Tragic wedding party deaths in the London Blitz

The area of London I live in took a pounding from the Luftwaffe during the Blitz, which destroyed a fifth of London in the Second World War. At both ends of the long road I live on there were tragic deaths including an entire wedding party that had taken shelter from the Nazi onslaught.

Camberwell Green is a small park at the south end of the road I live on. On 17 September 1940, Sidney and Patricia Wright had just got married and were celebrating their reception at the nearby Father Red Cap pub, which is still there though sadly boarded up. Suddenly, the air raid siren went off signifying that enemy German planes were on the way to bomb that part of London.

Deaths at a wedding in the London Blitz

The groom, bride, parents and extended family including children darted outside and down into an air raid shelter – a tunnel under Camberwell Green. Unfortunately, the ground surface scored a direct hit by a bomb and the tunnel caved in. The bodies were recovered the following day.

The dead were Sidney and Patricia aged 21, their parents, Sidney’s five sisters aged between eight and nineteen and several guests aged between fourteen and fifty eight. This is the memorial below unveiled in 2007 at the exact spot where the bomb fell and the Father Red Cap pub today. Read on to find out what happened at the other end of my road.

That is tragic enough but these were not the only deaths in Camberwell, a district of south London, during the Blitz. In the first four months of the Luftwaffe bombing, just this one part of London endured 449 deaths in 1940.

London Blitz deaths in nearby Kennington

Walk along my road and at the other end you come to Kennington Park. And there you can see a stone slab with a poem by Maya Angelou. Behind it is a curious rectangular depression in the ground. This was once a “trench shelter” for people without gardens attached to their houses (three quarters of Londoners during WW2).

They were deep trenches with a concrete floor, timbers to create two walls and corrugated iron placed on top held down with earth to form an added layer of protection. Think of a First World War trench with a cover. Families might sit in these damp, smelly trenches for up to twelve hours while bombs exploded around them.

At just after 8pm on 15 October 1940, the long trench in Kennington Park took a direct bomb hit. The death toll eventually given was a staggering 104 people. The scene was horrific and again, I won’t go into the details but there was a struggle to identify the dead.

London Blitz deaths not publicised

As was often the case, in order to keep up morale, the government didn’t publicise these kinds of incidents. And that explains why a memorial was only put up in Kennington Park in 2003 and one on Camberwell Green in 2007.

The Maya Angelou poem that commemorates the London Blitz deaths reads:

‘History despite its wrenching pain cannot be un-lived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.’

Copyright photos on this page: Tony McMahon. Please credit if re-using.

London – which statues should be toppled?

We’re clearly about to have a wave of statues toppled across London. But if so, who should go and what should replace them?

Let me talk about which statues I think should go and surprise you with how many statues and memorials have been replaced or hidden away in London over the centuries. And then, let’s think about who we should be commemorating today with statues?

To me, the current situation is untenable. It doesn’t reflect the country we are and it often accentuates the worst of our past. Take Whitehall for example. Walk down it and it’s a parade of generals from top to bottom. You’d think Britain was a military-police state and not a civilian democracy.

We’ve had some great social reformers, inventors and artists but instead we celebrate Earl Haig. This is a man whose tactics in the First World War earned him the nickname “Butcher Haig”. And that was because of his cavalier attitude to casualties among his own men – not the enemy.

Get to the top of Whitehall and you’re in Trafalgar Square. I’ve got no issues with Nelson. He can stay up there on the column. But King George IV on horseback. This was the most reviled monarch of the 19th century. I’ve got Victorian era history books where the authors can’t bring themselves to say a kind word about him.

Contemporary satirists dipped pens in poison and lacerated him. He treated his own wife abominably. Built a palace at Brighton while men returning from the Napoleonic wars starved on the streets. Indulged every passion until he died a horrendously obese, self-pitying mess. So – he can go.

