When three thousand people died on London Bridge

London Bridge as you see it today is a modern construction. It’s hard to imagine the medieval bridge that once stood nearby crowded with houses. Even more fantastic is the old story that up to three thousand people may have died as a result of a fire on the bridge.

Even allowing for some medieval hyperbole – it seems there was a huge disaster in the 13th century. Frankly, looking at artist impressions of old London Bridge, I’m amazed it didn’t fall down every other week. It looks rickety as hell.

Before I go any further with this blog post – we are talking about London Bridge here and not Tower Bridge. Please don’t get the two confused. It drives Londoners bonkers. Tower Bridge is that iconic Victorian two level construction further down stream.

London Bridge is the oldest of all the bridges – but what you see today is the latest in several iterations.

London Bridge is falling down…  So says an old nursery rhyme. The city’s oldest bridge has certainly had a turbulent history. But it was just over seven 750 years ago that London Bridge witnessed a horrific calamity not equalled since.

Today’s 1970s bridge is a bog standard affair. Big road bridge, wide pavements, minimal number of spans. Rewind to the medieval period and in 1212, Londoners were gazing in awe at the first stone bridge to cross the Thames. It had taken 30 years to build but what a feast for the eyes!

Made up of about twenty arches that forced the river to gush like a torrent through them. It was a triumph of 13th century engineering. And on top were houses, shops and water wheels with a hustle and bustle of people all day long.

The stone bridge had replaced an earlier timber bridge that had come to grief in a fire that had swept through London in the year 1136. A man called Peter of Colechurch was tasked with constructing a new bridge that would be more resistant to fire. Some accounts claim he diverted the river Thames to achieve this medieval architectural miracle – though many doubt this was possible to any significant scale.

Along the bridge, Londoners built shops and houses, water wheels and even a chapel. The city was confident it now had a link to the southern shore that was indestructible. How wrong they were.

Fire was an ever present threat in a city made largely of wood. And even though the bridge itself was stone, the houses being thrown up along its span were of brick, wood and highly combustible thatched roofs.

On the 12th July, 1212, a fire broke out on the Southwark side of the new bridge. It crept along to the old church of St Mary Overie. Soon it had consumed the area we now call Borough Market.

Londoners from the north side of the river moved on to the bridge to either help or just gawp. Unfortunately for them, cinders or sparks ignited the very combustible roofs of houses on the London side of the bridge.

You get the picture? People on London Bridge were now caught between a fire at both ends. And none of them could swim. Plus there’s no fire brigade to speak of. And the bridge is jam-packed with houses and other buildings.

Smoke is swirling around and panic sets in. There’s a grim choice: stay on the bridge and get burnt alive or jump in the river, which is gushing through the small arches.

Some Londoners with boats tried to rescue people but it was all to little avail. According to John Stow, a historian of the city writing 350 years later, the bodies of three thousand partly burnt people were found while many were completely incinerated or swept away by the river.

Some historians doubt this figure and think it was lower. But there’s little doubt this was a major calamity and remembered for many centuries afterwards.

Eighteenth century transgender celebrity!

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Some people today find it very hard to even consider giving transgender people equal rights. Maybe they should learn a few lessons from 18th century London where polite society was more than a little obsessed though gratifyingly tolerant of a trans French diplomat called the Chevalier d’Eon.

Transgender celebrity in 18th century London

The Chevalier was a diplomat attached to the French embassy and worked for King Louis XVI (soon to lose his head in the French revolution). He seems to have delighted in confusing people about his true sexuality. This very colourful character lived one part of his life dressed in public as a man (1762-1777) and then another as a woman (1786-1810). During both periods he cross-dressed at parties as the mood took him.

While he was in London, there was a gambling mania. People were betting on anything. And there was feverish speculation about the Chevalier’s true sexuality. The fashionable salons of the city buzzed with gossip and hearsay about the French diplomat – exactly what one suspects he wanted. It must have amused the Chevalier to tease the people whose tongues never seemed to stop wagging.

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Reading the 1771 pamphlet I bought today

I was at an antique book fair today and spotted a 1771 pamphlet about an examination of this trans diplomat by a group of well-born ladies who were overwhelmed by curiosity. On the 24 May, 1771, a “jury of matrons” took a good look at the naked form of the Chevalier with his consent at Medmenham Abbey.

If the name of this abbey seems familiar, it was where the so-called Hellfire Club used to meet. That was a group of wealthy men who dressed in gowns and turbans then paid prostitutes to dress as nuns before despoiling them. Yes, eighteenth century England was a very debauched affair!

