The church of St James’s on Garlick Hill in the City of London has a little secret that’s not put on display anymore. It’s a mummified body that used to be a key attraction.
In a 1937 guide to London, there’s a photo of what’s claimed to be a medieval body. It was discovered in 1839 when the vaults were finally being closed up. The dead man was in almost perfect preservation but had lost all of his hair. A choir boy in the 1880s claimed that the other boys would take it for a run round the church before putting it back in its case!
More recent research suggests that the body was not medieval but dated from between the seventeenth and early nineteenth century. The church website doesn’t mention the mummy and it’s no longer put on view. However, it’s still there – somewhere. So if you’re passing by this church – you might want to pop in and ask if you can see Mummy!
Dick Hughes is mentioned in the Newgate Calendar as a robber who came to London at the start of the eighteenth century to make money the dishonest way. He’d already been arrested and tried in Worcester for theft. On that occasion he’d been whipped at the cart’s tail “crying carrots and turnips” as he was dragged along and beaten.
Hughes fell into bad company the moment he arrived in the capital. After being caught stealing three shillings from a house in Lambeth, he pleaded for mercy at the Kingston-upon-Thames assizes and was not hanged – as could easily have happened. But instead of turning a new leaf, Hughes became ever more audacious.
He robbed houses in Tottenham Cross, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Hackney, Hammersmith and a tobacconist in Red Cross Street. His luck run out when Hughes was caught breaking into the house of a certain George Clark in Twickenham. Very soon, he was languishing in Newgate prison.
Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff’s rope
During a previous short stretch of imprisonment at the Fleet Prison, Hughes had married a very kind-hearted woman. On the 24th June, 1709, she had to watch her husband transported in a cart through the parish of St Giles towards the gallows at Tyburn. As the cart paused, she ran up to Hughes and asked whether she or the sheriff were supposed to buy the rope to hang him!
Her husband, a bit thrown by this question, said it was the sheriff’s business to do that. Rather sheepishly, his wife produced a length of rope:
I wish I had known so much before. it would have saved me twopence for I have been and bought one already.
Sarcastically, Hughes advised her to keep it as it might come in useful for her second husband. And so, aged 30, Hughes dangled at the end of rope provided by the authorities and not his dear lady wife. Afterwards, he was taken to the Surgeons’ Hall and dissected – a common practice for the bodies of poor criminals.
To look at London Bridge now you see….well…..a bridge with traffic on it. But go back three centuries or more and the bridge was full of houses and some illustrious tenants. During the reign of Henry VIII, the court painter Holbein lived there. Two hundred years later, another artist – Hogarth – was a resident. They saw London Bridge in its Tudor and Georgian manifestations. It would have been remarkably similar during both periods.
The only highway for hundreds of years across the Thames was made up of about nineteen irregular arches with the original stones being laid in around 1176. Incredibly, this structure would last with many modifications until 1831 By that time, the medieval bridge and its Tudor houses had gone into a severe decline. The narrowness of the arches created fierce rapids and were not navigable by larger vessels.
From the Middle Ages, there was a stone chapel to St Thomas a Becket at the centre of the bridge. At either end were towers and the one facing Southwark was decorated with the severed heads of traitors. One of those heads under Henry VIII belonged to John Houghton, the last prior of the London Charterhouse who wouldn’t take the oath recognising King Henry as head of the Church of England. For that, he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn gallows. An old story had it that the keeper of the tower who supervised these grisly human remains was an old cripple who would play his lute at night accompanied by his pet owl.
The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge
In the sixteenth century, a large wooden building called Nonesuch House (as there was none such like it) appeared on the bridge. It was basically a wooden kit made in the Netherlands and then assembled in situ using just pegs to keep the whole thing together. It was surmounted by onion domes and sundials.
By the eighteenth century, the bridge was something of a death trap. The houses were on the verge of collapse and hung over the street blocking out the daylight. Timber beams slung across the top storeys stopped them collapsing on top of carts and coaches below. There were no footways and the whole thing was clogged up permanently – proving impossible to cross.
The only shops were needle makers and booksellers. One of the latter was Crispin Tucker, who both sold and wrote books and was visited by Alexander Pope and Dean Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels). Nonesuch and the St Thomas chapel were in a bad state and used as warehouses.