And then at the top of Trafalgar Square, there’s a diminutive statue to a king of little stature – James II. The brother of Charles II became king in 1685 and set about trying to return Britain to the Catholic faith but more perniciously, creating an absolutist monarchy based on that of Louis XIV of France.

If James had got away with this plan, Britain would have seen its democracy strangled in the cradle. Fortunately, parliament decided that James would not get his way and forced him from power. They brought in a Dutch prince who became William III.

And which statues have already gone?

What might surprise you is that London has been removing statues from view for a long time. Sometimes they go and come back again. So, here are some toppled statues that either disappeared or moved around.

For example, in 1888, a statue of General Gordon of Khartoum was unveiled in Trafalgar Square between the two fountains. Gordon was always a controversial figure whose handling of the 1885 Sudan revolt, that led to his death at the hands of rebels, was frequently questioned.

In 1943, the statue was removed to the Victoria Embankment and never returned despite a demand in parliament from Winston Churchill in 1948 to reinstate it. The statue remains in its current rather obscure location.

The statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square dates back to his reign in the 1630s. It was toppled under Oliver Cromwell and given to a metalsmith in Holborn called John Rivet.

He claimed to have melted it down and sold cutlery made from the brass. But after the Restoration of Charles II, Rivet revealed that the statue had never been destroyed but buried by him. And it went back on its pedestal where it remains today.

Then there’s the statue of Queen Anne in front of St Paul’s cathedral. It’s a copy of the 1712 original which was attacked several times. Given the queen’s love of a drink, somebody etched on to it: “Brandy Nan, Brandy Nan, left in the lurch; Her face to the gin shop, her back to the church”.

Other statues toppled include one of George I in Leicester Square and a large one of George IV, mentioned above, that once stood at Kings Cross. Sir Robert Peel stood for decades in Cheapside but was carted off in 1935 to the police college in Hendon.

Hyde Park corner was once graced with an enormous equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington. Queen Victoria hated it but while Wellington was alive, it couldn’t really be taken down. His house was nearby! But after he was dead, it was spirited away and is now to be found in far off Aldershot.

And who to replace them with?

I love history. And it’s not all about General Bufty-Tufty beating up the natives in Bechuanaland in 1879. Which is the impression you get from many of our statues.

History is about great social reformers, inventors, people who cured disease, architects and creative artists. Let’s throw up some statues to them and create a more balanced and nuanced picture of our past.

The missing head of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell overthrew the monarchy in England and brought about – in effect – a republic. That was more than a hundred years before France and the new United States did the same. But, after his death, the mighty Cromwell’s head mysteriously went missing.

After a bloody civil war, Cromwell imprisoned King Charles I and then had him executed by beheading in Whitehall. But maybe the king got to have the last laugh. Because whereas King Charles was reunited with his head in his grave, Cromwell’s head was to go missing for hundreds of years.

In 1911, The Reverend H R Wilkinson gave an address to the Royal Archaeological Institute and exhibited what he claimed was the head of Oliver Cromwell. How had it become detached?

After ruling England in the absence of a king and calling himself the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, Cromwell died aged 59 in 1658. He was buried with due pomp in Westminster Abbey – much as a king might have been interred.

However, a year later, the brave experiment in republicanism collapsed and King Charles II – son of the beheaded king – took the throne. He immediately had Oliver Cromwell exhumed and hanged in chains at Tyburn. This was the gallows in London where common people dangled from a rope.

His head was then struck from his body and put on a pole. According to some accounts, his body was dumped in a hole under the gallows at Tyburn. But others say that friends of Cromwell took his abused carcass away and buried it in Red Lion Square, Holborn. Without the skull.

His impaled head was displayed at Westminster Hall right outside the Houses of Parliament. Unbelievable though it may seem, it remained there until 1703 when the mouldy head blew down during a big storm.

A sentry guarding parliament picked it up and took it to his home. Apparently he never confessed to having done this until he was on his death bed. Then his family sold the grisly object to a family called Russell although the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds attempted to make a rival bid.

