8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever

Alexander Meddings - November 16, 2017

Like all European capitals, Britain’s bustling metropolis of London has had its fair share of historical drama. Notwithstanding great fires that have torn through the city, strikes and riots that have brought the capital to its knees, and devastating civil wars, London has also played witness to scores of plagues, pestilences, and (just for good measure) public executions. Yet showing true British resolve, London has withstood all of this, keeping calm and carrying on to become one of the European (if not global) centres of culture and commerce.

Though today’s city might not show it, London was built on shaky foundations. Even in the ancient world, the city was the site of some horrendous violence, most famously in 60 AD when Queen Boudicca stormed the city and put thousands of its inhabitants to the sword (a historical episode that makes the statue of her at the end of Westminster Bridge somewhat problematic).

With over 2,000 years of continuous inhabitation, London is bursting with history. And this history isn’t just confined to its hundreds of museums, churches, and galleries. Beneath the very streets you walk, and within the walls of the buildings that line them are countless stories of the city’s dark and violent past. You have just to scratch beneath the layers to find them.


8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
A Punch Magazine cartoon from 1858 referencing the cholera outbreak around the time of the Great Stink. Guardian.

The Great Stink of 1858

Britain isn’t famous for its sweltering summers. But when they come, we easily find cause to complain. The summer of 1858, however, was worthy of complaint, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be living in London. For through the haze of heat and pollution, the baking sun was lightly toasting the mounds of human excrement piling up on the banks of the River Thames.

The stench this created was bad enough to drive British parliamentarians out of Westminster; or at least those who hadn’t already fled to their houses in the country through fear of joining the thousands of others who were perishing from cholera. When you consider that in 1858 there were a fair few pressing issues on the parliamentary agenda—not least Britain’s involvement in an opium war over in China and a full-scale mutiny in India—this gives you an idea of just how bad the situation was. Even the lime soaked curtains parliamentarians hid themselves behind to soften the stench couldn’t persuade them to stay.

Extreme times called for extreme measures. To make sure this “evil odour” never resurfaced the government appointed Sir Joseph Bazalgette to revolutionise the city’s sewage system. It wasn’t an easy task. London’s population had more than doubled between 1800 and 1850, as had the amount of waste being produced. What was worse, there was nothing to separate the Thames’s contaminated water with the water London’s citizens were drinking. As humourist Sydney Smith once remarked, “He who drinks a tumbler of London water has in his stomach more animated beings than there are men, women, and children on the face of the globe.”

A former rail engineer, Bazalgette proved himself up to the job. With the £3 million he’d been allocated, he set about building a number of embankments along the Thames—Victoria, Albert, and Chelsea—as well as constructing an 82 mile network of interconnected sewers, treatment works, and pumping stations, planned with remarkable foresight for future population growth and extreme cases of flooding. Testament to their efficacy is the fact that they still serve London’s 8.8 million residents today.

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
Map of discovered plague pits in Central London. Google Maps / historic-uk

London is pockmarked with hidden plague pits

Like any ancient European metropolis, London has had its fair share of plague outbreaks. The first major pestilence, known to history as the Black Death, came in 1348 with the arrival of some unwanted fleas from the continent (bloody immigrants). It claimed around half of London’s population—some 40,000 people—before finally dissipating in 1350. The city would have to wait 300 years for the next major outbreak. But there were many minor ones in between: around 40 between the Black Death and the Great Plague.

The Great Plague (1665 – 1666) flourished in the putrid conditions of London’s streets. It claimed well over 100,000 lives; some 15% of the city’s population, over the course of a couple of years. But while dead, its victims were far from forgotten, littering the streets or rotting away in houses up and down the capital. The problem the survivors found themselves faced with was what to do with them.