Samuel Pepys kept his famous diary of London life during the year 1665 when plague ravaged the city – killing thousands. He first noticed the onset of the pestilence when red crosses appeared on a door in Drury Lane. In a matter of a few days, King Death had galloped through the City of London and then on to Westminster and the suburbs. Poor Samuel came face to face with the horror when he got off a boat and had to step over a dead body as he headed down an alleyway.
Pepys wearing a fine wig
It had been a hot summer when the sickness had emerged. Doctors and physicians died so there was nobody to tend the sick. Pepys own medic – Dr Burnett – popped his clogs round about the 25th August of the plague. In the last week of that month, an estimated 10,000 people succumbed. Given the population of London at that time, this was a terrible catastrophe. As Pepys noted, the horror just kept going without any end in sight.
Still, some of the decisions one has to make at the height of a spreading plague are quite mundane. For example, should one wear one’s usual wig? On Sunday 3rd September, Pepys got up and dressed in his fine coloured silk suit. He was about to don his “periwigg” when he remembered that he’d bought it in Westminster just as the plague reached the area.
His worry wasn’t that the shopkeeper had been infected but that the wig might be made of hair from men who had died of plague. Somehow, Pepys reasoned, the disease could transfer from his fashionable head covering to himself. Pepys even wondered if the plague could spell the end for wigs!
It is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwiggs for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.
Needless to say Pepys survived and carried on wearing fine wigs, as did every other man in society, till his death.
This is the story of a terrible accident that occurred because of shoddy building work on a church that still stands in central London to this day. But first we must go back three hundred years to the tragic day in question.
St Mary-le-Strand is the church that appears to be stuck in the middle of the road near Kings college and Somerset House. In fact, it’s been referred to as St Mary-in-the-way. This place of worship was designed by the architect James Gibbs and was one of fifty churches ordered to be built during the reign of Queen Anne.
The first stone was laid by Gibbs on the 25th February, 1714 and the whole thing was completed in three and a half years. But it was only consecrated for use by worshippers on the 1st January, 1723.
St Mary-le-Strand – killer church!
Nobody doubted the skill and craft of Gibbs’ work and it stood proud throughout the eighteenth century. But then in 1802, crowds had gathered in the Strand to celebrate peace between France and Britain agreed at the Treaty of Amiens – after a long period of war between the two countries. A man stood on the roof of the church and leaned on one of the many stone urns to watch the heralds marching past announcing the peace treaty. Incredibly, the large urn suddenly fell into the street below.
Three young men were killed. One died instantly as the urn fell on his head. Another was so badly wounded that he died on the way to hospital. While the third died two days afterwards. A young woman was also seriously injured and others suffered cuts and bruises. The two hundred pound urn had bounced off the side of the church taking another piece of masonry with it and when it hit the pavement, it buried itself about a foot into the flagstones.
The poor man on the roof fainted but was still arrested. However, he was discharged when it was found that Gibbs’ workmen a hundred years before had been a bit shoddy. The urn should have been fixed to the roof by an iron spike but instead there was just a wooden pole. That had rotted away over time and it was no surprise that a killer urn tipped into the street below.
Attitudes towards LGBT people have changed over the centuries. Sometimes there have been periods of relative tolerance followed by extreme cruelty. The eighteenth century was incredibly camp when it came to fashion and manners but you could be hanged by the neck for being an active homosexual.
I know because two LGBT men were hanged for the crime of sodomy near where I live in the year 1743. They had basically cruised each other in central London and then been caught in the act.
LGBT men hanged for their sexuality
Kennington and the surrounding area has a big LGBT population these days but being gay in 1743 could have landed you in terminal trouble. In fact, the sorry scene that unfolded in August of that year reminded me of the hangings of gay people recorded in Iran in recent years.
But this was London – and barely 250 years ago. The scene of the execution was near Kennington Park pictured below in the mid-winter.
LGBT men hanged in public
James Hunt and Thomas Collins were accused of the crime of “sodomy”. The two men were from the parish of Saint Saviour’s in Southwark and had committed an act “not fit to be named among Christians” in June that year.
Both denied the charge. Hunt was 37 and Collins was 57, so both mature, grown men. Not that their age made the slightest bit of difference in an eighteenth century courthouse.
Hunt was born in Rotherhithe, reasonably well educated, apprenticed to be a barge builder when young, raised as an Anabaptist but deemed to be a bit bolshy.
