Last year I published London Oddities (which you can read by clicking here) in which I explained some rather unusual facts about London. It was fun to research, fun to write and it received a positive feedback. Because it did so well I’d thought I’d write a part two. I hope you enjoy.
1) Tower Bridge and the jet plane
Let’s start out strong, this is my favourite fact is this list. I want you to have a look at this iconic bridge.
Can you name it?
No. That is not London Bridge. That is Tower Bridge. London Bridge is pictured below.
Don’t worry. Even Google gets it wrong!
It is the most popular and mistaken bridge in the world. To clarify London Bridge is next to The Shard where as Tower Bridge is the next bridge down river, opposite the Tower of London. There is an legend an American businessman bought Tower Bridge mistaking it for London Bridge but although the story is entertaining there is no truth in it. Tower Bridge was first constructed in 1894 to aid road congestion in London without interfering with water traffic. There have been several notable events on Tower Bridge, including the US president Bill Clinton’s motorcade being separated and prostitutes working the upper walkways of the bridge. I’m going to be talking about two of the most dramatic events. The first took place in 1952 and involves another iconic London symbol, the red double decker bus.
The process of opening Tower Bridge is two fold. First the gateman must sound the warning bells and close the gates on the road, afterwards the Watchman would raise the bridge. The number 78 bus, driven by Albert Gunter was crossing Tower Bridge when it began to open. Unfortunately for Gunter a foolish relief man had ordered the bridge to be raised before the warning alarms had sounded.
As Gunter approached the middle of the bridge, he noticed the gap emerging in front of him. He realised he had to make a decision. If he braked, his bus could fall into the Thames or slide back down the bascule and tip onto its side. If he accelerated he could fall into the Thames or attempt to land the bus on the other side of the bridge. Gunter choose to accelerate. His bus cleared the gap, landed on the northern bascule and came safety to a halt. There were no injuries and the relief man was presumably fired.
The second story involves a jet plane. The year was 1968 and it marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the RAF (Royal Air Force). No aerial displays had been planned, however to mark the occasion, so pilot Alan Pollock decided to conduct a display of his own. After taking off with his unit, Pollock separated from the group and returned to “beat up” his home airfield of RAF Tangmere (beat up meaning flying low over a populated airfield. No doubt it would have spooked the staff there) before flying on to London. Once in the city Pollock circled the Houses of Parliament three times to show his disapproval of the current Government’s budget cuts and then dipped his wings in a salute at the Royal Air Force Memorial at Embankment. By this time officials had heard of a Hawk Hunter jet plane flying around the city and believed they were under attack. The population of London, those that weren’t seeking shelter inside buildings, watched as Pollack approached Tower Bridge. According the Pollack he didn’t consider flying through the bridge until moments before the event.
“Until this very instant I’d had absolutely no idea that, of course, Tower Bridge would be there. It was easy enough to fly over it, but the idea of flying through the spans suddenly struck me. I had just ten seconds to grapple with the seductive proposition which few ground attack pilots of any nationality could have resisted. My brain started racing to reach a decision. Years of fast low-level strike flying made the decision simple…” – Alan Pollock.
Once Pollack had completed his stunt he proceeded to “Beat up” several more military airfields before landing. Pollack was arrested and his unit sent to North Africa without him but he managed to escape being court marshalled by claiming medical reasons.
The mad man! You can watch Pollack being interviewed by ITV here:
2) The Cock Lane Ghost
Cock lane is located near St Paul’s Cathedral and was named thus because it was the only street to be licensed for prostitution in medieval times. In 1762 the street gained fame due to a haunting that created, what I think, is possibly the best headline ever written.
(Note: The sources I’ve used disagree on the exact details but the crux of the story is always the same.)
William Kent formed a relationship with his deceased wife’s sister, Fanny Lynes (for the full impact of this story I will continue to call her Fanny). Mr Kent and Fanny found lodgings in Cock Lane with a landlord called Mr Parsons and his daughter Elizabeth Parsons, aged eleven.
