The truth behind some of London’s urban legends.
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
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 to 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.
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. Read the rest of this entry
When commuting in the capital, it’s easy to ignore our surroundings and focus on the task at hand – getting from A to B with your sanity intact. However, next time you find yourself waiting a few minutes for your next tube, why not look around you. Art on the Underground, funded by Transport for London, has been bringing art to the tube for over 15 years. As 2018 is the centenary of women’s suffrage, this year’s programme will feature exclusively female artists.
In June 2018, a new art installation was unveiled at Gloucester Road station. Situated on the disused platform by the Circle and District lines is ‘My Name is Lettie Eggysrub’ by London artist Heather Phillipson. One of her pieces, entitled ‘The End’, has been chosen for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, which will be unveiled in 2020.
The 80-metre long platform features two 4-metre high 3D fried egg sculptures, a giant automated whisk, a dozen 65-inch screens and oversized prints. The surreal piece explores the dual role of the egg as food and part of the biological process. Among the imagery includes custard tarts, tomato ketchup, egg sandwiches and diagrams of chicken foetuses.
- ‘My name is lettie eggysrub’ by Heather Phillipson is on at Gloucester Road tube station until June 2019. Nearest station: Gloucester Road. For more information, visit the Art on the Underground website.
For a guide to what’s on in London in March, click here.
Victorian cricketer John Wisden’s business has been immortalised on the Leslie Green-designed London Underground station.
The architecture of London’s tube stations vary wildly, from Victorian façades to modern 21st century designs. However, the exteriors’ designs tend to be exclusively for Transport for London. However, there is an exception to this, where a separate business has been immortalised in the iconic ox blood-red tiling of Leicester Square station. If you look at the Cranbourn Street exit, you’ll see a set of cricket stumps, a ball and a pair of bats along with the words ‘J Wisden & Compy No.21′.
Long before Leicester Square station was built, there was a Victorian cricketer named John Wisden (1826-1884), who played for Kent, Middlesex and Sussex over a career that spanned 18 years. However, it was his ventures off the field that he is mostly remembered for today. While still playing, he teamed up with sports outfitter Fred Lillywhite(1829-1866) in 1855 to create a side business. The pair opened a cricket and cigar shop at 2 New Coventry Street, just off Leicester Square. However, their partnership was dissolved in January 1859 with Lillywhite handing over the business to Wisden. In the 1861 census, he is listed as living above the shop with his sister, his teenage cousin and a porter, Joseph Williams. In addition to being a good cricketer, it appears Wisden was a successful businessman and expanded into publishing following early retirement. In 1863, Wisden hung up his bat at the age of 37 because of his rheumatism. The following year, he launched the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, a reference book of the sport published annually. Wisden wanted the book to compete with his former business partner-turned-rival Lillywhite’s The Guide To Cricketers.
By 1872, he moved his shop to the other side of Leicester Square at 21 Cranbourn Street. At the time, Cranbourn Street connected St Martin’s Lane to Leicester Square, as Charing Cross Road did not exist until 1886. He expanded his business into manufacturing and retailing other sports equipment, as well as cricket. In April 1884, Wisden died of cancer in his flat above the shop aged 55. He passed away unmarried and childless, so his estate went to his sister. She sold the company to Wisden’s general manager Henry Luff (1856-1910), who went on to open a second store in Great Newport Street – just a few minutes walk away – in 1896.
Luff died in 1910 – the year Leicester Square tube station opened. Three houses on Cranbourn Street were compulsory purchased by tube bosses and demolished to make way for the new transport. The new station, which serviced the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway, was designed by architect Leslie Green (1875-1908), known for his signature style of ox-blood red tiling and semi-circular first-floor windows. Following the opening of the tube, the Wisden store was relocated in the new station. As a sign of Wisden’s respected reputation and standing, Green had incorporated Wisden signage into his iconic red tiling.