The head of Oliver Cromwell then ended up around 1787 with an antiquarian dealer called James Cox who put it in the window of his Bond Street art gallery in 1799!

Cox even placed an advert in the Morning Chronicle on 18 March that year stating:

The Real Embalmed Head of the powerful and renowned Usurper Oliver Cromwell with the Original Dies for the Medals struck in honour of his Victory at Dunbar etc are now exhibited at No. 5 in Mead Court, Old Bond Street…”

Morning Chronicle – 18 March 1799

In 1812, the Cromwell head came into the ownership of the Wilkinson family and a hundred years later the Reverend Wilkinson was making his speech. If that really was the head of Oliver Cromwell, it was then buried under the floor of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, in 1960.

Highwaymen in the middle of London!

Highwaymen were those masked thieves on horseback with 18th century three-cornered hats who held up carriages. The most famous was Dick Turpin. We often picture them carrying out their robberies in the countryside but actually, they were often to be found in the middle of central London.

So let me introduce you to some of the most unbelievably audacious highwaymen whose cheek and daring will amaze you! They terrorised London but also gave people a rather cheap thrill.

LONDON HIGHWAYMEN: Isaac Atkinson

He operated around Lincoln’s Inn Fields about the year 1640. I worked at an office overlooking this large and beautiful square for ten years. One side of the square has been dominated by barristers and lawyers for centuries going right back to Henry VIII.

Atkinson, after being apprehended, said that his conscience was perfectly clear as he had only robbed lawyers – who were bigger rogues than himself. Well, I think we can all agree with that (except you lawyers of course).

LONDON HIGHWAYMEN: Dick Banff

We would think of Dick as more of a cat burglar than a highwayman. His name is also spelt Dick Bauff. He used rope ladders and hooks to rob the houses of rich merchants in Lombard Street – near the Bank of England.

As a young man, he was involved in one extremely violent robbery in his native Ireland alongside his criminal parents. They murdered the occupants of the house and seized the goods. After being caught, Dick was given leniency on condition that he agreed to hang his own parents!

LONDON HIGHWAYMEN: Tom Buckley

Also called Tim Buckley. You tend to find spelling mistakes in names either because the individual concerned was illiterate or census takers were just sloppy. Or some criminals operated under multiple names. Anyway, Tim or Tom held up people on Drury Lane – and that really was slap bang in the middle of London

Buckley developed something of a personal vendetta against a “stock-jobber” (somebody who worked at the stock exchange). This man had got Buckley arrested on one occasion and branded on the hand. Our highwaymen seems to have sought him out and relieved the stock-jobber of a whopping forty-eight Guineas.

Incredibly, the two men then met by accident in central London and the stock-jobber got Buckley arrested – again. The highwayman was sentenced to death but then somehow got a reprieve. After which….he went to Hackney and attempted to burn down the stock jobber’s house.

After going on the run to the Midlands, he was eventually caught and hanged in 1702.

LONDON HIGHWAYMEN: William Cady

This highwayman found his victims in Hyde Park. One woman swallowed her own wedding ring to stop him getting hold of it. So Cady – who was a particularly unpleasant character – ran her through with his sword and then cut her open to get the ring.

Other London highwaymen included William Davies – “The Golden Farmer” – who only stole gold. Dick Low was the youngest highwayman aged just eleven! William Page used to dress in the height of fashion and hold people up around Grosvenor Square before being hanged in 1758.

The source for this blog is a book in my archive of material going back 300 years. The book in question is An Encyclopaedia of London, edited by William Kent and published in 1937. Here I am with it. I also used The Complete Newgate Calendar – also in my collection.

Galvanism – Frankenstein science and the dead!

The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.

Galvinism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.

If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have encountered Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall.

This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.

While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!

Galvinism turns dead murderers into entertainment

The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access.

It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!

A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death.

The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.

Mr and Mrs Galvini – pioneers of Galvinism!

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani (pictured below) and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.

The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?

Truly – Frankenstein stuff!