Shortly after making Mr Kent the sole benefactor of her will Fanny died mysteriously. After an argument about a loan, Mr Kent left the property on Cock Lane. Soon after his departure strange knocking and scratching sounds were heard from Mr Kent and Fanny’s old room. Elizabeth Parsons began to suffer fits which she claimed were caused by the ghost of Fanny possessing her body. Upon awaking she claimed that Fanny’s ghost had told her she had been poisoned and the only way to save her soul was to bring justice upon her murderer, Mr Parsons.
And thus the headline was born: THE ITCHING FANNY OF COCK LANE
Mr Parsons, Elizabeth’s father, was forced into hiding and Mr Kent began to charge tours of his old room to the general public who could witnesses Fanny’s ghost first hand. This attracted celebrities of the time, policemen, detectives, members of the church and local writers and reporters. Although the Victorian public were enthralled with the story and had an interest in the afterlife and paranormal, many doubted the ghost’s existence. Mr Kent invited these sceptics to séances in which they would communicate with the spirit. The group would asked the ghost a question and the ghost would reply by knocking once for yes or twice for no. Using this method, the ghost was able to confirm Elizabeth’s story.
The tale of the Cock Lane Ghost spread across the country and intrigued members of all social classes. According to some reports Prince Edward, Duke of York visited the house. Eventually the Earl of Dartmouth began his own investigation. He invited several critics, including Dr Samuel Johnson (pictured above) who documented the events. The group arrived at Cock Lane and demanded that Mr Kent performed a séance. Elizabeth was placed into her bed next to the men and the group tried to address the ghost. Nothing happened. The investigators took Mr Kent downstairs and demanded that he admit his guilt. Mr Kent refused and almost immediately the hauntings began. Knocking sounds echoed throughout the house.
The group soon found the answer to the hauntings. Elizabeth was using a block of wood to knock against the ceiling, floor and walls. Mr Kent has poisoned Fanny and his previous wife, Fanny’s sister. There’s no clear evidence if Elizabeth was forced into assisting Mr Kent with his fraudulent act or if she did so willingly. Although Elizabeth was found not guilty, being under the legal age for prosecution, Mr Kent was imprisoned.
There’s no justice in this story. The prisoners treated Mr Kent well and he was released after two years. Mr Parsons was hunted by a mob and killed before the haunting was revealed as a hoax. Although the house was knocked down in the 1970’s the story lives on, mostly due to the strange string of events and the notorious headline issued by the press.
3) The mysterious house on Mead Street
I stumbled across this secret by accident. I was walking through Soho on my lunch break (already that sounds dodgy) and found myself on Mead street. I noticed a door that was set back from the rest of the street. Upon closer inspection I spotted a plaque on the door. Thinking it was a blue plaque about an historical figure, I approached.
Of course, when I saw several people giving me bemused glances I realised what they were thinking.
I wasn’t the first to be taken aback by the sign. In the mid noughties the police performed a stake out on the house believing it, like I did, to be a brothel. After several hours of watching men and women entering and exiting the property they pounced. The police kicked down the door and charged inside. Instead of finding prostitutes and their clients the police discovered they had interrupted a dinner party. The new home owner and was just as bemused and bewildered by the sign on her front door as everyone else.
The sign was placed by the previous owner of the property called Sebastian Horsley.
Sebastian Horsley was an artist and writer. Many of his works were fuelled by his dysfunctional family, his drug addictions, sex, and his reliance on prostitutes. In one stunt he allowed himself to be crucified in America in order to experience true suffering. When Horsley was living on Mead Street he placed the sign on his door. According to an interview with The Independent Horsley claimed:
I wanted to make the bedroom like a turn-of-the-century French brothel and I did have a girl working here once. There’s a notice on the front door saying, “This is not a brothel”: never believe everything you read. I kept getting my door kicked in when clippers used to come here. A clipper is such an English device – only the English could think of it. A girl picks up a guy, takes £50 off him, rings the doorbell – my doorbell – says to the guy that there’s no one in, and goes off to get a key, leaving him standing at the door. He’s fifty quid down, he’s really annoyed. He thinks this is the brothel, so he kicks the door in. So that’s why I put the notice up – Sebastian Horsley
Other sources state Sebastian put the sign up as an art statement but due to his turbulent life style it’s unclear if it was meant as a sarcastic statement or not. Horsley passed away in 2010 of a drug overdose.
