Boffin’s Bower Revisited – The First Chapter of an Ongoing Project – By Peter Roberts

In 1977 I was working on secondment at an office on Euston Road in London. I had recently upgraded to a Minolta SRT 303b and happening to see an invitation for entries to a photo competition sponsored by Camden Council I decided to have a go. I can’t remember exactly what the subject of the competition was but I’m guessing that it was something to do with what it was like to live in the council’s area. The closing date was only a few days away so I spent the next lunchtime exploring the streets nearest the office to the south of Euston Road, taking a few shots and then rapidly developing and printing them for submission.

Needless to say the prints were returned with no comment. As I suspected, the grimy, grainy look that most of us were trying to emulate back then did not appeal to a council wishing, as they always do, to project an up-beat image. Good news snaps were what they were after, and so with a wry chuckle I filed away the negatives and forgot about them.

Twenty years later most of my negative files were lost to a flood but the few sheets that were salvageable were rescued and again forgotten about. Forgotten about that is until retirement coinciding with Covid lockdown gave me ample opportunity to spend hours at the scanner with transparencies and the surviving negatives. I didn’t realise it at the time but the seeds of a project had been sown.

Some of those seeds started to germinate when in an exchange of comments here on 35mmc I listed my current (too many) projects. Among them was one of then and now photographs using, if possible, the same combination of camera and lenses. Having thus committed myself, when I had reason to be in the Kings Cross area earlier this year I uploaded the images to my phone and took time out to track down the locations.

The Area

In the early nineteenth century this area of London was the site of the dust heaps which feature in Dickens’ last completed novel Our Mutual Friend as a symbol of tainted wealth. These dust heaps can be considered as an early recycling system, dust being a prim Victorian euphemism for household waste. Rich pickings literally could be had by dust contractors as the contents of the heaps were labouriously sorted and sieved. Most of the results of this sorting had a marketable value, especially ash and cinders for brick making and organic matter as manure for agriculture. There was of course always the possibility of finding something more valuable. This possibility forms part of Dickens’ story of Noddy Boffin who inherits a complex of dust heaps and takes up residence on-site in a house he names Boffin’s Bower.

Sanitary improvements led to the decline of the dust trade and by the mid nineteenth century such was the growth of London’s population that the area was redeveloped speculatively as part of the Battle Bridge Estate. As the Duke of Argyle owned property in nearby Kentish Town his name was appropriated to give the development an aristocratic nuance in the form of Argyle Square, Argyle Street and Argyle Walk. Notwithstanding this attempt at gentility the area soon became infamous for, shall we say,  a night-time economy of the oldest kind. Later still the East End Dwelling Company, a philanthropic non-profit making housing association built model apartments to the west.

Most of the locations of the original photos were identifiable although some viewpoints would have to be changed slightly in order to avoid obtrusive street furniture. Looking at the reconnaissance shots I took on my phone I decided to deviate from my original intention and shoot the current scene in colour. That decision made, I further deviated by using the Minolta XG1 which I’ve featured here before albeit more for the sake of the 45mm Rokkor that it came with.

The Photos

Argyle Primary School. My father immediately recognised this shot. It was his first school when my grandparents lived hereabouts in the 1920s.
Still decked out for the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee when I was there I’m sure it would be still recognisable to him.
Widborne Street. If this looks familiar to aficionados of Ealing Comedies it’s probably because Argyle Street just behind us was one of the locations used in The Ladykillers.
I doubt that Mrs. Lopsided would know it in its current somewhat gentrified form. The buildings are by the East End Dwelling Company.
Argyle Walk. The shabby shops have a Dickensian look about them. Was one of them the inspiration for Mr Venus’ taxidermy and bone articulation establishment I wonder?
The reason I don’t like photographing in summer at midday, though to be fair the sun was blazing that day. The shops are now a St Mungo’s Hostel for the homeless, the only rebuilding that I came across.
People were polite back in 1977.
Nowadays they just roll shutters down.
Considering the proximity of busy Euston Road this was and still is a quiet area.
Luckily that chap stayed rivetted to his phone long enough for me to include him as human interest.
The inner warren of an East End Dwelling Company building. My favourite of the originals.
Shot through a security gate it’s all lightness and greenery now.
I was unable to place this one exactly.
But it could have been just a bit further along from here where there was a chance to take advantage of the light and shade. This used to be Argyle Place but has now become a disconnected part of Argyle Walk.

The original images were taken on HP5 and the recent ones on Kodak Gold which I hadn’t used for some considerable time but used to like its blowsy, rather over-stated colour rendition. Unfortunately in its current 200ASA form it does not seem to be the same beast any more, it certainly didn’t have the colour I was expecting and I was disappointed with the resolution. I would have reservations about using it again. 28mm f3.5 Rokkors were used on both occasions.

Mundane images of mundane scenes maybe, but I believe such photos are important from a social history point of view if nothing else.

Thank you for reading and staying with me through the many permutations of Argyle.

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19 thoughts on “Boffin’s Bower Revisited – The First Chapter of an Ongoing Project – By Peter Roberts”

  1. Very interesting to see how the streets changed, or didn’t. The areas are certainly more environmentally friendly with trees!
    My regret is that I didn’t document my own home town more as there was no indication just how much was to be changed. Whole swathes bulldozed, even in the city centre, a thing that has continued right up to today.

    1. Thanks for commenting Terry.
      I was actually surprised how little had changed. Just cleaning the buildings, pedestrianisation and greenery have made a pleasant backwater that’s a complete contrast to the nearby awfulness of Euston Road.