A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.

Tony McMahon investigates how criminals were brought back to life using Galvanism in 19th century London

The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.

Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).

So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.

Tragedy as Jews expelled from England 700 years ago

This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.

Under King Edward I in medieval London a terrible murder of a group of Jewish people took place on the river Thames as retold by historian Tony McMahon
Jewish people faced discrimination in medieval London

The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.

A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.

They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.

This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response:

He told them that they ought to cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea

“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.

In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.

And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.

Prisoners infect judges with typhus – jail fever!

Eighteenth century courtrooms were a dangerous place. For the convict there was a good chance you’d dangle from a rope. But even for the judge – the risk was high. The prisoners were so filthy and disease ridden that you might catch jail fever. Or what we call typhus these days.

Judges catch jail fever from typhus ridden accused

The year was 1750 in London at England’s top criminal court – the Old Bailey. Three judges were trying a group of prisoners and the death sentence was anticipated.

Capital punishment applied to a whole range of crimes at this time – not just murder but also theft and violent attack.

Unfortunately for the judges, the grubby criminals were seated right in front of the dock. And not only did they stink to high heaven but there had been an outbreak of jail fever within Newgate prison. The place was rife with typhus.

Typhus, by the way, was also referred to as hospital fever, camp fever and ship fever. It was and is caused by poor hygiene, normally when lots of people are grouped together in insanitary conditions. For example, military camps, ships and….prisons.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is newgat0.jpg

The agent of transmission is the humble louse, which gets infected by a sick person and then shares the disease with anybody nearby. So, the judges were infected because of their proximity to the accused. And it’s not a disease that spares the rich and privileged.

One of the judges was Sir Samuel Pennant (pictured with a louse) – who was also the Lord Mayor of London. The other two judges were Sir Thomas Abney and Baron Clarke. And they all died – infected by the very prisoners they had been sentencing to hang.

Another little fact about Sir Samuel – apart from being Lord Mayor and dying of typhus – was that he was a prolific slave owner. The 18th century was the height of British activity in the trade and he was actually born in Jamaica on his father’s plantation. I’m shedding less tears about his fate now.

Today, the Old Bailey – or Central Criminal Court – is still standing, though a more recent building. There’s no prison nearby. It was demolished at the turn of the 20th century when Londoners decided they’d rather not have large prisons in the middle of town.

But in 1750, Newgate prison was located right next door to the courthouse.

Jail fever brings typhus straight from prison to courtroom

Prisoners were therefore brought a relatively short distance from the squalid and overcrowded conditions at Newgate, straight into the courtroom of the Old Bailey. And along came the lice and fleas with them.

Therefore, if typhus was raging through Newgate, it was brought direct into the courtroom. Not that anybody fully understood the risk. And certainly not the esteemed judges who were carried off to meet their maker.

London hated the French long before Brexit

If you think Brexit is making Britain more xenophobic, then you need to get a time machine and go back to Georgian London. Because two hundred years ago, a French person walking around London might not only endure abuse but come to an unfortunate end!

Eighteenth century London was a dangerous place to walk around if you were French. As England was in an almost constant state of war with France, Londoners often sought out a Frenchman in the city to pick on or worse.

If you think Brexit has made people more xenophobic about the French – eighteenth century London would be a huge shock.

There are several accounts of unpleasant abuse meted out by London folk against the French in the 1940 history book The Streets of London by Thomas Burke. He details one appalling incident where a French servant went to see a public hanging at Tyburn and nearly got executed himself!

The hanging of two criminals had just finished when three people in the crowd, realising the servant was French, began pulling at his coat-tails and powdered wig (this is the 18th century after all).

At which point the hangman was going past in the cart, in which he’d brought the condemned in to die, and began joining in the harassment by taking to the French servant with his whip.

He began to wonder if his time was up when three other Frenchmen came to his rescue. They beat the English thugs back and got him into a nearby tavern.

