A short time ago I had the pleasure of taking an Australian couple on one of my photography walking tours of London. They chose a walking route from Vauxhall, on the south of the River Thames, through to the Palace of Westminster on the opposite bank.
It’s always a pleasure to walk this route, as it is so full of both history and photo opportunities. On the history front, we see sites covering a period from about 3000BCE until the present day; on the photography side, there is some stunning architecture from Georgian, through Victorian and Edwardian, to modern structures which are still being built. And of course, there are all the photo opportunities which the river itself has to offer.
It’s of particular interest to walk this route with folk from Australia, as it passes the site of the former Millbank prison. This is the prison which, for large parts of the C19, every person in the country who was sentenced to transportation passed through before embarking on ships to the other side of the world, in the vast majority of cases never to return.
It’s hard to imagine now, in the leafy fringes of Pimlico and Westminster, with the Chelsea College of Art and Design and the Tate Britain gallery dominating the river front. But there are still traces of the past, if you know where to look for them, and you can still reach out and touch things which the poor convicts themselves may have brushed past a century or two ago.
That sense of really touching history struck me forcibly when I was researching the walking route at the National Archives in Kew. There, I was able to call up the original handwritten prison records for Millbank; I read the names of the prisoners, written with a firm hand in black ink, and also the crimes for which they were sentenced to transportation. Often, it was for little more than stealing a loaf or two of bread. Once names are put to the previously anonymous history, it seems startlingly real, especially when those names are handwritten, perhaps by someone who knew, met or even guarded the prisoner.
It’s often said that we fail to learn from history. I wonder if perhaps one of the reasons we fail to do so is that we see it as anonymous and remote, something which happened to almost mythical figures from long ago, rather than something that happened to real people, just like us other than for the passage of time.
I’ve written before about our tendency to demonise or hero-worship famous figures both from the past and from the present, and it seems to me that maybe this is part of the same problem.
If we could come to see history as something which happens to people like us, then maybe we could learn more from it.