The A-Z of Curious London: Strange Stories of Mysteries, Crimes and Eccentrics

The A-Z of Curious London: Strange Stories of Mysteries, Crimes and Eccentrics

by Gilly Pickup


$21.56 $23.95 Save 10% Current price is $21.56, Original price is $23.95. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 1 week


An A-Z of eccentric characters, strange events, and curious happenings, this book reveals the amazing and curious history of the city of London

Spooky, gruesome, and weird, but true, things about one of the world's greatest cities come alive here. Discover London's tiniest house, a 4,000-year-old mouse made from Nile clay, and the amazing things people leave on London's trains (including false teeth, a human skull, and even a park bench). Why did a dentist keep his dead wife on view in a shop window? Where did a shopkeeper murder 150 customers? Which Queen showed her bosom to an Ambassador? Why was a man arrested for wearing a top hat? In the center of the city, why is no thoroughfare called a road? To sum up, eccentrics, legends, folklore, murders, scandals, ghosts, incredible characters, and oodles of wow factor—it's all here.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752489681
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Series: A-Z of Curious Series
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Gilly Pickup is a journalist and travel writer who has written for a number of publications, including the Daily Telegraph.

Read an Excerpt

The A-Z of Curious London

By Gilly Pickup

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Gilly Pickup
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9399-2




London haberdasher James Hetherington was arrested on the Strand in 1797 for wearing a top hat. In fact, he caused a terrible commotion as no one had ever seen a hat like it before, and according to a newspaper of the day, '... passers-by panicked, women fainted and children screamed'. It is even said that a boy suffered a broken arm when he was knocked down in the hullabaloo. Hetherington was charged with causing a breach of the peace by 'appearing on the public highway wearing a tall structure of shining lustre ... calculated to disturb timid people'. You could say that was the beginning of something big as far as headgear went and, after the tumult subsided, people started to place orders for top hats. It reached its heyday in the nineteenth century, when it was said that an assembled gathering of gentlemen looked like the chimneys of the Industrial Revolution!

Whilst on the subject of hats, the world's oldest family-run hat shop was founded in London in 1676. Around this time, after the Great Plague and Fire of London caused havoc in the City, well-to-do families and tradesmen started to move westwards. In medieval times, the City constituted most of London, but over the years the conurbation grew far beyond it. As the City's boundaries have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, it is now only a tiny part of the metropolis, although it holds city status in its own right.

Soon the development of the West End had begun, encouraged by landowners who had lost heavily during the English Civil War and needed to raise money from their estates. George James Lock was one of these tradesmen. The patriarchal head of the Lock family was Sir John Lock and they had interests in coffee, chocolate and tobacco imported from Turkey. When the Great Fire of 1666 disrupted the business, the family moved to the West End. In 1686, funded by his successful trading concerns, George James Lock became the leaseholder of seven houses in St James's Street. On the site there had once stood a real tennis court built in 1617 for the then Prince of Wales, who became Charles I. George lived in one of the houses, and rented the other houses out to merchants and private individuals.

The bowler hat was created at James Lock's business in 1850, for a progressive farmer from Norfolk called William Coke. It was a domed hat, hardened by the application of shellac, designed to protect the heads of gamekeepers from overhanging branches. The hat was a snug fit to ensure that it would not easily blow or fall off. The prototype was made by Southwark hat makers, Thomas and William Bowler, and was brought to St James's Street to be tested by William Coke himself. He did this by jumping on the hat and, satisfied that it withstood his weight, he purchased it.

The Lock & Co. shop has supplied headgear to the great and the good including Oscar Wilde, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Depp. The shop has been at 6 St James's Street (SW1) since the mid-1700s and was even patronised by Admiral Lord Nelson, who bought his first hat from Lock's in 1800. It was made of beaver fur with a black silk cockade and cost £1 11s 6d. He became a frequent customer and later purchased a black silk hat for an unnamed lady, almost certainly his mistress, Emma Hamilton.

In 1803, he returned to the shop. The glare of reflected light from the sea and the battle hazards of smoke and grit were affecting his good eye, and he was worried that he would lose the sight in that one too. He asked if the shop could make him a hat with a built-in shade, protecting both eyes. Lock & Co. made him two hats to this specification and the drawings survive today in the shop's archives.

The phrase 'mad as a hatter' was not just a fictional invention of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Mad hatter disease, caused by inhaling toxic fumes from mercury nitrate, a chemical used in the felting process, affected the nervous system. Besides the damage it caused to the lungs, the fumes also affected the brain, leading to paralysis, loss of memory, mental health problems and eventual death. Unfortunately, hat workers did not get much sympathy in the nineteenth century as victims tended to be mocked and regarded as drunkards; they had a reputation for liking a drink to quench the thirst caused by the dust and fumes of their occupation.




The London Beer Flood took place at Meux's Brewery on the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, on 17 October 1814. A 22-foot high porter vat of around 512,000 litres of beer ruptured, causing a chain reaction with surrounding vats. The beer tsunami destroyed two houses and knocked down the wall of the Tavistock Arms pub in Great Russell Street, trapping fourteen-year-old employee, Eleanor Cooper, under the rubble.

The Times of 19 October reported:

The neighbourhood of St Giles was thrown into the utmost consternation on Monday night, by one of the most melancholy accidents we ever remember. About six o'clock, one of the vats in the extensive premises of Messrs Henry Meux and Co., in Banbury-street, St Giles burst, and in a moment New-street, George-street and several others in the vicinity were deluged with the contents, amounting to 3,500 barrels of strong beer. The fluid, in its course, swept everything before it. Two houses in New-street, adjoining the brewhouse, were totally demolished. The inhabitants, who were of the poorer class, were all at home.

