top of page
  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

London's Top Sights in 1824

In 1824 William Darton (Junior) wrote a guide to London:

A Description of London: Containing a Sketch of Its History and Present State, and of All the Most Celebrated Public Buildings, &c.

The tiny, 36 page, book was published by William Darton (Senior) of 58, Holborn Hill. It was available in two editions, plain for 1s. or, for just sixpence more, you could buy a copy with all eight engravings beautifully hand-coloured.

I couldn't find the book or the images anywhere else on the net so here are all eight of the Most Celebrated Public Buildings, in colour, accompanied by the original captions and text.

I find it interesting to note what Darton chose not to illustrate, St James's Palace, The Tower of London, St Paul's or anything else in The City for that matter. But what most amuses me is his history. He frustrates and illuminates in equal measure.

I imagine many a London enthusiast going back to double-check their trusted sources after reading Mr Darton's version of many well-worn "facts".

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey
This interesting edifice was founded by Sebert, King of the East Saxons; but being afterwards destroyed by the Danes, it was rebuilt by Edgar in 958. Edward the Confessor again rebuilt the church in 1065. The present Church was built by Henry II, and his successor, except the two towers at the entrance, which are the work of Sir Christopher Wren. It is 360 feet long; the breadth of the nave is 72 feet, and of the cross aisle 195 feet.
The roof of the nave and of the cross aisle is supported by two rows of arches, one above the other, each of the pillars of which is a union of one ponderous round pillar, and four of a similar form, but extremely slender, continued from the base to the roof, which produce an uncommonly grand and awful effect. The choir is one of the most beautiful in Europe; and the elegant and interesting monuments with which the church is stored, especially in Poets’ Corner, add greatly to its attractions.
Our limits will allow us only to mention, but not to describe, some of the curiosities in this venerable pile, and in the other public buildings that are to follow. The most worthy of notice are Henry the Seventh’s Chapel, one of the finest places of gothic architecture in. the world, called, by Leland, the wonder of the world; Edward the Confessor’s chapel, in which, among a great variety of valuable antiquity, models, and monuments, are the coronation chairs of the British sovereigns, and the very stone on which the ancient kings of Scotland used to be crowned. There are nine other chapels. The Cloisters, the Crypt, the Chapter House, in which Domesday Book is kept, the beautiful prospect from the towers of the Abbey, the Choir, the Altar, and the west window, must not be omitted. Prices of Admission—Henry VII.’s Chapel, 6db; North Transept, 6d.; Henry V.’s Chapel, 3d.; West-end and North-west Tower, 6d.; but it is usual to give a trifle to the conductor.

Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall
This is the largest room in Europe unsupported by pillars, except the theatre at Oxford; it is 275 feet long, and 74 broad. Westminster Hall, with the Houses of Lords and Commons, and other contiguous buildings, are the remains of the Old Royal Palace of Westminster, built by Edward the Confessor. This great hall, which has a curious chestnut roof in the gothic style, was built by William Rufus, and enlarged by Richard II.
It was originally used as a place to entertain the king’s guests and dependants in, on great festivals; Richard II. entertained 10,000 persons within its walls, and it is still used for the coronation feasts. It is also fitted up for the trial of peers, or persons impeached by the House of Commons.
Under the roof of this hail, or in intimate connexion with it, is performed the most effective public business of this great empire. Here the representatives of the people deliberate ;—here every department of the law is administered in the three supreme courts, (King’s Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer,) and in the Court of Chancery ;—and here sit the Court of Final Appeal, and the other House of Legislature—the House of Lords.

Carlton Palace
Carlton Palace
Is situated on the northern side of St. James’s Park, fronting Pall Mall, and is the residence of the present King. it is a modern building, and contains several magnificent apartments. It has the finest and most extensive armoury in the world, in which are some of the rarest specimens of the arms, &c. of all nations.
The principal front is separated from Pall Mall by a low screen, surmounted with a beautiful colonnade.

New Theatre Royal Haymarket
New Theatre Royal Haymarket
This is a summer theatre, opening about the middle of May, and closing in September. Though it is not so spacious as either of the winter houses, it is fitted up in a neat and tasteful style, and contains three tiers of boxes, a pit, and two galleries.
The price of admission to the boxes is 5s.; pit, 3s.; galleries, 2s. and 1s.; half price is not taken. The doors open at six, and the performance begins at seven o’clock.