Examination of the transgender diplomat

The aristocratic grand dame in charge of the Chevalier’s examination declared that they had to know what was between his legs in case their daughters married him. She couldn’t abide the thought of one of the girls being accidentally wed to another woman or a “hermaphrodite”. The main cause of concern was that as aristocrats they needed to have children to pass their wealth and estates on to. The Chevalier might not be able to deliver the goods!

One of the other ladies in the room was sure he wasn’t really a man:

For though I threw out every possible lure to induce him to make overtures to me and almost solicited him to my bed, I could never get a tender thing from him. Besides, I observed he had little or no beard and that he always avoided entering upon amorous subjects.

Infuriatingly, the pamphlet says that the meeting couldn’t make up its mind and adjourned. One person who did make up his mind was King Louis XVI. In 1775, his majesty insisted that the Chevalier dress as a woman. He eventually complied but took to fencing with men in public to show he was no ordinary woman!

As an additional point, some feminists today have quibbled about whether trans people can be really regarded as women. Again, the eighteenth century can teach us so much. Mary Wollstonecraft was the leading feminist of her time and mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. She described the Chevalier as a model of female fortitude.

Even though after his death – doctors confirmed that although the Chevalier was very androgynous – he did have male genitalia.

Lost train stations of London

London isn’t short of train stations. There’s Euston, Victoria, Kings Cross, Paddington and Fenchurch Street to name but a few. However, the city has also lost a few train stations over the years with the shift to cars and as a result of redevelopment. So, let’s go find these ghost stations!

LOST TRAIN STATIONS: Broad Street station demolished by Margaret Thatcher – in person

Broad Street station, opened in 1865, once stood near Liverpool Street station where the Broadgate office complex is now located. The lines coming into Broad Street connected north London to the east and I can’t help feeling would be appreciated now.

But it’s the usual story of trains being undermined by the tube, tram and then car in the early to mid-20th century. Then the station was damaged during the Second World War and never properly repaired.

Finally, along came Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and her disdain for collective forms of public transport – married to a love for the City of London. So, the station went and the offices for investment banks went up.

Thatcher even participated in the demolition of Broad Street in 1986!

LOST TRAIN STATIONS: Blackwall station

On my desk right now is a publication from 1830 called The Penny Magazine. This 26 December 1840 issue focuses on the marvels of Britain’s expending train network. Even by 1840, there were still way more canals per mile than railway but the new technology was catching up fast.

As The Penny Magazine noted:

The effect of canals and roads has been principally to develop the material resources of the country, and to uphold its prosperous condition. The railways will not only have a similar effect, but will exercise a much more powerful influence on manners and institutions.

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In the picture, you can see the railway terminus at Blackwall. It was built in the Italianate style by the architect and Liberal MP William Tite – who also designed The Royal Exchange, the huge Roman-porticoed building that confronts you at Bank station.

Blackwall was a busy interchange at a time when the docks were booming and the East End of London was densely populated. But it fell victim in the early 20th century to the emergence of the new tram system and was shut to passenger traffic in 1926. Goods trains continued to arrive there until the 1960s when the decline of the docks signalled the end for the Blackwall terminus.

Not one brick remains today. But the Docklands Light Railway, constructed in the 1980s to revive the dock area of the city, uses much of the old line that took passengers from the City of London eastwards in the 1840s.

LOST TRAIN STATIONS: Camberwell station

There are abandoned train, tube and tram stations across London. Close to where I live you can just about make out the entrance to Camberwell station. It was closed in 1916, during the First World War.

There has been talk – lots of it – about re-opening the station but I’m not holding my breath. The reason for the re-think has been the increase in the working population and a realisation since the 1970s that the car is not the answer to everything.

The Victorians were avid builders of railways and accompanying stations and there’s no doubt that some stations became surplus to requirements quite quickly. However, some of the demolition in the 20th century now looks amazingly short sighted. A good example would be the ripping up of rail lines between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace.

I lived in Crouch End for several years and had to join an endless bus queue from there to Finsbury Park. And if you want to attend an exhibition at Alexandra Palace – or “Ally Pally” as it’s fondly known – you have to walk up a steep hill if you don’t have a car or bike. Once upon a time, you could have got a train.

The horror of the Great Plague of London

London was hit by the Great Plague in 1665 but in fact it was one of a succession of pestilences that overtook the English capital. In the years 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636, there were plagues with similarly devastating consequences.