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
Illustrations of London’s Great Plague 1665-1666. The National Archives

Though church graveyards were the most obvious port of call, it wasn’t long before god’s terrestrial waiting rooms became a little overcrowded. However leaving the bodies out in the open to spread disease wasn’t an option, so London’s residents set about hastily digging out plague pits in which to throw the victims. Dozens of these have been discovered as various construction projects have forced us to scratch beneath the surface of this millennia old city.

What’s more, plague pits are still being discovered. As recently as 2013, an enormous pit was discovered under Farringdon’s Charterhouse Square, just 8 feet (2.5 metres) below the ground. It’s cramped all right: the resting place of up to 50,000 victims of the Black Death. But as macabre as it may be when a new pit is unearthed, London’s residents can rest easy. Scientists assure us that there’s nothing contaminable in the ground.

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
Illustrations of London’s plague pits (of 1665?) Public Domain via Historic-uk.com

Mass graves didn’t re-route the London Underground

Forget recent horror flicks “Creep” and “The Midnight Meat Train”, getting trapped in the London Underground late at night just got a whole lot scarier. Wherever you go in London, you’re likely to be walking above some grave or another: the city, as the author of “Necropolis: London and its Dead” Catherine Walker recently pointed out, is essentially one giant burial ground. But if you happen to be riding the London Underground, be aware that during your commute you’re likely to be skirting past thousands upon thousands of human remains.

The idea that the dead had a say in the design of the underground is, however, a myth. The most common anecdote is that between the stations of Knightsbridge and South Kensington, the underground line curves to circumvent an enormous plague pit hidden beneath Hyde Park. Filling this pit are the remains of thousands of victims of the Great Plague (1665 – 1666), hurriedly thrown in by friends, family, or strangers all desperately hoping they wouldn’t soon be following behind.

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
Map showing the Piccadilly tube line between Knightsbridge and South Kensington. The plague pit lies underneath Hyde Park. MOM

The decision was made to go around Hyde Park rather than drill through (or rather 40 – 80 feet under) the remains there. But it wasn’t because the plague pit that underlies Hyde Park is such a densely packed impermeable mass of twisted, tangled human bones that, even with the tools at their disposal in the nineteenth century, the workmen simply couldn’t drill through. It was because, where possible, line planners decided to follow the course of publicly owned roads–Brompton Road in this case—so as to avoid the risk of undermining housing foundations.

This isn’t to say that those working on the lines over the last couple of centuries haven’t come across human remains. Alan Jackson, in his detailed documentation of route digging between Paddington and King’s Cross in 1862, stumbled across the remains of past Londoners. Rather than an impenetrable wall, however, it was a small enough number that he could call the London Necropolis Company (<people apparently died to work there>) and have them removed.

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
St. Sepulchre’s in 1737. British History Online.

St. Sepulchre really wasn’t the best place to live

…Unless you were into robbing graves or attending public executions, in which case it was arguably the best neighbourhood in London. Most of the action took place around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—still the largest parish church in the city centre—or at scaffolds a couple of miles west at Tyburn, where every six weeks thousands of spectators would assemble to gawk at dozens of condemned men, women, and children being sent to meet their maker.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was founded around the middle of the twelfth century. It was all but completely destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 (as you’re probably coming to realise, the seventeenth century was a really was a bad one…) before being rebuilt to take on its present form. Its extensive graveyard provided tempting pickings for thieving opportunists, especially when its necropolitan population would swell in the wake of one serious outbreak of another.

In fact grave robbing was such a popular pastime in the seventeenth century that the government ordered the building of a Watch House to deter potential miscreants. Grave robbers didn’t do it for the love of course. Medical students keen to get together for a good old fashion dissection paid handsomely for the bodies of recently deceased murderers (the only ones they would accept): around £50 which is a fortune in today’s money.

The church is still home to its original Execution Bell, the function of which is relatively easy to guess from the name. It would be rung whenever there was a public execution: partly to announce the family-friendly spectacle to those living close by, and partly to provide an uplifting soundtrack as the condemned made their short but terminal journey from nearby New Gate Prison or the Old Bailey to the scaffolds at Tyburn.

