The Little Book of London

The Little Book of London

by David Long


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The Little Book of London is a funny, fact-packed compendium full of the sort of frivolous, fantastic or just strange-but-true stuff which no-one will want to be without. London's looniest laws, its most eccentric inhabitants, the realities of being royal, literally hundreds of wacky facts about the world's greatest city and some authentically bizarre bits of trivia combine to make it required reading for all first-time visitors and locals alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750948005
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 07/01/2007
Series: Little Book Of
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.79(d)

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The Little Book of London

By David Long

The History Press

Copyright © 2010 David Long
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6262-2



Beheadings, Burnings & Hangings

When Charles II's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, was executed for treason in 1685 it took executioner Jack Ketch five blows of the axe and the job still had to be finished off with a knife. The two halves were apparently then promptly recovered in order that his severed head could be sewn back on and the corpse made to sit for a royal portrait.

In the days when hangings at Tyburn were routine, the gallows (which stood on a spot near the south-west corner of modern Connaught Square) could accommodate twenty-one men or women at a time. Convention dictated the order of precedence so that highwaymen as the 'aristocrats of crime' were despatched first, then common thieves, with traitors being left to bring up the rear.

During the long procession from Newgate Gaol in the City to the so-called 'Tyburn Tree', the condemned were presented with scented nosegays by crowds which could number up to 10,000. Convicts could also enjoy a last drink at a tavern, The Mason's Arms, which is still standing in Seymour Place.

French watchmaker Robert Hubert was hanged at Tyburn after confessing to responsibility for the Great Fire in 1666. Needless to say it was a stitch -up, but in fact the death penalty was routine for setting fire to even a single building at this time, never mind 13,200, and remained so until 1861. (Quite a thought today when an estimated 25 per cent of all London fires are started deliberately.)

By 1688 fewer than fifty offences carried the death penalty but under the Hanoverian kings the number was increased to around 300. Largely implemented to reduce the cost of incarcerating offenders, typical among the new capital crimes were the theft of 5s, causing damage to Westminster Bridge and even impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.

Restored to its original, pristine elegance and repositioned close to St Paul's, Temple Bar originally provided a convenient place to display the bloody, decapitated heads of traitors. Those of the Rye House Plotters in 1683, for example, were boiled in brine and cumin seed to prevent them being pecked at by birds, after which bystanders could pay a ha'penny to hire a telescope to enjoy a really close look at the gory remains.

London's own 'death row' moved to Pentonville Prison in 1902 when the dreaded Newgate finally closed. Between then and 6 July 1965 when the practice was finally abolished, Crippen, Christie and 118 others were executed here and are still buried beneath the prison garden. The last condemned cell is now a staff room for the probation service.

In days gone by hanging was considered quite humane. Until 1753 women found guilty of murdering their husbands could expect to be burned at the stake instead, although kindly attempts were sometimes made to strangle them before the flames took hold. As late as 1789 Catherine Murphy was despatched in this way, though in her case it was for 'coining', i.e. counterfeiting or clipping the coin of the realm.

It was not unknown for some felons to escape the drop altogether. John 'Half-hanged' Smith earned this soubriquet in 1705 by taking so long to die that the crowd demanded he be cut down and let loose. Patrick O'Bryan was similarly reprieved but on being set free made the mistake of going back to murder his accuser. Back in the dock he was boiled in pitch to ensure the same thing wouldn't happen again.

In 1531 a man called Rouse was boiled alive at Smithfield, a fitting end for a chef. Cook to the Bishop of Rochester, he had been found guilty of accidentally murdering several colleagues while attempting to poison his employer. Boiling for poisoners, however, was removed from the statute books seventeen years later.

Under the 1752 Murder Act the Company of Surgeons and St Bartholomew's and St Thomas's hospitals were each entitled to ten hanged corpses a year for the purposes of dissection and anatomising. Punch-ups frequently broke out when their representatives attempted to claim the bodies, however, because for many dissection was considered to be an ignominy too far.

