Top 10 urban myths about London

The truth behind some of London’s urban legends.

Tower Bridge © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Did an American businessman really think he was buying Tower Bridge?

With 2,000 years of history and 8.1 million residents, it’s no surprise that London has acquired quite a lot of urban legends over the years. Some of these urban myths – or ‘alternative facts’ emerged centuries ago and still circulate today. Metro Girl looks at London’s top 10 urban legends and tries to separate the truth from fiction. However, reality isn’t always black or white and sometimes the answer isn’t so clear-cut.

  • 1. The ‘Coco Chanel’ lampposts

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Coco Chanel… or just City Council?

Around the Westminster council district, you may have seen lampposts with an interlinking CC, which look remarkably similar to the Chanel logo.

French fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel famously had an on/off love affair with Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster for around a decade in the 1920s-1930s. However, the aristocrat failed to make Chanel one of his four wives.

The story goes, the Duke attempted to prove his love for Coco by having her initials embossed in gold on lampposts around Westminster. Each lamppost features a grand ‘W’ nearby – which many assumed were for the Duke.

True or false? False. Sadly, the truth isn’t so romantic. The W does stand for Westminster – but the council, not the Duke – while CC stands for city council. Despite their traditional look, they only got installed in the 1950s – two decades after Chanel and the Duke’s romance hit the skids.

Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more.

  • 2. A rich American bought London Bridge by accident.

The capital has had many London Bridges over the centuries, the first one dating back to Roman Londinium in the 50s AD. Despite its iconic name, many would agree the current 1970s creation isn’t the most attractive of London’s river crossings.

In 1968, US businessman Robert P McCulloch bought the previous Georgian-era ‘New’ London Bridge for just over £1million. It had been put up for sale by the City of London as it was sinking into the Thames and wasn’t suitable for modern vehicle traffic.

After being purchased, it was taken apart and shipped across to Arizona to be rebuilt in Lake Havasu City, where it remains today.

However, the story goes that McCulloch thought he was buying the more ornate Tower Bridge, not London Bridge. Many tourists visiting the capital today still think Tower Bridge is London Bridge because it’s one of London’s most recognisable icons.

True or false? False. City of London council member Ivan Luckin, who was the one who suggested selling the bridge and was heavily involved in the sale, has firmly denied misleading McCulloch and insisted the American knew exactly what bridge he was buying.

Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more.

  • 3. There’s no flowers in Green Park because of a cheating King.

Green Park is one of eight royal parks in the capital. It was established in the 17th century during the reign of King Charles II.

Unlike the rest of London’s royal parks, it is noticeable for its lack of flowers and lakes and only having a few monuments and is mostly grass, trees and pathways – hence the name Green Park.

Legend has it the park was full of flowers in the 17th century and Charles II used to venture from nearby St James’s Palace to pick flowers for his wife Queen Catherine.

However, Charles was famously unfaithful to his wife and fathered at least 14 illegitimate children. It’s been claimed Catherine found out her husband was picking flowers for other women so ordered every flower bed to be removed from the park.

True or false? Maybe. Green Park has no formal flowerbeds, although there’s around 1 million daffodils that bloom every spring.

Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more about Green Park.

Green Park © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Green Park famously has no flowers

  • 4. Vampire in Highgate cemetery

The myth of a vampire roaming Highgate cemetery first appeared in 1969 when some young people interested in the occult claimed to have seen a ‘grey figure’ lurking amongst the graves. After it was reported in a local newspaper, many people wrote in, each giving a different account of spooky goings on.

One man had a theory that a Medieval Romanian ‘King Vampire’ had been brought to England in a coffin in the early 18th century and buried on the site of Highgate Cemetery. He claimed modern Satanists had ‘woken him’.

By March 1970, there was a media hysteria with a mob of ‘vampire hunters’ arriving to track down the Highgate vampire. One man was jailed in 1974 for damaging memorials and interfering with dead remains in Highgate Cemetery.

True or false? False (probably), but it all depends on if you believe in vampires. 

  • 5. You’re never more than 6ft away from a rat

London, like most cities, has a large population of rats. They’ve been here forever and are responsible for spreading the Plague, amongst many other deadly diseases.

The saying goes in most cities (not just London), you’re never more than 6ft away from a rat.