The narrator of this story then pointed out that should a Frenchman find himself in this predicament, he should single out one of his assailants and fight him with his fists. If he wins, the typical English crowd would then declare him a good sport and parade him around in a chair!

No matter how bad things are with Brexit – no French person to my knowledge has faced such a terrible threat today in London. But correct me if I’m wrong.

The gang that terrorised Georgian London!

So you think urban gangs are a modern phenomenon? Well, 18th century Georgian London was horrified by the activities of the Black Boy Alley gang who showed no mercy to their victims but came to a pretty gruesome end themselves!

Let me take you back to the early 18th century and the wickedness of a group of criminals known as the Black Boy Alley gang. They operated very near to what is now Holborn Circus – or “midtown” as estate agents like to call it. I worked around this part of London as a journalist for many years and it’s a kind of intermediate zone between the City of London in the east and the bustling shops of the West End.

The story of this gang turned up in a book published in 1817 from my large collection of old London related volumes going back three hundred years. The book is called A History and Description of London and was probably written around ten years before by David Hughson – whose real name was Edward Pugh.

It consists of a series of walks through the city that includes some really nasty areas. Hughson seemed determined to expose his readers to the sleazier side of London life! The streets he mentions once led off what is now Holborn Circus roundabout towards the meat market at Smithfield. Saffron Hill is still there but Chick Lane and Black Boy Alley have gone – and maybe not surprisingly!

Black Boy Alley was where a gang operated from in Georgian London

Because under the reign of King George II (reigned 1727 to 1760), Black Boy Alley was “the terror of the whole city” – according to Hughson. The Black Boy Alley Gang used prostitutes to lure passers-by into the grubby tenements. These hapless individuals were then gagged, robbed and murdered. Their bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a ditch with all the city rubbish.

Women played a prominent role in the crimes and three were executed in 1743. These included Ann Duck and Ann Barefoot (I’m not making these names up!!). A man called George Cheshire survived an attack by both of them in nearby Chick Lane. Duck and Barefoot beat Cheshire giving him some severe cuts and bruises. In total, they stole four pence. And for that crime – both women were hanged.

Sarah Bartlet and Martha Ewers were sentenced to transportation for luring a man called Robert Copperthwait into a house on Black Boy Alley and relieving him of his watch. Lucky for him he wasn’t murdered but inexplicably decided to return and they mugged him again – this time taking his money.

The gang included a 21-year-old local lad known as Gugg (real name William Billingsley). He had gone to the free school to learn to read and write but crime was way more attractive than working as a lamp lighter. Then there was Thomas Well, reputed to be the husband of Ann Barefoot mentioned above. At his trial, he was said to have been “much addicted to vile women and drinking, swearing, gaming and every other destructive vice”.

Then there was Dillsey (real name William Brister) and a fourteen-year-old called Scampey (real name Henry Gadd). At his trial, Scampey was asked who was his Redeemer and instead of saying “Jesus”, he scandalised the court by yelling “the Devil!”. Another gang member was a Frenchman called Sulspice du Clot who was a Roman Catholic, as was an Irish gang member, Patrick Bourk.

The Black Boy Alley gang also had two Jewish members: Benjamin David Woolfe who was born in Prague, then part of Bohemia and now the capital of the Czech Republic. And Hannah Moses was from Frankfurt. She had seen her husband executed in February 1743 in London for robbing a silversmith.

The law eventually caught up with the gang and a staggering nineteen were executed on a single day at Tyburn gallows – near where Marble Arch is today at the end of Oxford Street. The mass hanging took place on Christmas Eve 1744. Gugg, Dillsey, young Scampey, the Frenchman Sulspice and the two Jewish gang members all swung from the end of a rope in front of a large, festive crowd.

And so ended the terror of the Black Boy Alley gang!

The London of the Frankenstein Chronicles

If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chronicles you might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Frankenstein Chronicles

Frankenstein Chronicles

I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.

The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.

Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.

At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.

The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.

Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:

Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.

The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.

To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!