Horseguards or War Office
Horseguards or War Office
This is an elegant stone building, separating Parliament Street from the eastern end of St. James’s Park, to which,it is the principal entrance. Here is transacted all the business of the British army in a great variety of departments. Two regiments of horse-guards do duty here; and here also three regiments of footguards have their orderly rooms. Under the two small pavilions at the entrance, two of the horse-guards, mounted and in uniform, are constantly stationed as sentinels.

The old palace of this name occupied a space along the bank of the river, a little below Westminster Bridge, beginning at Privy Gardens, and ending near Scotland-yard; it extended from the river to St. James’s Park and to Spring Gardens, and was originally the property of Hubert de Burgh, Justiciary of England, under Henry III., from whom it passed to the prelates of York, and was long called York House. Henry VIII. purchased it from Cardinal Wolsey, then Archbishop of York, when it became the residence of the kings of England, till the reign of Queen Anne, who held her court at St. James’s, in consequence of this palace being burnt down in 1697.
The Banqueting House occupies but a very small part of the site of the ancient palace, and derives its appellation from an old building used for public entertainments in the reign of Elizabeth. It is only a small portion of the vast plan of a palace, intended to be worthy of the residence of the British monarchs, but left incomplete. It was begun by order of James I. and is the work of Inigo Jones. The great room is converted into a chapel, and over the altar stand several eagles taken from the French at the battles of Albuera and Barossa. The ceiling was painted by Rubens, and represents the apotheosis of James I.; it was lately retouched by Cipriani. In the court behind the Banqueting-house is a very fine statue of James II. Before the Banqueting-house Charles I. was beheaded on a scaffold erected for the purpose, to which lie passed through one of the windows, since bricked up: and he slept here the night before, in one of the small rooms.

Somerset House
Somerset House

On the site of Somerset House formerly stood a magnificent palace, built by the great and amiable Duke of Somerset, protector in the reign of Edward VI., who being barbarously attainted and executed, it fell to the crown. The present edifice was erected, under the powers of an Act of Parliament, by Sir William Chambers, for several public uses. It is an immense stone edifice, raised on piers and arches, on the banks of the Thames,and fronting the Strand. The terrace, as seen from the river, is very noble; it is raised on a grand rustic basement, having thirty-two spacious arches, and commands a beautiful part of the river, including Blackfriars and Westminster Bridges. The front of Somerset House, in the Strand, has a very magnificent aspect, and that which looks into the court is elegant in its composition, and considerably wider than the former.
In the extensive court is the statue of the late king, and at his feet a figure of the river Thames, pouring wealth and plenty from a large cornucopia. The three open arches in the Strand-front form the principal entrance; they lead to a spacious and elegant vestibule, in which are the rooms of the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Royal Academy of Arts. The various public offices, and houses of the officers, are at once commodious and elegant, worthy of the nation to which they belong. The hail of the Navy Office is a fine room, one of the fronts facing the terrace and river, and the other the court. The Stamp Office consists of a multitude of apartments, and the room in which the stamping is executed is very interesting to the curious.
Here are also the offices of the Auditor of the Exchequer—Chancellors of the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster—Hawkers and Pedlars—Lottery—Stage Coach —and revenue establishment of the Tax Offices. Somerset Place is also one of the wonders of the financial system of Great Britain.

Covent Garden Theatre
Covent Garden Theatre
This theatre was rebuilt in 1809, after the conflagration in 1808, and is, as a building, one of the ornaments of the metropolis, and the completest theatre in Europe. Great exertions have been made to raise its amusements to the highest pitch of scenic splendour and dramatic perfection; accordingly the dresses are more costly, and all the arrangements are on a more expensive scale than were ever before known in this metropolis. The colour of the interior is gold upon white. The prices for admission, time of opening and closing the house, and of commencing the performances, are the same as at Drury Lane.
The half-price begins at both theatres at the end of the third act of a play of five acts, or at the end of the second act of a play of three acts. Each theatre employs, as actors, artists, musicians, and mechanics, from 200 to 250 persons, at salaries from 30l. to 2l. a week. Each holds, when crowded, about 750l.; and with a full house., about 650l.; the nightly expenses are at least :200l.; hence the proprietors have clear profit of about 40,000l. per annum.

How many times did you disagree with Mr Darton? But have you got sources to back up all of your assertions? I know that he has not only given me some new information but that he will also make me think very carefully before I trot out some of the "universally accepted facts" of London's history.


bottom of page