True or false? False. Pest experts reckon it’s more likely you’re an average of 164ft away from a rat. Yes, there are a lot of rats in the capital, particularly in rundown areas and around building sites. However, if there was a rat every 6ft, the streets of London would literally be swarming with them and you would regularly be tripping over them. Thankfully, their population isn’t that out of control yet.

Tower of London Tour polar bear © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

A polar bear was kept at the Tower of London in the 13th century

  • 6. Polar bears used to swim in the Thames

Back in the 13th century, Londoners would watch in amazement as a white polar bear would jump in the River Thames and hunt for fish.

The polar bear was one of several animals kept in cages at the capital’s first zoo at the Tower of London. The menagerie included lions, an African elephant and baboons and remained on site until they were moved to Regents’ Park to the current site of London Zoo in 1826.

True or false? True. Henry III was given a polar bear as a gift by a Norwegian king in the 13th century. The magnificent creature was kept muzzled and chained, but was allowed to swim in the Thames to feed while on a ‘stout cord’.

  • 7. Christopher Wren’s house is still standing on Bankside

Cardinal's Wharf © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Cardinal’s Wharf was built the year St Paul’s Cathedral was finished

You may have walked past the Georgian terraced house Cardinal’s Wharf at 49 Bankside, nestled in between Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern.

On the façade, there’s a cream plaque reading: ‘Here lived Sir Christopher Wren during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral.’ With great views over the River towards St Paul’s Cathedral, it’s easy to imagine the architect gazing out of the window at his growing masterpiece.

True or false? False. While an 18th century house is still standing, it’s not the one lived in by Wren during the building of St Paul’s. The house was actually built in 1710 – the year St Paul’s Cathedral was completed. Historian Gillian Tindall researched 49 Bankside for her 2006 book The House By The Thames: And The People Who Lived There. She believes the plaque was on another nearby house slightly west – where Wren did actually stay during St Paul’s construction – which was demolished during post-war redevelopment. It’s believed the owner of No.49 retrieved the plaque from the original building and placed it on his own in the 1950s.

Read Metro Girl’s blog post on the history of Cardinal’s Wharf.

  • 8. Adolf Hitler wanted Senate House as his HQ

For years, the Art Deco skyscraper Senate House was one of the tallest buildings in London. Designed by architect Sir Charles Holden, it was built in the 1930s for the University of London, who continue to use it today.

During World War II, when Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was plotting European domination, there were rumours he had his eye on several London buildings and therefore they were ‘spared’ from the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids.

It appears the tyrant had quite a penchant for Art Deco architecture as he was also supposed to be a fan of Du Cane Court, a 1930s apartment block in Balham. Despite claims the Court looks like a swastika from above, a quick peek at Google Maps shows it actually doesn’t.

True or false? False (probably). Senate House was actually a direct hit by a Nazi bomb in November 1940 so if Hitler loved the building that much, he probably would have advised his bombers to avoid it. We’ll probably never really know what Hitler planned in London. Thankfully, his terrifying vision of conquering the UK never became a reality.

  • 9. Jimi Hendrix is responsible for the wild parakeets in London

Despite being native to Africa and the Indian subcontinent, the parakeet population has exploded in London in the past couple of decades. As these birds are non-migratory, it is believed the London ones originated from escaped parakeet pets. There’s a story that legendary rocker Jimi Hendrix is responsible for their booming population after he released two into the wild on Carnaby Street back in the 1960s. However, there’s alternative theories that parakeets escaped from Ealing Studios in 1951 during filming of The African Queen or many fled from damaged aviaries during the Great Storm of 1987.

True or false? False (probably). The RSPB said Jimi’s birds probably contributed to the expansion, but wouldn’t be completely responsible.

  • 10. The first person born on the London Underground had the initials T.U.B.E.

The first ever recorded birth on the London Underground took place on the Bakerloo line at Elephant & Castle station in May 1924. The ensuing media excitement featured some claims that the baby girl was named Thelma Ursula Beatrice Eleanor, so her initials would be T.U.B.E.

True or false? False. The baby’s name was actually Marie Cordery and when she grew up, apparently didn’t like riding the tube at all.

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About Metro Girl

Media professional who was born, brought up and works in London. My blog is a guide to London - what's on, festivals, history, reviews and attractions. All images on my blog are © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl, unless otherwise specified. Do not use without seeking permission first.

Posted on 3 Nov 2018, in History, London, Tourist Attractions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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