Illustrations of Roman London

9781108081764fc3dCharles Roach Smith was born on the Isle of Wight in 1806, and reared by his mother and older sisters after his father’s death when he was six years old. He was educated in Hampshire, and then brought back to the island in 1821, to be apprenticed to a lawyer. However, Charles and the law appear not to have suited each other, because the following year he was apprenticed to a chemist in Chichester.

This seemed to work better, as by 1827 he was in London, working for a firm of wholesale druggists, and in 1834 he opened his own chemist’s shop in Lothbury, a tiny street in the City of London, up against the Bank of England. In medieval times it was an area where coppersmiths plied their trade (Smith’s shop was in Founders’ Court), and its church, St Margaret Lothbury, was rebuilt in 1440 largely at the expense of Robert Large, a Lord Mayor of London to whom William Caxton was apprenticed. (That church was lost in the Great Fire of 1666, and the present building is by Wren.)

A modern view of Wren's church

A modern view of Wren’s church

In 1840, Smith had to move his business to 5 Liverpool Street, as the Corporation of London required his premises for redevelopment. He was joined there by his sister Maria, and the two lived happily until – with the business dwindling, presumably as a result of the City having fewer and fewer human beings living in it – they retired to Strood in Kent, where Maria died in 1874 and Charles in 1890.

So far, so conventional. But Charles Roach Smith had an abiding passion, which was not pharmacy but antiquarianism, and he was in the right place at the right time to feed it. The medieval city was being demolished and rebuilt around him, leading to massive excavations, not least for a badly needed new sewerage system. As a result, Roman and medieval building remains and artefacts and were being uncovered almost every day, and Smith was in a position, literally and metaphorically, to build up an enormous collection of antiquarian finds.

In the preface to Illustrations of Roman London, published in 1859, Smith lists a number of fellow enthusiasts who amassed similar collections, among them George Gwilt the younger, son of the architect George Gwilt whose chief patron was Henry Thrale, husband of the later Mrs Piozzi and friend of Johnson. His brother Joseph Gwilt was an architectural writer whose Encyclopaedia of Architecture, and editions of Vitruvius and of William Chambers’ two-volume Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture we have reissued.

Smith notes that many of these collections have been dispersed: his own, numbering some 5,000 was eventually sold to the British Museum at well below its market value in order to keep it together. Both the preface and the rest of the book are scattered with jibes at the meanness, ignorance and philistinism of the Corporation of London and (with some shining exceptions) their officials, who made no effort at all to excavate systematically or to record and preserve remains. (Even significant inscriptions stored in the Guildhall had mysteriously vanished when Smith went to check on them…)

The opening chapter of the book, considering ruins and other remains in general, is thoughtful and striking. Considering the abundance of information a future antiquary will have at his disposal, by comparison with the written record of ancient London, he observes: ‘In one year the daily press of a free country prints more than is contained in the entire works of the most voluminous writer’ whereas ‘The most copious histories of the most civilized states of antiquity afford but scanty information in comparison with their extent.’

Moreover, ‘As a rule, we shall find, that the prosperity of towns has been the most fatal cause of the loss of their ancient configuration and of their monuments.’ London and Paris are cited as supreme examples of continuing growth: ‘The Londoner … knowing no London but that which he has threaded to and fro from his boyhood, is incredulous when told of what was … the city fifteen hundred years ago: he sees nothing to help him realize the description; his mind pictures nothing beyond the visible present; and he dwells only upon the scene before him, which comprises his present, his future and his past.’ (Smith might have mentioned in this context the best preserved Roman city in Britain, Uriconium, abandoned in the fourth century, never built over, and still only partially excavated in the twenty-first: we will shortly reissue the 1868 edition of the guide to the site written by its excavator, Thomas Wright.)

On the actual remains, Smith starts at the macro level, with the line and visible remains of the walls of Roman London, then moving to architectural and monumental fragments, including numbers of gravestones and mosaic floors, and finally to the micro level of pottery, ‘small finds’ and coins

Remains of the Roman wall at Tower Hill

Remains of the Roman wall at Tower Hill

Tombstones unearthed in the City

Gravestones unearthed in the City

Some wonderful mosaic floors follow, and painted wall plaster, some found deep under that now trendy watering-hole, the Royal Exchange.

The Royal Exchange in 1844, with Chantry's statue of the Duke of Wellington in front

The Royal Exchange in 1844, with Chantrey‘s statue of the Duke of Wellington in front

Mosaic fragment from Threadneedle Street

Mosaic fragment from Threadneedle Street

Bacchus mosaic from Leadenhall Street

Bacchus mosaic from Leadenhall Street


Pottery is covered in detail, with many line illustrations, especially of Samian bowls, and a list of hundreds of makers’ stamps found on the fragments. New Forest and Nene valley wares are also described, taking me back instantly to my teenage years, pot-washing with a tooth-brush on Roman sites…

Examples of bowls in the famous Roman 'Samian ware' (in fact from Gaul)

Examples of bowls in the famous Roman ‘Samian ware’ (in fact from Gaul)

Fragments of Nene valley ware, with characteristic slip decoration

Fragments of Nene valley ware, with characteristic slip decoration

‘Small finds’ include jewellery and toiletry implements, lamps, styli for writing on wax tablets, nails, chains, horse-trappings, and leather sandals, some in extraordinary condition still thanks to the Thames-side mud.

A plate of styli, 'pens' for writing on wax tablets

A plate of styli, ‘pens’ for writing on wax tablets

And there are also detailed lists of coins, ‘upwards of two thousand … only those which, for about the last twenty years, passed under my own eye’.

Some of Smith's thousands of coins

Some of Smith’s thousands of coins

Smith also knows of about another 600, picked up ‘from gravel dredged from the Thames, and strewn along the banks of the Surrey canal’. Smith points out that gravel from the same area is currently being used for repairing the river banks much further upstream, creating a puzzle for future antiquarians… ‘Vast quantities are said to have been found in removing the piers of old London Bridge and in excavating the approaches to the new bridge. Of these, and of those exhumed in the City in former times, scarcely a record has been preserved.’

Thanks to Smith and his fellow enthusiasts, some at least of the evidence of Roman London which might otherwise has been lost was recorded, and it is interesting to look at the names of subscribers at the end of this fascinating book: among the hundreds of individuals (and learned societies) who wanted to know more about the city’s past, we find C.C. Babington, J. Collingwood Bruce, C.H. Cooper, Charles Dickens, John Evans, the Rev. Professor Henslow of Hitcham, Thomas Hugo, Colonel Martin Leake (and his wife), John Gough Nichols (grandson of the more famous…), M. Boucher de Perthes and A.H. Rhind. That would have been some launch party!


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3 Responses to Illustrations of Roman London

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