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
Since 1863 Farringdon Station has stood on the site where Anne Naylor’s dissected body was dumped. Getty Images

It’s said that the ghost of a 13-year-old girl still haunts Farringdon Station

If you think life was tough for the average person during the eighteenth century, spare a moment’s though for the children of one of London’s many workhouses. Made to live in appalling conditions, children—often orphans—as young as 12 would be sent to work in one of the area’s; ostensibly as apprentices but in reality as little more than slave labourers. One such girl was Anne Naylor who, with her sister, was entrusted to the care of Sarah Metyard and her daughter Sally as apprentices in their millinery (or women’s hats) shop.

I say “care” lightly, because the Metyards were complete and utter sociopaths. They derived great pleasure in inflicting pain upon the girls they employed, dishing out beatings like they were going out of fashion, yet dishing out considerably less often the one thing the girls really needed: food. Young Anne was a sickly child, and her inability to keep up with the demands of her work singled her out for particularly nasty abuse. Eventually this became too much and Anne tried to escape. But she was soon apprehended by a boy who worked there and brought back to face the Metyard’s rage.

Anne was beaten and consigned to the attic, where she was given just enough bread and water to survive. Again she tried to escape, but again she was unsuccessful. Sally caught her roaming London’s streets, and after dragging her home had her tied to the attic door where she was beaten mercilessly with a broom. On the fourth day of Anne’s sadistic ordeal, one of the apprentices noticed she wasn’t moving. Thinking she was faking it, Sarah administered another beating (this time with a shoe), but still nothing. At some point during her horrible torture, Anne had died.

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
Depiction of Anne’s torture at the hands of the Metyards. Henry Blackshaw Art

The Metyards tried to cover up the murder. They hid the body in her room, and leaving her door slightly ajar continued bringing bread and water. However, Anne’s sister noticed something was amiss and shared her suspicions with a lodger (for which she paid with her life). Two months later, with Anne’s body going putrid, the Meynards disembodied it and dumped it near a sewer on Chick Lane. They would have gotten away with it, but an argument between the two resulted in Sally confessing to the authorities (thinking she wouldn’t be incriminating).

They were arrested, tried, and hanged on July 19 1768. Sarah Metyard passed out on the way to the gallows at Tyburn, but was hanged unconscious to the gleeful jeers of the crowd. As for Anne Naylor, her ghost outlived her tormentors, haunting the grounds on which her earthly remains had been unceremoniously dumped. Legend has it that her cries can still be heard by unfortunate commuters taking the underground from Farringdon station…

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
Duck baiting. Wikipedia Commons

Public executions weren’t the only bloody form of public entertainment during the 1800s

British pubs may still be famous for their games, but we can be thankful that they’re now a lot less bloody. For while Londoners weren’t unique in Europe for deriving a great deal of pleasure from watching animals participate in blood sports, their ingenuity when it came to devising variations of condemning animals to death was really quite something.

The innocuously sounding “Dog and Duck” pub in Soho pays testament to a particularly nasty sport known as duck baiting. Pinioned so it couldn’t fly away, a duck would be released into a shallow pond where a dog would be sent to join it. Bets would be placed on how long it would take the dog to catch the duck (whose only means of prolonging the inevitable was to dive underwater). It was participant friendly too, with spectators often throwing stones in an attempt to disable the duck, and an apparent favourite of King Charles II.

Another popular sport—and one much easier to host in a pub as it didn’t require a pond—was rat baiting. Matches (if we can call them such) were widely advertised and well attended with London’s rich and poor rubbing shoulder to see how many rats their terriers, mastiffs, or bulldogs could kill within the confines of a 15 square-foot pit. During the interval, two rival dogs would be made to compete against each other and see how many vermin they could kill within an allotted time.