The Wisden store was subsequently run by Luff’s son Ernest and it received the royal warrant for their “appointment as Athletic Outfitters to the King”, George V, in 1911. Despite this honour, the station shop went on to close in 1928, with the nearby Great Newport Street branch hanging on longer until 1961. While the shops are long gone, Wisden’s publishing company still continues today and is now an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. The Almanack is still published annually today and remains popular with cricket fans around the world.
- The Wisden sign can be seen on the exterior of Exit 4 of Leicester Square tube station. Above Wok To Walk, 21 Cranbourn Street, Westminster, WC2H 7AA. Nearest station: Leicester Square.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
The history of the World War II shelter underneath Clapham South tube station.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to have a peek of one of London’s secret subterranean treasures. As part of their Hidden London series, the London Transport Museum were running tours to visit the Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter, one of the only purpose-built World War II shelters that is still accessible to the public, albeit rarely.
Following the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent Blitz, many Londoners were using tube stations as shelters from the Nazi bombing. However, many civilians were concerned the stations weren’t adequate protection, which was confirmed in October 1940 when a bomb hit the road above the north end of Balham underground station. Water from the burst sewers above and earth filled the southbound tunnel, killing 66 people who were sheltering there at the time. Three months later, a further 111 civilians were killed when a bomb hit Bank station.
The same month of the Balham disaster, the Government started making plans to build deep-level shelter accommodation for 100,000 people. Having lots of experience of building underground, it made sense for the Government to enlist London Transport to co-ordinate the project within the swiftest time possible. With Londoners frequently dying in bomb attacks by the Nazis, time was of the essence. It was decided it would be easiest and quickest to create shelters below existing tube stations, specifically the Northern and Central lines. Originally the plan was for 10 shelters to be built, however ones at St Paul’s and Oval were abandoned during construction due to concerns over being too close to the Cathedral and unsatisfactory ground quality respectively.
Construction – by hand – began on the tunnels in 1941, with final eight complete in 1942. Situated 30 metres (just under 100 foot) below ground level, the tunnels were built from either end using two vertical shafts. When they were complete, each shelter consisted of two parallel tunnels around 400 metres long divided into upper and lower floors. The tunnels at Clapham South were divided further into 16 sub-shelters with each named alphabetically after a senior British naval officer. The sub-shelters at Clapham South were named Anson, Beatty, Collingwood, Drake, Evans, Freemantle, Grenville, Hardy, Inglefield, Jelicoe, Kepple, Ley, Madden, Nelson, Oldam and Party. Each sub-shelter featured triple-tier bunk beds and some wider bunks for mothers with young children, bringing the total number of bunks to 7,952.
By the time the shelters were ready for action so to speak, the Nazi bombing campaign on Britain had eased off. The Government ended up letting the American military use half of the Goodge Street shelter. By June 1944, Hitler’s armies had set their sights on destroying London again – albeit this time with V-1 flying bombs, followed by V-2 later that year. Finally, the shelters could be used for the purpose they were intended for.
I’m always on a lookout for a bar with a difference and unlike the other themed drinking establishments in the capital, Soho‘s newest nightspot celebrates one of my favourite things – London itself. Playing up to the building’s history as a former World War II shelter, Cahoots is an underground basement bar which takes guests back in time to the 1940s. Located in Soho, Cahoots has been styled as an abandoned underground station in post-war London, where those in the know come to party.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the bar’s launch party recently as the premise really excited me. My blogging name is Metro Girl… the bar is underground themed.. surely it’s got to be a match made in heaven? The bar’s entrance is subtle from the street, but once entering and heading down the wooden escalator-style steps (which prompted flashbacks to riding the tube as a child in the ’80s) we were greeted by a doorman (who in character and in a rather spiffing accent, old chum), told us the station was ‘closed’. We played up to it and said ‘we had an appointment’ and were shown the way in. The interior of the bar is pretty amazing – along with a recreated tube carriage (where we subsequently ended up sitting in most of the night), there were vintage-style signs from both the London Underground and the post-war years. Sandbags, bunting, and waiters dressed in vintage clothing furthering the vibe. We parked ourselves in the carriage with our drinks resting on an old suitcase which doubled as a table. The theme continued through to the toilets, with 1940s street sound effects adding to the atmosphere.