The largest crowd ever assembled in London for a public execution was that which gathered outside Newgate on 30 November 1824 to see a sentence of hanging carried out on Henry Fauntleroy. An estimated 100,000 people thronged the streets to see the banker die after being convicted of attempting to defraud the Bank of England of £250,000. Money he squandered, which seemed somehow to make the offence even worse.

The last criminals to be publicly beheaded were the five Cato Street conspirators in 1820, although they were decapitated only after they had already been hanged. Similarly the last person to be publicly hanged in London was an Irish nationalist, Michael Barrett, despatched outside Newgate Gaol on 26 May 1868.

The last two executioners employed by the Home Office were Mancunian Harry B. Allen and Robert L. Stewart from Edinburgh. A scaffold is reputed still to exist at Wandsworth, however, making some with an interest in such things wonder whether someone, somewhere, is still being trained up for the job.

In the days when suicide was still illegal, the 'punishment' was to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through one's heart. The last person to suffer such a fate in London was suspected murderer John Williams in December 1811. His corpse, suitably mutilated, lies beneath the tarmac at the junction of New Road and Cannon Street Road, E1.

Top 10 Tortures at the Tower

In its day the rack at the Tower of London was known as the Duke of Exeter's Daughter after the nobleman who was appointed Constable of the Tower for life in 1420. After experiencing it, the Catholic martyr Edmund Campion was asked how he felt and replied, 'not ill, because not at all'.

Despite the fact that English Common Law had long ago declared torture to be illegal, the rack was particularly popular under the Tudors. Indeed, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the one in the Tower was said 'seldom to stand idle'.

A later refinement was the sixteenth-century Scavenger's Daughter, a corruption of the name of its inventor Sir Leonard Skevington. This used a pair of iron hoops to crush the body until blood spurted from the nostrils and other orifices. (Even, it was said, from the fingertips).

The use of iron gauntlets required the authority of the Crown or Privy Council, these being devices attached to the wrists and slowly tightened with a screw. The prisoner was then suspended until his arms swelled around the gauntlets. 'I felt', said Father Gerard after trying it out in 1597, 'that all the blood in my body had run into my arms ... and burst out of my finger ends.' In five hours he claimed to have fainted eight times.

The Tower dungeon known as Little Ease was simplicity itself: a tiny cell of such small dimensions that anyone confined therein could neither stand up, lie down or walk around. Instead those unfortunate enough to be incarcerated were forced to squat painfully in the dark for days on end.

Worse still was the aptly named Dungeon Amongst the Rats. Located below the high-water mark, this dark cell would flood twice a day with malodorous river water. To fall asleep was thus to invite certain death; and even awake a prisoner could find himself surrounded by drowning rats liable in their panic to gnaw at his flesh.

Incredibly peine forte et dure or being pressed to death by the weight of stones was not considered to be torture. Thought instead to be more humane than death by starvation, it remained on the statute books until late into the reign of George III. Its 'popularity' derived from the fact that anyone dying this way could will their estates to their descendants instead of being found guilty and made to forfeit everything to the Crown.

Used on those individuals accused of misconduct with Catherine Howard, the brakes was a ferocious device employed to smash the teeth. Fortunately the precise workings of several similar devices – such as the langirnis, the pynebankis and the cashie-laws – can these days only be guessed at.

Court in the Act

Today's Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, stands on the site of the infamous Newgate Gaol. The origin of the name lies in the adjacent street and has been in use since at least the sixteenth century. It is not true, however, that the symbolic figure of Justice with her sword and scales wears a blindfold. The work of sculptor Frederick Pomeroy, RA, she is actually all-seeing.

Despite the name the sixteenth-century 'bawdy courts' were held in St Paul's Cathedral. They dealt with cases of marital or sexual assault and, perhaps out of respect for their surroundings, court clerks adopted a particular euphemism for sexual intercourse which was recorded in all official documents as 'occupying'.