While in prison, he was preached at by an Anglican vicar who reminded him that his soul was in danger of eternal torment. Hunt responded that it was those who had brought the false charges against him who had truly sinned. With the prospect of being hanged in public, it’s not surprising that Hunt continuously denied being gay.
Men hanged for being LGBT in public
Collins was from Bedfordshire and had served in the army, been married and a father to several children. His wife was from Southwark. Coming back to London, having been away, he was walking across London Bridge on his way to see his granddaughter. As he turned into Pepper Alley, he saw Hunt walking in front of him.
Collins asked Hunt if there was a “necessary house” nearby – for which read, public toilet. They both went in together but then two other men entered and Collins claimed they set about mugging them but found no valuables to take. Or as Collins put it – here is no feathers to pluck.
Unfortunately, the account given by Hunt put himself in the privy before Collins so their accounts clashed a bit on detail. Enough to result in a death sentence by the court.
Hunt had given his version of events to the aforementioned Anglican vicar who then passed on the damning testimony. Unsurprisingly, when the time of execution arrived, Hunt was in no mood to pray with the man of the cloth who had brought him and Collins to the gibbet.
Hunt said he was glad to be rid of this life. And he and Collins both died together. They were strung up to a tree, then the cart that had brought them drove away from under their feet. After half an hour they were cut down. Collins’ body was taken for dissection – a common practice in those days – but he was returned as his body revealed signs of venereal disease.
Terrible and brutal times for the LGBT community. Happier days now. A sad story of two gay men hanged for the crime of love.
There’s a certain poetic justice in having a chef boiled to death for murder. The chief in question had poisoned some dinner party guests and in turn found himself being cooked. Not a very pleasant way to go. But this was Tudor England and cruel executions were all the rage!
This rather tasteless execution took place at Smithfield.
I used to work nearby as a journalist in the 1990s and it was still a meat market – though past its glory days. I’m assuming the place of execution may have been chosen as another poetic act. Possibly this is where the cook bought the meat that he then poisoned. And now he was going the same way as his meat.
So why was this chef boiled to death? Well, Richard Rose had got himself embroiled in the sizzling religious politics of Tudor England. He was the cook to Bishop John Fisher who had loudly opposed any attempt by King Henry VIII to divorce his queen (and first wife) Catherine of Aragon.
The bishop had cried out that he would rather die than agree to an annulment of the marriage. Henry VIII no doubt made a note of that commitment. The king was undoubtedly furious with Fisher – as was the woman who hoped to become the next queen, Anne Boleyn.
I’ve always viewed Fisher as a lite, sugar-free version of Sir Thomas More. He had the same arguments with Henry VIII as More did. No you can’t divorce Catherine of Aragon. No you can’t renounce your allegiance to the Pope. And no I won’t recognise you as head of the church. Both Fisher and More repeated these opinions and their heads would soon be detached from their bodies for doing so.
The role of the chef soon to be boiled
Henry VIII didn’t lash out at Fisher immediately. Even though the bishop was apparently plotting with the Holy Roman Emperor for an invasion of England to overthrow his own king.
Instead, somebody appears to have approached the chef in Fisher’s household and offered him enough money to poison his master’s dinner. Unfortunately, the bishop wasn’t very hungry that evening but two of his guests were starving and wolfed it all down. They promptly died.
Sadly, the charitable bishop was also in the habit of sharing his table leftovers with the poor – and some of them died too.
Realising that the cause was the food, it didn’t take long to work out that the culprit was the chef. Richard Rose was arrested, interrogated and realised his goose was cooked. So he duly confessed. In no time at all, he found himself standing in a large cooking pot in Smithfield with an unsympathetic audience booing him while he boiled.
But who had paid the now boiled chef to kill Fisher?
Tongues were soon wagging in Anne Boleyn’s direction. She was an ardent Protestant but more importantly, she was thoroughly hacked off that the sanctimonious bishop had prevented her marriage to King Henry VIII.
No hard evidence was forthcoming and the king – putting his “I’m really shocked by this” face on – agreed to the chef being boiled in public. Maybe it was more important to make the point that servants should never entertain the idea of slipping toxic substances into their master’s meal.
POSTSCRIPT: Ten years later, a servant girl called Margaret Davis was also boiled to death for trying to poison her mistress and some other people.