  2. Daniel Castelli

    How fortunate you are to make these comparison photos. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
    It’s also rare to have the same gear. That’s a testament to both the enduring quality of Minolta and your decision not to sell the camera.
    The same locations, the same camera/lens combo, the same photographer contributes to the unique nature of your project. Thanks for sharing.
    If you could indulge this American for a moment? What is a ‘secondment’ as it relates to your previous job and why is Euston Road so awful?

    1. Thanks Daniel.
      Secondment over here refers to a temporary move from one job to another, usually on a voluntary basis and reflecting skills that would be useful to pass on to others.
      Euston Road, like other main thoroughfares in London is a scene of constant redevelopment. Building sites and cranes with their attendant noise and dust are a constant feature. Funny how they never appear in the architects’ impressions of the finished building.

  3. This is terrific! I appreciate your including history in this post; my daughter is obsessed with 18th & 19th century Britain and she enjoyed hearing about this on the way to school today. It never occurred to me that the term “dust bin” had an actual origin. When I lived there I just took it as the correct term to use for trash can. Loved your post on Greenwich street photography too, btw. I hope the market is still there; I spent many happy hours in Greenwich.

    1. Gosh Amy, I feel quite humbled.
      I’m pleased both you and your daughter found the history informative.
      History, especially often overlooked local history, is often of great value as a background to what I like to photograph and I always like to include a bit in my posts.
      Yes, the market is still there in Greenwich although to a certain extent still recovering from Covid lockdown. I passed through there on my way to have a wander round the park only last week. A great place to go with or without a camera.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I like contrast between the black-and-white and colour images. And I love the retro feel of the colours in the Kodak Gold though I understand your concern about sharpness. A really nice project! I’d like to see the new version of the picture you have place above the title.

    1. Thanks Graham.
      Yes, it was the colour of the area nowadays that struck me when I scouted it out. So different from the drabness I remembered.
      Perhaps I was a little too critical of Gold, but to be honest there isn’t a colour film around at the moment that I really like the look of. That’s why my work flow tends to be digital for colour, film for B/W.
      As for the title photo, that one’s a bit of a cop out I’m afraid. I just couldn’t find that location.

  5. Oh, wow- I think you’ve hit a collective ‘chakra’ on the anatomy of London! Or any city, real or imagined, accurately or inaccurately remembered… I’ll resist the temptation to dig out my copy of Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” and make more coffee. I did a lot of photography and honed my skills as a flaneur on these streets while studying architecture at UCL in the early ’90s and you’ve made me realise that I still relate pretty much any sense of equipment to the ubiquitous (and in my opinion hard-to-beat) Pentax 50mm M-series f1.7 lens that I used then and still do although I’ve lost and/or killed a few.
    Even your mention of the HP5 of your wonderful Atget-esque black and whites reminds me of the green lids to the film pods (or did I imagine that? perhaps all is reverie)- the London Borough of Camden didn’t know what they were looking at! I agree that Kodak Gold 200 is underwhelming- now I think about it the colour films I’ve been impressed with recently, Pro400H and Portra, have all been shot in medium format and perhaps the bigger negative is where more interesting things happen with colour.
    The “First Chapter…” bit is encouraging- indeed I feel encouraged by this to keep examining London, memory and film. Thank you!

    1. Michael, you credit me with too much here but you’ve certainly got close to the thought process I had when putting this post together.
      I’ve never thought of myself as a flaneur but you have a valid point there. Any street photographer must necessarily be a flaneur, or at least an itinerant urban observer with a comfort camera to hand whether it is used or not. The very fact that I have a camera with me makes me see and not just look. In fact some of my best shots are taken with my mind, not my camera.
      Thank you for taking the time to comment and if I’ve encouraged you to do something similar so much the better.

  6. Hi Peter,
    I’m a little late to this party and the commenters before me left little to add. I like how the angles, the composition are not always quite the same as in the original. That adds to the feeling of time having passed. This really is a beautiful project! And also I have learned the true name for Mrs. “Überkandidelt” as she’s called in the German dubbed version of the “Ladykillers”… I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to your next post! How is it going with teaching your wife film photography?

    Cheers / liebe Grüße


    1. Gruß aus London Stefan!
      Many thanks for your nice comment. Mrs. “Überkandidelt”, I like that very much and might just have to watch The Ladykillers (yet) again tonight with that in mind.
      As to the wife and film photography, lets just say “we’re getting there” and leave it at that.

      I’ wünsche dir alles Gute,

  7. Peter, you are fortunate to live in an area where there is a respect for the past or not a rush to replace things. I live in the Dallas, Texas region of the U.S. and this area is notorious for tearing anything down that sits on valuable property. There are homes in upscale neighborhoods that are over 2
    million dollars and less than ten years old and someone will purchase the lot with the house next to theirs and tear the house down so they can have a larger lot or the ability to build a house over two lots.

    I have photographed this region since 1979 and the amount of change since 2008 is unbelievable. Duplicating a shot is virtually impossible as new buildings replace or hide existing structures. I just photographed an artist supply store that I have used since the late 1970’s as it closed because the land was purchased for an amount that the owners couldn’t say no to. I consider myself an accidental historian of sorts because of my interest in documenting my surroundings and everyday life. I have also used the same cameras since the late 70’s and early 80’s. By continuing to shoot film through all the change I believe it has helped me to find a place of internal balance. I have truly lived out the 1970’s Kodak ad campaign, “Remember the times of your life”.

    Keep documenting your world and sharing your thoughts and photographs. Thanks for letting us all see into the past and remember.

    1. Thanks for that, Bill.
      Yes, we’re lucky that there are still a lot of tucked away areas untouched by developers’ unfeeling hands where the streets and buildings speak to you of their history. Alas, the same cannot be said of main thoroughfares or even the countryside come to that.
      Like you, documenting these things has led me into researching their history. Putting it all into context does indeed create a satisfying balence.
      “Time it was, and what a time it was ….”

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