The cocktail menu is extensive and unique, with influences from popular drinks from the 1940s, as well as unusual ingredients such as tea leaves, beetroot and Oxo cubes. Cocktails are served in a variety of vessels, such as tin cans, Thermos flasks and milk bottles, ranging from £7-£9. I tried quite a few cocktails, but my favourite was a ‘Vera Lynn’, a fruity gin concontion which came served in a lovely green china version of the wartime dame in her heyday. There’s also an impressive sharing cocktail for groups, the Tanqueray No.10 Station Clock, where you dish out your booze from a giant hollow clock.
As well as the interiors and cocktails, there is also great entertainment with swing bands and dancers performing on many evenings. We were encouraged to try a bit of dancing, but I politely declined over fears of making a fool of myself, but some fellow guests were game and did a good job. The music was a mix of jazz, swing and lindy-hop, so you really feel like you’ve stepped in a time machine. Although this may seem like an immersive experience, we enjoyed ourselves so much I could see Cahoots becoming a regular drinking den for me and my pals. For those looking for something a bit different for a night out, I can highly recommend Cahoots. As long as you’re looking for adventure and are open to embracing the strong theme, head underground. Just don’t tell everyone…
- Cahoots, 13 Kingly Court, Soho, W1B 5PW. Nearest tube [apart from Cahoots obviously… ;-)]: Oxford Circus. For more information, visit the Cahoots website.
For more of Metro Girl’s bar and restaurant reviews, click here.
To read about Metro Girl’s visit to the disused tube station Aldwych, click here.
A rare walk through Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe.
The Thames Tunnel, once one of Victorian London’s greatest attractions, hasn’t been open to the public for nearly 150 years. While thousands pass through it every day on a London Overground train, many wouldn’t be aware they are travelling through an impressive feat of engineering. In May 2014, the London Transport Museum hosted special Hidden London tours for people to follow in the footsteps of Victorian Londoners by walking the tunnel as it was originally used for.
As you may have noticed, after Tower Bridge going east there is no bridge crossing the River Thames until you reach the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford, Kent. In Victorian London, with the industrial revolution in full swing, the docks and factories east of the city were booming and it became apparent of a growing need for a river connection between docks on north and south of the river. Various ideas were considered over the years, but it wasn’t until 1823, Anglo-French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) produced a plan for an underwater tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping using his and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s (1806-1859) new tunnelling shield patent, which revolutionised tunnel building.
With the tunnel originally planned for use by horse-drawn carriages, Marc found funding from the Duke Of Wellington, among others, and construction began in February 1825. Brunel’s team started building a shaft at Rotherhithe – which is still there today and forms part of the Brunel Museum – which is where pedestrians and (ideally) horse and carriages would enter the tunnel. In November 1825, the shaft was complete so the tunnelling could begin. Using the Brunels’ tunnelling shield, work progressed slowly, with only about 8-12 foot of tunnel being built a week. Conditions were horrible, with many workers falling ill from the sewage strewn water seeping into the tunnel. Marc’s son Isambard ended up taking over the project at just 20 years old when resident engineer William Armstrong fell ill in 1826. At one point, they started allowing visitors in to see the shield in action, charging a shilling each, to boost the spiralling budget.
In November 1827 – while the tunnel was still being built – the Brunels hosted a banquet in the tunnel for 50 guests with music provided by the Coldstream Guards. In May 1827 and January 1828, the tunnel flooded, with the later incident resulting in the loss of six men and Isambard himself narrowly escaping death. Following this, there was loss of confidence in the project and it was put on hold for seven years. However, by December 1834, Marc managed to raise enough money – including a loan from the Treasury – to resume the project. Despite more floods, fires and gas leaks, construction was finally completed in November 1841. It measured 35 feet wide, by 20 feet high and 1,300 feet long, at 75 feet below the Thames surface. It was swiftly fitted out with lighting, staircases and roadways. An engine house was built next to the shaft for machinery used to drain the tunnel, which can now be visited as the Brunel Museum. The tunnel had taken so long to build, there was no money left to construct two further shafts to transport the horse and carriages down to tunnel level. So with the original design brief unfulfilled, it was opened to pedestrians in March 1843, who entered via the Grand Entrance Halls in the shafts using spiral staircases.