Below is a depiction of a Tudor boiling alive from the TV series The Tudors – look away if you’re squeamish.
A funeral is a respectful affair. Unless you’re living in eighteenth century London – in which case anything could happen. And with the poet John Dryden – deceased – it most certainly did. The funeral of England’s first Poet Laureate became a complete farce.
John Dryden was one of England’s greatest poets and he lived at 43 Gerrard Street with his beloved wife Lady Elizabeth Howard. In the year 1700, he passed away. A sad cultural loss to the nation.
Maybe it was a relief to him as he had such appalling gout that he was in constant pain and his servants had to carry him round everywhere. Dryden was determined not to have his leg cut off – death would be preferable he said. When a black spot was found on the offending leg, he announced that “mortification had commenced”.
Dryden dies and his funeral commences
On the 1st May, with both legs still attached, Dryden passed away. Eighteen mourning coaches were assembled to take the great man’s carcass to Westminster Abbey.
But as his tearful widow came down with the coffin, she was confronted by a gang of very drunk, aristocratic young men.
They were led by the son of the notorious seventeenth century hanger and flogger – Judge Jeffreys. “The Hanging Judge” had presided over the so-called Bloody Assizes and seemed to take a great deal of pleasure consigning those before his courts to the hangman’s rope. His son seemed to have inherited Dad’s volatile and vicious traits – as poor Lady Howard was about to find out.
Aristocratic yobs hijack the funeral of Dryden
Jeffreys junior was leading a gang of what were referred to in the eighteenth century as “mohocks”. These were wild youths with few morals who delighted in sadistic attacks on innocent folk. The very drunk Jeffreys loomed over Lady Elizabeth in her bedroom, where he and his mates had now rushed in, and told the terrified woman that her late husband deserved a better funeral, which he would personally arrange.
In fact, he would spend £1,000 (a vast sum) erecting a monument in Westminster Abbey. Despite her protests, Jeffreys rushed into the street and said she’d agreed. He then whisked Dryden’s body off to an undertaker in Cheapside.
Meanwhile in Westminster Abbey, the bishop and others were waiting to perform the poet’s funeral service. They would be waiting for a long time. Because as Jeffreys sobered up, he lost interest in this project and the body was left lying around for about three weeks. When asked what to do with Dryden’s decaying corpse, Jeffreys just denied having anything to do with it.
Eventually, it was popped into the ground. So furious was Dryden’s son Charles that he repeatedly tried to challenge Jeffreys to a duel but the king of the mohocks studiously avoided him for the next three years – until Charles obligingly drowned in the river Thames.
The scene of the Dryden funeral fiasco is now Chinatown
Gerrard Street is now at the centre of London’s Chinatown. But use your eyes – those buildings with neon Chinese restaurant signs are often Georgian. Some of them still have inscriptions giving the date of their construction in the eighteenth century.
You have to imagine Lisle Street, Rupert Street and Gerrard Street as well-to-do residential quarters. And see if you can picture in your mind the strange scene that unfolded there in 1700.
This is the sad tale of a young lady whose rather large dress caught on fire. It’s an instructive story about the perils of high fashion. It’s also a warning not to stand next to an open fire when you’re wearing highly combustible fabric.
This account of the death of an 18th century socialite comes from a contemporary book in my large collection of antique volumes, magazines and documents. I am a terrible hoarder of ancient stuff. I scour book fairs and antique markets – plus ebay of course – for new additions to my old library. And then flick through the pages looking for stories that would otherwise be forgotten forever.
And so – let’s go back and discover our teenager from two hundred years ago who caught fire.
Isabella Courtenay lived in Grosvenor Square. She was “most elegantly accomplished” according to a report in 1783, the year of her untimely death. Just eighteen years old, this privileged young lady had everything to live for.
But in March of that year, she was warming herself before a fireplace when a spark flew from the grate setting her clothes on fire. This was in the days of big dresses, petticoats and suffocating corsets.
Still, you might have reckoned that somebody would be able to put out the flames that were now engulfing her. In the same room were Isabella’s sister, Lady Honywood, and child.
But the latter was unable to offer any assistance, for reasons not specified, while her ladyship fell into a fit. Poor Isabella ran screaming from room to room without meeting anybody who could help. In no time at all, she was quite the fireball!