A terrier called Billy (or perhaps “Billy the Blind” owing to the fact he had just one eye and two teeth) was famous for killing 100 rats in five minutes and thirty seconds—which works out at a rate of one rat every three seconds or so. Billy’s (dubiously prestigious) record wasn’t to last however. Thirty years later, in 1862, a dog named Jacko beat the record by two seconds; helped in no small part, I imagine, by the simple fact he had more teeth…

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
Tower of London. Youtube

The last execution in the Tower of London took place fairly recently

Built between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the Tower of London has had a fair few famous residents over the centuries. Rather than serving as a battlement, however, its most famous function has been that of a holding place for such illustrious prisoners as the Scottish king John Balliol, Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and Elizabeth I’s favourite, Sir Walter Raleigh.

The Tower’s association with death is in fact so strong that it has given the British their idiom “to be sent to the tower”, meaning to be imprisoned or punished (or indeed both). It saw its heyday of executions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of the condemned wouldn’t meet their end within the tower walls, however, but would be taken to Tower Hill, just north of the castle. But although over the last few centuries the Tower has gradually lost its function as a place of execution, it may surprise you to learn that the last one didn’t take place that long ago.

In early February 1941, Joseph Jakobs, a 43-year-old German dentist, was apprehended shortly after parachuting into England. He had raised the suspicious of local farmers when he was seen limping around the countryside (he had broken his ankle upon landing) and firing his pistol. Their suspicions that he was a German spy were confirmed when he was found in possession of forged identity papers, a radio transmitter, and—quite bizarrely—a German sausage.

Jakobs was tried before a military tribunal between 4 – 5 August the same year, and after being found guilty of spying was sentenced to death. His execution took place on the morning of 15 August 1941 in the Tower’s miniature rifle range. After being blindfolded, Jakobs was sent before an eight-man firing squad where he was made to sit in a brown Windsor chair. He was shot five times (three men were given blanks) and died instantly. A post-mortem was to reveal, however, that only one of the shots had pierced the heart and therefore been fatal.

8 Horrifying Revelations That Will Change Your View of London Forever
The original Necropolis station was situated near Waterloo Station (though not so near as to needlessly unsettle its many commuters). SSPL

For almost 100 years, the city ran a train service exclusively for the dead

In Ancient Greece, the dead would have coins placed over their eyes so they could pay the infernal boatman Charon to ferry them across the River Styx to their final resting place. In nineteenth century London, the dead would be brought a train ticket and ferried from Waterloo’s Necropolis Station to a purpose built cemetery 23 miles southwest in Brookwood, Surrey.

By the time of its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, London was in desperate need of more burial space. Just 218 acres of burial space within the city had to accommodate around 50,000 deaths every year. The situation was getting so critical, in fact, that it was becoming common practice to exhume rotting corpses at night and illegally cremate them to save up room for newcomers. Parliament eventually voted to ban new burials in the centre and divert funds to building necropolises in green spaces surrounding the city.

Brookwood Cemetery opened in 1854 with its station opening 10 years later. The latter provided a service to friends and family; unlike the journey across the Styx they had the option of going with them without also having to shuffle off their mortal coil. Typically in keeping with the British class system, first, second, or third class tickets were available both for the living and the dead (god forbid corpses of different classes should have to ride together)

Not everybody felt comfortable with the idea though. In 1842, the Bishop of London described the whole as “improper” and at odds with the solemnity that should characterise a Christian funeral. In 1902, a new railway station opened on Westminster Bridge Road to replace the old one. However, it wouldn’t stay in service for long. To a large extent, the mass influx of automobiles made trains redundant when it came to shipping the dead off for burial.

What really signalled the death knell of the endeavour, however, was the London Blitz in 1941, in which a German bomb tore through Necropolis Station. This marked the end of what a 1904 edition of Railway Magazine described as “the most peaceful railway service in the three corners of the kingdom.” What we can say for sure is that for 87 years, London ran the only service in the city’s history in which none of its passengers submitted a single complaint.