People who lived on London Bridge

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.

Nonesuch Palace
Nonesuch Palace

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
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.

The axe and block used to behead people at the Tower of London

In the Tower of London, they still have the axe and “heading block” used for executions right up to the mid-18th century. There’s also a mask that was worn by the executioner. The block is chipped and dinted as a result of some considerable use. On it, the heads of three Scottish rebels – Lords Lovat, Kilmarnock and Balmerino – were severed in 1746. It’s not true, however, that the head of Anne Boleyn was taken off using it in the 16th century. She was decapitated by a French swordsman in a departure from the usual method. A nice clean cut!

Anne Boleyn

Terrible accident at St Mary-le-Strand

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!
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.

Taking a dead man’s head to the pub

Londoners do some very odd things but taking a dead man’s head to the pub is probably one of the more unusual. Read on!

There’s a monument that many office workers pass under every day that they’d never realise has a ghoulish past. It’s an innocuous old gateway that leads from the front of St Paul’s cathedral into Paternoster Square. A lovely old thing with two statues on either side. What’s not to like?

Temple Bar
Templar Bar – a ghoulish secret

Only you have to imagine this gateway – Temple Bar – in its original location. For centuries, it bestrode Fleet Street as the westernmost entrance to the City of London. The spot is now marked by a late Victorian monument – a sort of pillar – with a dragon on top. The reason for Templar Bar’s removal was that by the 1870s, the 17th century gateway was causing serious traffic jams with its narrow arches. So it was taken apart stone by stone and re-erected in a park owned by a brewer for many years before being moved to its current spot in 2004.

The ghoulish part of its history is that Temple Bar was more often than not surmounted by the heads of traitors on spikes in the eighteenth century. Sir Christopher Wren had designed the arch to replace one incinerated in the Great Fire of 1666. The statues on it, by the way, are of Queen Elizabeth I and James I on one side and Charles I and Charles II on the other. After the Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745, the heads of leading rebels decorated the top. This was to be an object lesson to bolshy Londoners that anybody taking on the kings of England would see their head join the others.

One of the heads was that of a leading rebel against the king, involved in the so-called “Jacobite” uprisings, called Christopher Layer. Like many traitors, his head remained on top of Templar Bar for years. In fact, you could hire some glasses to take a closer look if you wanted. But one stormy night, Layer’s head blew off his spike and bounced into Fleet Street. It was picked up by an attorney called John Pearce who took it to a local public house and showed if off to his friends.

Christopher Layer
Christopher Layer’s head was taken to the pub – the indignity!

An account of this incident I have before me from the early nineteenth century says that a friend of Isaac Newton and eccentric collector Dr Richard Rawlinson asked if he could buy the head. Apparently, he was palmed off with somebody else’s head (where were all these heads coming from!!). When he died, Rawlinson “directed it to be buried in his right hand”. I know – weird eh? And so what happened to Layer’s head? Well, the story has it that it was buried under the floor of the aforementioned public house.

The Calves Head Club – celebrating a beheaded king!

Who would join a club that celebrated the beheading of a 17th century king? Well, rich Londoners it seems…

On the 30th January, 1649, king Charles I stepped out of a first floor window of the Banqueting House in Whitehall (a building you can still see today though much restored) and on to a wooden scaffold. In front of a great crowd, the king’s head was chopped off. This was the culmination of the English Civil War – a bitter conflict between the forces of the king and those of parliament. The latter, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, won. The decision to kill Charles wasn’t taken lightly and followed a trial after which 59 Commissioners signed his death warrant.

Not something to be celebrated!
Not something to be celebrated!

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, several of those Commissioners were hunted down and then hanged, drawn and quartered – a slow and dreadful way to die. Any talk of sympathy for the regicides was treason. So it’s rather surprising to find that reports began to emerge in the early eighteenth century of a gentlemen’s club that actually celebrated the beheading of Charles I.

They did this in a rather macabre way. At a tavern in Suffolk Street, a large dish of calves’ heads was served up each dressed in a different way to represent the late king and other royalists who’d died in a similar manner. When the cloth was whipped away to reveal the strange meal, the revellers sang an anniversary song. A calf’s skull filled with wine was then passed around and every man toasted the regicides and their good work.

In 1735, the gentlemen got a little carried away and chucked a bloodied calve’s head out of the tavern window. According to an account titled the Secret History of the Calves’ Head Club or the Republican unmasked, this act – on the anniversary of the king’s beheading, provoked a riot. At least that was the widely circulated version of events.

Lord Middlesex, who was one of the revellers, wrote an indignant letter to a friend of his, Mr Spence, who he referred to playfully as “Spanco”. According to his lordship, there was indeed a drunken party and the gentlemen even made a bonfire outside the tavern door for a bit of fun. But they suddenly realised that such an act on the 30th January would make it look as if they were celebrating the execution of Charles I, which they definitely weren’t, he wrote.

However, a mob of royalist Londoners was not so easily convinced and gathered round the tavern to rain rocks through the windows for an hour .  To try and fend off the mob, the party shouted “The King, Queen and Royal Family!” Only the arrival of some soldiers saved the gathering from getting their heads bloodied. After that incident, we don’t hear about the Calves Head Club again.