The Archives With 100 Kilometres Of Historic London Documents

The Archives With 100 Kilometres Of Historic London Documents
Shelves of old leather documents
The Middlesex Deeds Registry (1709-1938) is still widely read by visitors.

"What you see as a member of the public is really the tip of the iceberg," says Emma Markiewicz, Director at the London Metropolitan Archives.

This place is a Londonphile's dream. Somewhere you can walk in off the street and peruse historic documents about the capital to your heart's content — soaking up the past from tattered leather tomes, microfilm and maps.

Clerkenwell's London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) has only been open in its current form since the mid 1990s, yet its collections span back to 1067 — a time when the Tower of London was a mere glint in William the Conqueror's eye. Since then the collections have swelled in size, harbouring a wealth of recorded material from the capital's businesses, schools, hospitals, charities and various other organisations. What's more, it's all free to access.

The beginnings of the collection

The front of the LMA
The LMA in its current form was established in 1997, but documents go waaaay back. Image: Londonist

You'll find London Metropolitan Archives on Northampton Road in Clerkenwell, just off Spa Fields. The building's not purpose-built, but it does have a bookish history. Dating to the late 1930s, this was originally the stylish HQ of Temple Press, which dealt in specialist technical journals. In 1997, the LMA moved in, and have added extensions as its collection got bigger. And what a collection it is...

A 1930s part of the building with wood panelling
The building originally belonged to Temple Press. Image: Londonist

It is in a sense, a 'supergroup' of archive material, an assemblage of the London County Record Office, the London County Council Members Library and the Middlesex County Record Office and the Corporation of London Record Office. That's a lot of offices, and a lot of material with it...

100 kilometres of historical documents about London

Three men perusing documents on a table
Londonist visiting the LMA in 2023. Image: LMA

If you enjoy delving into archives, and you like London, you've just hit the motherlode.

The LMA contains some 100 kilometres of shelving, with an incredible array of books, manuscripts and maps of London. Though overseen by the City of London Corporation, the archives cover the entirety of Greater London — from Enfield to Croydon, and Hillingdon to Havering.

It is in fact the second biggest archive in the UK after the National Archives in Kew: "When you think about London and its tentacles then it does make sense," says Emma Markiewicz, Director at the LMA.

Whether you're writing a historical novel about London, exploring your family history, or just curious to see what, say, 18th century London looked like, this is the place to come. Here's a taster of the treasures lurking on the shelves:

  • Middlesex Deeds Registry, 1709-1938: This deliciously distressed-looking collection of old leather tomes is still, Emma tells us, used a great deal — in particular by people wanting to learn about the past owners of their properties. The LMA also has an archive of wills made before 1858.
  • Images: There's a wealth of images to peruse both online and in LMA itself, including some 95,000 prints and drawings (including those by luminaries like William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson), and the London Picture Archive, boasting some 250,000 remarkable images of London through the ages, from gleaming department stores to vintage trams.
  • Films: The construction of Barbican, old Lord Mayor's Show processions, the opening of London Bridge in Lake Havasu City... LMA has archival films in spades, dating back to the 1920s. Thousands of film reels are stored in a specially-climatized room; if LMA doesn't already have what you're after digitised, they'll do that for you. We'd also suggest subscribing to LMA's YouTube channel.
A huge old map of London
The Civitas Londinium map dates back to 1570. Image: LMA
  • Maps: Cartography lovers will be in their element at LMA. Among the 65,000-strong collections is the oldest surviving complete map of London, the Civitas Londinium, from the 1570s. (If that doesn't ruffle your truffles, why are you even still reading this article?). Another highlight of the collection is London County Council's second world war bomb damage maps, which use a similar key to Charles Booth's famous 'Poverty Maps' to give an overall picture of how London stood after the last Luftwaffe bomb dropped. Laurence Ward, the LMA's Assistant Director has even put together a book on these.
  • Sounds: They've got these covered too; fill your ears with the noises of Londons of yore — think street performers, Billingsgate Market porters and the bells of City churches.
Shelves of film reels
Lots of the archives' material isn't digitised, although if there's something you want to access, LMA will digitise it for you. Image: Londonist
  • Quirky bits and pieces: One of the best things we were shown on our visit was one of the 'Feet Books' belonging to Peal & Co, who fashioned boots for an incredible 400 years, between 1565 until 1965. Travelling around the world to capture the exact measurements of their clients' feet, Peel & Co recorded them in the most accurate possible way — by getting them to stand on the book, then drawing around their feet. And so it is that you can see the outlines of feet of people including Karl Marx and Lawrence Olivier. The LMA also contains Shakespeare First Folios, copies of film scripts which have been annotated with the censoring blue pencil of the Lord Chamberlain — and documents bearing the seal of Elizabeth I.

How to use LMA

Shelves of books in a library setting
Where to begin... Image: Londonist

Where to start when you're accessing some 100 kilometres of shelving? For the casual browser, the website is a sensible place to find your bearings. Here, you can flick through curated archives (everything from Anglo-Jewish collections to William Shakespeare), and work out what might interest you before an in-person visit.

A young man with a cap in his hand
Billy Waters, "The King of Beggars". He was immortalised in prints and a play in the early 1820s, but died in poverty in 1823 in St Giles in the Fields, at just 45.

At LMA itself, you use the catalogue to select what you're after, and the materials will be brought out to a reading room within the hour ("it's a bit like Argos," says Laurence). Order what you need online, and it'll be ready and waiting for you.

The good news is that although you need a History Card to access the LMA's collections, it doesn't cost anything to get one; you can start the sign up online, or in person at LMA.

It's also got a miniature gallery

A Victorian photos of a coaching inn
Lost Victorian City: A London Disappeared is the next LMA exhibition. Image: London Metropolitan Archives

One of the best ways for first timers to ingratiate themselves with the LMA is a visit to its temporary exhibition space. This is where the LMA periodically take a deep dive into their collections, creating an exhibition around a theme. From 13 May 2024-5 February 2025, Lost Victorian City: A London Disappeared is in situ, starring images from the Society for Photographing Relics of London collection — think demolished coaching inns, alleyways and the like. The exhibition space is free to visit, open Monday-Thursday.

There is also a slew of events — such as talks and book groups — some of which are free to attend.

Every time you come of out LMA, you're loaded up with a hefty treasure trove of London nous.

London Metropolitan Archives, Clerkenwell Monday-Thursday

Last Updated 06 March 2024

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