4) Severed body parts parts scattered around London
Admiralty Arch is a gateway from Trafalgar Square to The Mall which leads to Buckingham Palace. Admiralty Arch it is also a monument to Queen Victoria but it is often overlooked as a tourist attraction being stuck between two bigger tourist attractions. That doesn’t mean the arch is any less interesting. If you look on the left hand side of the right side arch (while facing Buckingham Palace with Trafalgar Square behind you) you may notice, tucked away in the shadows of the stonework a nose.
Cap: Be careful when getting pictures of this as you may be struck by oncoming black cabs.
Once you’ve seen it, you can’t not notice it. There are many stories of how the nose came to be there. An urban legend grew that it was a spare for the statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson who stands at the top of Nelson’s Column a short distance away. This raises the question… do statues have detachable parts and how exactly do you reach Nelson’s statue? Another legend says it is a humorous tribute to Arthur Wellesley the first Duke of Wellington who was infamous for his long nose. The Queen’s royal guards, while passing through the archway would reportedly pat the nose for luck although there is no footage or evidence for this.
Unfortunately the truth is far less interesting. The nose was placed by Rick Buckley in 1997 as part of a campaign against the “Big Brother” society in which we live. Buckley placed thirty five noses around the city, of which ten remain. If you find the seven noses placed in Soho, you’ll receive a mass wealth. There are other body parts scattered around London. Another artist installed seven stone ears in Covent Garden in a similar vain to Buckley. Next time you’re in the city, why don’t you go on a treasure hunt to find them all?
5) The London that could have been.
This is more of a “What-if” situation. Although the land we call Britain has been invaded several times only two of those invasions have been deemed to have been successful. The first was by William the Conqueror in 1066 and the second by William the third 1688 (I’m excluding the Roman invasion of Britain because they didn’t conquer Scotland and any invasions before the Battle of Hastings) The most recent attempt to invade Britain was Operation Sea Lion, in which German forces from Nazi occupied France would land on the southern coast and march inland to London.
Although the Nazi invasion did not occur, due to the RAF refusing to give the Luftwaffe air superiority, it is interesting to think what plans Hitler had for London. For example, we know he admired Nelson’s Column and planned to dismantle the monument and reassemble it in Berlin. There are also theories that he would have invited Edward VIII back to the throne with his wife Wallis Simpson as Edward was supposedly harbouring Nazi sympathies. I think the most interesting fact would have been Hitler’s London head quarters.
Hitler order the Luftwaffe not to bomb the Bloomsbury area as he wanted to use Senate House as his new headquarters.
Currently the building is owned by the University of London which is the biggest university in the UK. The building is used for social events (such as Living Literature events, I’ll be attending a Frankenstein party at Senate House later this year) holds the Senate House library which has a vast collection of text and research books and is used to host seminars. Senate House is also used for filming. Chances are that you’ve seen Senate House in at least one film. It’s been used in Fast and Furious 6, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang and perhaps most notably The Dark Knight and the Dark Knight Rises. You can see the interior of the building from this masked ball scene below:
Hitler ordered the Bloomsbury area to not be bombed because he feared the risk of damaging the building. The potential of Senate House was not lost on the British forces. Although the building wasn’t used as a military base it was used to store items from the British Museum and underground tunnels connect the buildings to nearby King’s Cross and Euston Train stations, these tunnels were used by commuters during the bombing raids.
There is a Nazi grave within London. Giro, the German ambassador’s dog was buried off the Mall when he was killed after biting through an electrical cable. The ambassador Leopold von Hoesch, was so upset that he had the dog buried and a gravestone erected. Although both Von Hoesch and Giro were Nazis it is speculated they were a Nazis by proxy rather than choice. The German embassy has been moved since, as has Giro’s grave but the headstone can still be seen.
Thanks for reading this website post, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you want to read more posts about London you can check of the original London Oddities post here, five famous London Horror stories here or my vlog for Write Up Our Alley about famous Literacy Locations in London, below.
Take care and see you next time.