a few yards, and naturally the members of the public were obliged to scream at one another at the very top of their voices.

It was only possible to make a very slow advance; the press was too great. It was greater because several of the costers, resolute in pressing the matter home, had mingled with the throng, and thrust bundles of rhubarb and bunches of watercress under the very nose of the buyers.

Everything is sold in this clamorous bazaar; I noted boots (new and second-hand), odd clothes, books, insect powder, crockery, chests of drawers, nutmeg-graters, bedding, meat, fish, and proclamation that impressed me amidst all the confused and eloquent noise of the street; certain small oranges were said to be “Like wine.” I liked the phrase; I thought it savoured nobly.

Westminster and Whitechapel

I made Westminster an interlude. I was looking at a grave old hospital or school, built with that humble and sufficient grace that distinguishes the best architecture of the seventeenth century—the architecture that was content to carry on the old English tradition, eschewing classic columns and doubtful Roman ornaments. I was admiring the quiet modesty of this old building, the lilacs blossoming in the forecourt, the glimpse through an archway of a sunny garden, trimly and mostly ordered, when I heard a raucous voice.

Opposite the old hospital a man perched on some kind of rostrum was addressing a considerable crowd of working men. I heard him instruct them that they had been much better off under Tory squires than they were now under Liberal manufacturers; and then he informed them that they produced the wealth of the world. I assented internally to his first proposition, dissented from his second, and passed on.

Not, alas, to a sense of any repose; for my path was in the streets about Aldgate; Whitechapel, and Stepney.

Here was a corner bookshop; and nearly every book and every paper in its windows was in Hebrew lettering. There was an English poster against the wall; this was of the Syndicalist. Within were newspapers with hybrid titles, half French, half Russian and Hebrew Readers, and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” in Yiddish; also “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” by the author of the Ballad.

The Mystic Signs

Another shop, more Hebrew characters, here devoted to more pious ends; for the shopkeeper was a maker of silk Talisim—the plural, I suppose, of Talith, a praying-shawl. And an imposing building was devoted to “Talmud Torah Classes.”

But in all these by-streets of the East one is vexed by the uneasy stirring, by figures and forms that appear and disappear, it seems, without aim, without object or errand. The figures rise, as it were, and look vaguely, and vanish; they show as if they come up from the caldron and sink and again, only to be replaced by others. There is a torrent in the air; and the strange Hebrew characters seen in shop windows, on signs, on placards, on newspaper posters, give something of dark significance to all the scene; for Hebrew was ever the language of the magicians and the necromancers.

I crossed the main road and turned into a street of a more quiet appearance. And then I found myself looking at a decent pile of red-brick buildings—somebody’s “Mansions”—I knew why the tiles on one of these houses were of a brighter red than the other roofs; I knew why the brick faces of the windows in this house looked new. When I last saw that place it was roaring in a cloud of black smoke and red flame. I was in Sidney-street.

The Weekly

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Next: In a Kentish Hop-Garden

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2023 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Wonderful London

  1. Many thanks for this! I tried following it – largely successfully – on Google Maps – though only a tiny bit, so far, with the more intriguing aerial photo and street-view modes in looking for 100 Sidney Street, scene of the ‘siege’ and fire in January 1911. It seems to me that Machen’s phrasing suggests he was covering the events as a journalist. Wikipedia tells us “The siege was captured by Pathé News cameras—one of their earliest stories” and we can see for ourselves on their YouTube channel – though whether one could pick Machen out in any crowd scene (if he was in the shot)…

    This article was published a little less than a year after the end of the trial of four accused gang members (one of whom, acquitted, went on to be a Soviet secret-police mass-murderer, till Stalin turned on him) – on 12 May!

    Machen’s reference to a “house of the late Georgian or early Victorian period” sent me checking how far they were already into the next Georgian period – nearly two years, if one counts from the death of Edward VII (6 May 1910), less than a year if one counts from the Coronation of George V (22 June 1911). Intriguing to read of that house become “a manufactory of wholesale millinery” – I am often struck by fine Nineteenth-century houses become one or another sort of offices as I go my way about larger and smaller Dutch cities, glad to see them saved and in good order, sad to think them not houses anymore.


    1. This a great piece… more like a fine essay than a news article! As you both may have noticed, it is subtitled “More About the Back Streets,” which marks it as a sequel. I do have the first installment, but sadly, much of the scan is illegible. (Maybe one day…) David- great idea to map it!


  2. By the way, delightful photograph of the Royal Exchange with hansom cab, omnibus, some jolly delivery wagon with many a barrel, and all sorts of splendid dress by which Mr. Sherlock Holmes could tell you much about each wearer!


    1. That is a great photo! Of course, it could not not be considered a “backstreet,” but it is a captivating image.


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