As a contemporary chronicle explains:
It is generally thought her immediate death, however, was owing to the fright
The same chronicle then advises that should you, as a lady wearing big dresses, catch fire – then the best thing to do is NOT run about. In fact, you should fall down and roll yourself up in a carpet or bed quilt.
It’s appalling yet sadly true that in the past, teenagers and even children were hanged at the gallows for crimes like theft and arson. Murder didn’t have to be involved. There was a wide variety of crimes you could be judicially put to death for. And many teenagers were hanged as a consequence.
We don’t know the youngest person to be executed in Britain. And we probably never will as records could be patchy or lost. And names of very young criminals might not have been recorded. However, a certain John Dean was hanged in 1629 for an arson attack on two houses in Windsor. He was either eight or nine years old.
HANGED TEENAGERS – Martha Pillah
Martha Pillah – which might be a misspelling or cockney pronouncing of “Pillow” – was hanged at Tyburn aged 18 in the year 1717. According to the records of the Old Bailey (the London Central Criminal Court), she took six Guineas and 15 shillings from a woman called Elizabeth White. That would have been quite a sum in those days.
Martha was born in Brewers Yard in the parish of St Margaret, Westminster. That’s quite near the Houses of Parliament and full of shops and office blocks today. But up until the mid-19th century, the area was a massive slum lapping on to the steps of parliament. So not the greatest place to grow up.
Still, Martha had got herself apprenticed to a tailor and then left his service to make a living mending men’s clothes. But clearly that didn’t pay enough or she just wanted more money – faster. In the Old Bailey record, she is described as “lewd and lascivious” and ignorant of moral goodness.
That said, it’s also stated that she cried to God for mercy as she was put on the cart from Newgate prison and taken off to Tyburn to entertain the crowd at the end of a rope. This was the grim procession that ordinary Londoners had to make to their execution. First, leaving Newgate prison and then trundling down High Holborn and what is now Oxford Street to be executed at Tyburn – roughly where Marble Arch now stands.
HANGED TEENAGERS: John Lemon and Christopher Ward
Some other teenagers joined her on the same day – 20 May 1717. John Lemon aged 18 and Christopher Ward aged 17. They were both Eastenders from Whitechapel. Their crime was burglary. It’s a familiar commentary in these records that the court notes they knew nothing or little of “religion” or “Christianity”. The assumption being that if they did – they’d have led good lives.
Thomas Price, aged 17, was yet another teenager on the same day – in the same cart from Newgate – off to be hanged. Despite his youth, he’d already served four years at sea. Maybe not so surprising given he’d grown up on the Isle of Wight. But having been discharged from naval service, he went up to London to make his fortune.
Unfortunately what he actually ended up doing was stealing a load of silverware from a certain Dr Guy Mesmin. He tried to deny his involvement in the robbery but eventually caved in and confessed. Furthermore, to the delight of the court, he admitted his wickedness and prayed for divine forgiveness. He was told this would improve his chances of not going to hell – but he was still hanged.
And what a terrible day for teenagers was the 20 May 1717!
HANGED TEENAGERS: Josiah Cony
Because also in the cart with Thomas, Christopher, John and Martha was 18 year-old Josiah Cony. He had broken into the house of William Roy and stolen three “flaxen” sheets and some other goods. Josiah didn’t seem to have any trade. When asked how he made a living, Josiah said part of his time was spent “drawing drink at an Alehouse” and then helping his mother carry “greens” and flowers around the streets.
Well, his poor mother would have to do without his assistance in future. Josiah and the others were just a handful of the thousands of teenagers who undoubtedly swung at Tyburn over the centuries. Life was shorter. More brutal. And teenagers were held to be accountable for their crimes.
Sadly, so were children.
In the year that my house was built – 1829 – a 12-year-old was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. He had been accused of theft and murder. As was quite common in those days, an advertisement was produced giving all the gory details. Plus a helpful illustration.
In case you’re wondering – surely there would have been some sympathy for a 12 year-old by the year 1829 – think again. Here’s a quote from the advertisement:
With horror we attempt to relate the progress of evil, generally prevailing among children, through the corrupt example of wicked parents: though we are constrained to confess that many a child through bad company, wickedly follow the dictates of their own will, and often bring the hoary heads of honest parents with sorrow to the grave.
The Dreadful Life and Confession of a Boy aged 12 years
Thanks to the British Library for this dreadful gem!