The 1625 plague saw thousands of red crosses painted on the doors of the infected. These victims couldn’t leave and nobody was permitted to enter. This was quarantine seventeenth century style. And according to one pamphlet of the time – the plague crosses struck terror into the population:

Foure thousand Red-Crosses have frighted the Inhabitants in a very little time, but greater is their number who have beene frighted and fled out of the City at the setting up of those CrossesEngland’s Lord Have Mercy Upon Us – Thomas Dekker

The 1665 has come down to us very vividly for two key reasons. One was that the journalist and author Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful and gripping account of it a few years later. And the other is that the 1665 Great Plague was followed a year later in 1666 by the Great Fire – which destroyed a large part of London.

What amazed people at the time was that London’s population continued to grow rapidly despite the terrible plagues. This was due to a steady influx of people from the countryside into the city and also – as with Coronavirus – the ability of the wealthier to avoid the worst of the plague.

Basically, richer families continued to expand and reproduce while poorer families bore the main brunt of each wave of plague. Some saw this rather cruelly as a natural order of things.

The 1665 plague happened in the years following the end of the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration of King Charles II. We’re often led to believe that these were years of jolly revelry and colour. But in fact more most Londoners this was a period of plague, fire, poverty and war.

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history.

This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!

Trafalgar Square – the history you didn’t know!

You can’t miss Trafalgar Square – in the very heart of London’s west end. But it’s a relatively new addition to the city and the area was once very different – quite seedy in fact.

So here are a few things you may not know about Trafalgar Square:

Royal stables – the northern part of what is now Trafalgar Square were actually the royal stables, dating back to King Edward I. Basically, take as your starting point the National Gallery, tear it down in your mind and put up stables with horses and falcons instead.

This kind of makes sense because the “Royal Mews” would  have been in close proximity to the sprawling medieval palace of Whitehall nearby. The crown owned the land and so converting it to a public square was pretty straight forward.

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A workhouse off Trafalgar Square – it may seem incredible now but on the site of the National Portrait Gallery, just off the square, there was a large workhouse for the poor from the 17th century until 1871 when it was demolished to allow for an extension to the National Gallery.

If you look at the map, you can see that the workhouse was just behind the gallery. It gained a dreadful reputation for overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Ventilation was very poor and there was an absence of toilets. A guide to London I have from 1804 states that people could pay to go and gawp at the inmates – rather tasteless!

Gordon of Khartoum – now absent from Trafalgar Square – General Gordon was a hero to the Victorian public. He had earned a reputation for military valour fighting for the British Empire in China. And he was then sent to Sudan where a messianic figure nicknamed the “Mad Mahdi” was leading an uprising against colonial rule.

Gordon overreached himself in trying to put dow the rebellion and was killed by rebels in the city of Khartoum. A statue of him was put up in Trafalgar Square in the 1880s but quietly removed to the Embankment in 1953.

St Martin’s in the Fieldspredates Trafalgar Square – an early 18th century church built by the architect James Gibbs. It pre-dates Trafalgar Square by over a hundred years. So when the Victorians started clearing away old buildings to create this huge public space, they considered removing the steps up to the church to make more room for traffic. It was even suggested that the pillared portico at the front of the church should be taken down and re-erected round the back!

“Bloody Sunday” – When you say Bloody Sunday now, people are more likely to think of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. But the original Bloody Sunday was a workers demonstration on 13 November, 1877 in Trafalgar Square that ended up as a running battle between the police and trade unionists, socialists and Fenians.

I was in Trafalgar Square as a journalist in 1990 when the poll tax demonstration descended into violent rioting – a scene I shall never forget.

A horrific day trip to Georgian London!

Imagine you have decided to take a day trip to London two hundred years ago. What do do? Well, let me be your guide as we take a horrific day trip to Georgian London!

If you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo – you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time. Could it really have been so bleak and awful. Well, in large part it certainly was.

That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.

These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.

YOUR DAY TRIP TO GEORGIAN LONDON STARTS HERE!

Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!

Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”

You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.

Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.

Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria  – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.

Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.

Observe the diseases killing Londoners:  In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.

Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.

Ten places where hangings took place in London

The death penalty applied to many crimes in the past – not just murder. And hangings took place in public up until the mid-19th century. So – where could you expect to see an execution in London?

The following are venues for hangings and other forms of execution in London:

Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London.

Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.

Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.

Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a location deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.

Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.

Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.

Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.

Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.

St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.