Britain's ancient and much-vaunted jury system is not always what it seems. In 1468, for example, twelve jurors who returned a verdict the judge didn't like were forced to wear dunces' caps, and 200 years later juries were still routinely being locked up without food or water while they reached their decision. What's more, if the judge felt that at the end of it they had reached the wrong one, they would be sent back until they had changed their minds.

Indeed at this same time one jury so upset the judge in a trial of two Quakers that he fined all twelve of them before confining them in Newgate. They were only released on the say-so of a rival judge.

Early judicial proceedings were also astonishingly quick compared to today's. In 1769 in just four days, for example, Old Bailey judges tried no fewer than forty prisoners. Three were executed, twenty-two sentenced to transportation, five 'burnt in the hand' or branded, and a further ten ordered to be whipped.

Even after the Reformation canny criminals could escape punishment by claiming 'benefit of clergy' – i.e. pretending to be in Holy Orders – but they could do this only once. The usual proof required was the ability to read (or more probably recite) one verse of a psalm, since at this time few but the clergy could actually read. Surprisingly, as it was open to such abuse, the practice was still recognised as late as 1847, although for an ever-dwindling range of offences.

The last nobleman to be tried by 'God and his peers' was Lord Edward Southwell Russell de Clifford (1907–66) who in 1935 appeared in the House of Lords on a charge of manslaughter on the Kingston Bypass. The right of peers to be tried by their peers was subsequently abolished by the Criminal Justice Act (1948).

Judges appearing at the Old Bailey today still at certain times carry nosegays of aromatic herbs. This is a tradition harking back to a time when typhus or 'jail fever' was endemic in the Justice Hall of Newgate which stood on the same site. There is of course no evidence that a nosegay provided any protection whatsoever.

Cruel & Unusual Punishments

Preferring mutilation to hanging, branding became popular after the Norman Conquest. Offenders were typically burnt with V marks if they were vagabonds, a T for thieves and an F for a fray – or troublemaking.

Less serious offences generally attracted lesser penalties, although even the pillory was not always the gentle rotten-tomato-flinging affair one might imagine.

Sometimes, for example, the condemned person had his or her ears nailed to the wooden frame for the duration of their ordeal, many being forced to leave one or both of these behind at the end of it.

Others, such as John Waller at Seven Dials in 1732, actually died at the hands of the mob, as did four fraudsters condemned to stand at Newgate in 1756 and hit by a variety of rock-solid objects.

Until the pillory was abolished in 1837, dead cats were a particularly popular missile to hurl at the accused, but even these could be surprisingly dangerous. Anne Morrow, for example, was pilloried at Charing Cross for marrying three times while disguised as a man and was permanently blinded by the objects thrown at her head.

Public whipping was a similarly ferocious affair, offenders sometimes being tied to a tree or whipping post but more often forced to walk a certain route – for example, the length of Fleet Street to Temple Bar – attended by a constable charged with whipping sufficiently hard 'to make the back bloody'.

Flogging for women was finally outlawed in 1820, but the cat-o'-nine-tails remained in use for men until well into the twentieth century. The courts couldn't call for it after 1948, but prison Boards of Visitors were still permitted to and inflicted it on ten prisoners as late as 1954.

Bollards can still be seen next door to Tate Britain, in the courtyard of Chelsea College of Art & Design which occupies the site of the former Millbank Penitentiary. These were once used to tie up the barges used to house prisoners before they were transported to Australia. Indeed the phrase 'down-under' is said to be derived from a tunnel hereabouts, through which they were walked in chains down to the river.

From 1760 to 1774 around 70 per cent of felons convicted at the Old Bailey were transported to the Colonies. Most went to Jamaica and the New World, until American settlers expressed a preference for black slaves over British misfits. Thereafter Australia proved the destination of choice.

Among the first to go to Australia was nine-year-old John Hudson, a chimneysweep who got seven years for stealing some clothes. The same consignment included 82-year-old perjurer Dorothy Handland who killed herself on arrival in Botany Bay, thereby becoming Australia's first known suicide.