After hearing so long about the delays and dramas of the tunnel construction, unsurprisingly Londoners and those from further afield were curious to see the engineering wonder. It was initially hugely popular with tourists, with 50,000 people visiting on opening day, with a total of 1 million visiting in the first three months – equivalent to half the population of London at the time. Billed as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, visitors paid a penny to pass through the tunnel and soon found plenty of occupy them as stalls were erected in the arches between the adjoining east and west tunnels. Among the products on sale included snuff boxes, paper weights and gin flasks. In 1852, organisers hosted the Fancy Fair, the world’s first underwater fair, featuring entertainment such as tightrope artists, fire-eaters, sword swallowers and magicians. Despite the initial popularity, the novelty soon wore off and 10 years after opening, the tunnel was home to some very unsavoury characters, including thieves and prostitutes.
Investors were relieved when the East London Railway Company purchased the tunnel in 1865, with trains eventually running through it four years later after they had extended it further south. In 1884, a disused shaft was used to create Wapping station. Eventually the line came into ownership of London Underground for the East London Line and then in 2010, became a line used by London Overground.
- The London Transport Museum very rarely conducts tours to the Thames Tunnel, but keep an eye out on their events page for further openings. The Brunel Museum is open all year round, with regular tours to visit the Grand Entrance Hall. Brunel Museum, Railway Ave, Rotherhithe, SE16 4LF. Nearest Overground: Rotherhithe. For more information, visit the Brunel Museum website.
Metro Girl Likes: When you’re in the area, check out the nearby 17th century Mayflower pub with a deck overlooking the River Thames.
To read about Metro Girl’s visit to the disused Aldwych tube station, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s London history posts, click here.
The history of the disused London Underground station Aldwych.
I have always been fascinated with derelict and abandoned places since I was a child. It was probably the result of reading too many Enid Blyton books and dreaming of being an explorer. Growing up in London, I have seen a few stations renamed or cease to exist over the years – such as the King’s Cross Thameslink station where I used to pass through on my way to work in the early Noughties or the Jubilee line platforms at Charing Cross. I had read about the disused underground station Aldwych online – and passed the familiar red tilework of its former entrance on The Strand many times and found there were rare opportunities to actually visit it.
After ages of keeping my eyes peeled for a potential chance to visit, the London Transport Museum occasionally opens the doors for its Hidden London tours of Aldwych for a limited time only so a friend and I jumped at the chance to go. The one hour tour was arranged by the London Transport Museum with volunteers generously providing their time to share their knowledge of the history of the Grade II-listed building.
Finding out the history of Aldwych – a station just a stone’s throw away from Temple – could easily make you question why it was even opened in the first place. Owners knew it wouldn’t be a busy station and despite building three lift shafts – which could hold six lifts – only one was ever used. It was the lifts which prompted the final closure of the station in 1994 because the expense of fixing them could not be justified for such a lightly used station.
Aldwych station was originally conceived as the southern terminus for a new underground railway line owned by Great Northern and Strand Railway in the late 1800s. However when the tube project merged with another – becoming the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway – the Piccadilly line was born, with Strand station – as it was known in the early parts of its life – becoming a branch off the main line.
After the demolition of the Royal Strand Theatre on the site, construction of The Strand station started in October 1905 and was opened in November 1907. The design followed that of architect Leslie Green‘s standard station design – distinct dark red glazed brick on street level, with platform walls tiled in cream and green. Above the entrance, featured arched windows with office space. Green also designed Oxford Circus, Elephant & Castle and Leicester Square stations, among others. Strand station was a L shaped building with entrances and exits on The Strand and Surrey Street – which can still be seen today.
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