Ten facts about Lincoln’s Inn Fields

  1. It was previously referred to as Ficket’s Fields and Whetstone’s Park and was considered very dangerous because of the high level of robberies
  2. The square may also have been known as Cup and Purse Field
  3. Queen Elizabeth I and then James I forbade the building of houses on top of Lincoln’s Inn Fields preserving it as a green space
  4. Then James I changed his mind and the famed architect Inigo Jones was allowed to design a public square
  5. The four sides of the square have distinct names: Newman’s Row, Arch Row, Portugal Row and Lincoln’s Inn Wall
  6. Lord William Russell was beheaded in the middle of Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21st July, 1683 and Algernon Sidney later that same year
  7. In 1662, the Duke’s Theatre was opened on Portugal Street on the site of an old tennis court and was named after Charles II’s brother, James the Duke of York
  8. After barbers and surgeons became separate professions in 1745 (no, really, that happened), Barber-Surgeons Hall was abandoned with surgeons wanting their own headquarters in London. They chose Lincoln’s Inn Fields
  9. Being so close to Chancery Lane, several Lord Chancellors lived on the square
  10. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, recent archaeology (conducted by Channel Four’s Time Team) suggests that refugees fleeing their burned homes camped in the square. Remains of large tent pegs were discovered

Elizabeth Brownrigg – torturing her apprentices to death

Elizabeth was married to James Brownrigg, a plumber who moved with his wife in to Flower-de-Luce Court off Fleet Street. It was the year 1765 and plumbers seemed to have been doing as well back then as they are today. James was coining it sufficiently to afford a little house in Islington as a retreat from the City of London.

IMG_6141Elizabeth gave birth to a staggering 16 children and having been a midwife, she was appointed by the overseers of the poor of St Dunstan’s parish to take care of the poor women in the workhouse. On the surface, Elizabeth Brownrigg looked like a fairly prosperous Mum with a hard working husband and a sense of civic today. What wasn’t to like? Plenty as it turned out.

She started to take pregnant women into her house to lie-in as private patients. To look after them, Elizabeth needed servants so she moved in some of the poor girls of the parish as cheap home helps – or slave labour if you prefer.

These apprentices were treated appallingly from day one. A girl called Mary Jones, an orphan from the Foundling Hospital, was laid across two chairs in the kitchen and beaten ferociously until Elizabeth had to stop because she was tired. Mary escaped and got back to the Foundling Hospital where she was examined by a surgeon who was shocked by the extent of her wounds. The hospital’s solicitor wrote to Elizabeth asking her to explain what on earth was going on – but she ignored the letter and the matter was dropped.

Another girl in the house, Mary Mitchell, was also being beaten and managed to escape into the street but was caught by Elizabeth’s son and returned to the house – where things got a great deal worse. Incredibly, the overseers of the poor for the parish of Whitefriars sent another girl, Mary Clifford, to be an apprentice to the evil Elizabeth.

This individual was tied up naked and set about with a hearth broom, horsewhip and a cane. She was forced to sleep on a mat in a coal-hole. Her diet was bread and water. One night, aching with hunger, Mary Clifford open a cupboard looking for food. Elizabeth discovered this and forced her to work naked the next day with a chain around her neck.

Now you might be asking – what did Elizabeth’s husband and aforementioned son make of all this? Well, the answer is they were willing accomplices. One of Elizabeth’s favourite punishments was to bind the girls hands and haul them up with a rope slung round a water pipe. When that gave way, Elizabeth’s husband hammered a hook into a ceiling beam.

Mary Clifford eventually confided to a French lady lodging in the house that she was being abused terribly. Inevitably, Elizabeth found out and flew at Mary with a fury that included cutting at her tongue with scissors. The parish authorities were persuaded that there was a problem at the Brownrigg house and took the husband into custody. Elizabeth and her son John fled to Wandsworth in disguise renting a room.

Poor Mary Clifford died a few days later. Elizabeth and John’s landlord recognised his lodgers as murderers and turned them in. All three were put on trial where Elizabeth was found guilty of murder but her husband and son got away with just six months in prison. After being hanged, Elizabeth’s body was put in a hackney carriage and taken to Surgeon’s Hall where it was dissected and her skeleton hung up to be viewed by medical students.

The hidden dog cemetery in Hyde Park

Dog Cemetery

There are many hidden treasures in London that I’m still discovering after a lifetime in this city. One that I was completely unaware of until recently was the dog cemetery in Hyde Park. From 1880 till about 1915, about 300 dogs and some cats and birds were interred in a plot of ground near the Victoria Gate – close to Lancaster Gate tube.

The names of the deceased canines vary with a couple being rather politically incorrect now. But they include Pepys, Little Lord Quex and My Little Dorritt. Grave inscriptions include a slightly changed Shakespeare quote: “After life’s fitful slumber, he sleeps well”.

The whole thing was started by the Duke of Cambridge in 1880 when he got permission for his wife to bury her pet dog in the park – where he was the official ranger. And then the dead pooches just kept coming!