Convicted pickpocket Isaac Solomons, widely held to be the prototype for Dickens's Fagin, escaped on his way to Newgate in 1827. He fled the country and sought sanctuary in Tasmania, his wife having already been transported there for crimes of her own. Bizarrely he was then re-arrested, shipped home to London, re-tried, re-convicted, and sentenced to be transported for fourteen years – to Tasmania.

London courts finally stopped sending prisoners to the Colonies in 1868, the last batch arriving in Fremantle, Western Australia.

In Dungeons Dire

Surprisingly the Tower of London was still functioning as an occasional prison until well into the 1950s. As a result the list of prisoners held there includes not just the likes of Sir Walter Ralegh and Anne Boleyn but also the Nazi Rudolf Hess and even a Kray or two on a charge of desertion.

Perhaps the best accommodated, however, was John II of France. In 1356, when a king's ransom was set at 3,000,000 ecus and took many years to raise, he arrived at the Tower with such a large retinue that the gaolers were even required to house his jester who had come along to cheer him up.

By contrast to King John's luxurious accommodation, the first prisoners sent to Wormwood Scrubs when it opened in 1874 actually had to build their own cells. At least these were arranged in order to catch the sun, but only because the prison's creator Sir Edmund du Cane hoped in this way to solve the lighting and ventilation problems associated with more traditional London gaols.

The largest prison in Britain today, the Scrubs' most famous escapee is probably the Soviet double-agent George Blake who went over the wall in 1966. At the time of his flight to Russia he was just five years into a 42 -year sentence, the longest ever handed down by a British court.

Another of the Scrubs' celebrity prisoners was the matinée idol Ivor Novello. In 1944 the actor and composer was arrested and charged with an offence against the wartime petrol-rationing regulations after using a false permit for his Rolls-Royce. Fined £100, he served one month of an eight -week sentence, emerging a broken man and almost certainly forfeiting a knighthood.

The term 'clink' is derived from the Clink Prison in Southwark, originally a private lock-up owned by the bishops of Winchester, and used to house both Protestant and Catholic prisoners of conscience. Destroyed along with several other gaols in the 1780 anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, it was never rebuilt but the name lives on.

Historically London's largest prison, the Millbank Penitentiary was designed to hold 1,500 convicts. The first to be owned and run by the state, it was nevertheless an expensive failure and closed in 1890 less than seventy years after its completion.

Brixton Prison, originally a Surrey House of Correction built in what at the time was described as one of 'the most open and salubrious spots', was sold off by the Home Office in 1851. It had to be bought back two years later, however, when the government decided to imprison women at home rather than transporting them to the Colonies. In 1902 it reverted to a men's prison, as indeed it still is today.

As well as hard labour the prisoners at Brixton were for years required to do not just their own laundry but also the washing sent in by prisoners at Pentonville, Millbank and Wandsworth.

Wandsworth's most famous inmate was Oscar Wilde, who spent six months there in 1895, and second was 'Great Train Robber' Ronnie Biggs who later escaped and fled via Australia to Brazil. Its most pathetic was perhaps William Towens, a child sentenced to serve a month in 1872 after stealing two pet rabbits.

Prison overcrowding is a major problem these days, but it's hardly a new one: Newgate in the City, built to hold 472 prisoners, sometimes accommodated nearly three times this number, hence the interest in using old ships moored on the Thames to hold greater numbers.

Incredibly these 'hulks' were still in use on the Thames until 1857, this despite epidemics of cholera, typhus and scurvy, and obvious problems with rats. They even included two former men o' war from Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar: Bellerophon and Leviathan. The last to go was the Defense, which was finally abandoned and burned at Woolwich Docks.


Excerpted from The Little Book of London by David Long. Copyright © 2010 David Long. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


1. Crime & Punishment,
2. Royal London,
3. Streets, Squares & Subways,
4. Men, Women & Children,
5. Transport for London,
6. Business & Leisure,
7. Death & Religion,
8. Food & Drink,
9. Literary London,
10. Natural History,
11 The Thames & its Tributaries,
12. On this Day in London,

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