The paper went on to describe the accident:

The bursting of the brew-house walls, and the fall of heavy timber, materially contributed to aggravate the mischief, by forcing the roofs and walls of the adjoining houses. Many of the cellars on the south side of Russell street are completely inundated with beer; and in some houses the inhabitants had to save themselves from drowning by mounting their highest pieces of furniture.

It was a terrible tragedy, but some impoverished locals saw it as a bit of good fortune and in an effort to obtain some free beer they ran to the scene carrying pots, pans, kettles and anything else they could use to scoop it up. Some of the more desperate locals simply threw themselves on the ground to lap it up.

As the tide receded, the true damage became known. Nine people were dead; some were drowned while others had been swept away in the flood and died of injuries they sustained. One man died days later from alcohol poisoning – such was his heroic attempt to stem the tide by drinking as much beer as he could.

In a bid to make some money from the terrible event, relatives of the deceased decided to exhibit their families' corpses in their homes and charge a viewing fee. This led to yet more disaster when too many people crowded in to one house, causing the floor to collapse and plunging all of the visitors into a cellar half full of beer.

The brewery was eventually taken to court over the accident, but the disaster was ruled as an 'act of god', leaving no one responsible. However, the company found it difficult to cope with the financial aftermath of the disaster, with a significant loss of sales made worse because they had already paid duty on the beer. Fortunately, the brewery was able to continue trading after a successful application to Parliament allowed them to reclaim the duty.


Well, after all, what's in a name? Plenty it seems. After the Norman invasion of 1066, most of London's business was conducted in what is now the City of London, otherwise known as the Square Mile, so-called because it was just over one square mile in area. The City is the world's leading financial and business centre, and has the unusual ratio of forty times more workers than it has residents. None of the Square Mile's thoroughfares were called 'road' until comparatively recent boundary changes – even City Road can be said to lead to the city, rather than entering it!

Many medieval street names tended to reflect the function or economic activity that took place there; 'Cornhill' was where the corn market was located. 'Cheapside' was the main street and site of one of the principal produce markets in London, 'cheap' roughly translated as 'market' in medieval English. In those days, the royal processional route from the Tower of London to the Palace of Westminster went through Cheapside, and during State occasions, the conduits here flowed with wine. Unsurprisingly, the masses flocked here to linger and enjoy boozy revelries.

During Edward III's reign in the fourteenth century, tournaments took place in adjacent fields and the dangers were not limited to the participants. In 1330, a wooden stand built to accommodate Queen Philippa and her companions collapsed during a tournament to celebrate the birth of the Black Prince. There were no casualties, but the King was furious and if the Queen had not intervened, the stand's builders would have been 'put to death'.

Seventeenth-century poet and author of Paradise Lost, John Milton, was born in Bread Street, named such because of the produce sold there. Similarly, there is a Milk Street and Poultry Street. Frying Pan Alley was part of a notorious East End slum district in the nineteenth century, home to braziers and ironmongers who hung frying pans outside their premises as a way of advertising their businesses. Honey Lane was full of beekeepers selling their wares, until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The site later became home to Honey Lane Market and was home to over a hundred butchers' stalls. In 1782, C.P. Moritz wrote, 'Nothing in London makes a more detestable sight than the butchers' stalls. The guts and other refuse are all thrown on the street and set up an unbearable stink.' A worse sight would have greeted him in 1517, when butcher John Pynkard was paraded around London wearing four sides of rotten meat and a sign reading 'For putting to sale stynkyng bacon'.

Then there was Stew Lane, where you might expect to find a tasty casserole to tuck into, but this street was simply packed to the gunnels with brutal and bawdy brothels, which were called 'stews' because of their origins as houses with heated rooms used for hot air or vapour baths.

Centuries passed and the west of the City started to see more development. After his Restoration in 1660, Charles II gave away swathes of land in Mayfair to those who had supported him. Albemarle Street, Jermyn Street and Berkeley Square commemorate Restoration courtiers, while Arlington Street was named after the Earl of Arlington, Sir Henry Bennet, whose job was to acquire and manage the royal mistresses. This was no easy task when serving Charles II, who was known to have more than one mistress at a time and did not keep his fourteen illegitimate children a secret.

Blow-Bladder Street was called such because it was where vendors would hang inflated bladders on poles for sale. Thankfully, bladder sellers left in 1720, and the more genteel seamstresses and milliners moved in. It is now called King Edward Street.

In 1738, a highwayman, who had carried out robberies on Finchley Common, was chased to London. When he thought he had lost his pursuers, he stopped at a public house in Burlington Gardens near Piccadilly, but it was not long before he realised he was still being followed. He galloped through Hyde Park and was followed to Fulham Fields, where he realised he had no way of escaping. The highwayman threw his ill-gotten gains to peasants at work in the fields, telling them 'they would soon witness the end of an unfortunate man'. He then pulled out his pistol and shot himself. He was buried at the crossroads and the area became 'Purser's Cross'.

Spitalfields originated when Walter Brune founded a large hospital for poor brethren of the order of St Austin in the fields east of Bishopsgate in 1197. The surrounding pastures were called Hospital-fields, but cockney slang dropped the first two letters to form the name 'Spitalfields'.

Crummier areas included Addle Street – the word 'addle' meant 'urine' or 'liquid filth' – still survives today, as does Fetter Lane. The latter was derived from 'Fewterer' meaning 'idle, disorderly person'. Other street names have been renamed in deference to present-day attitudes. Take Sherborne Lane, which was known as Shitteborwelane then later Shite-burn lane in the 1200s, possibly due to nearby cess pits. Pissing Alley, one of several identically named streets whose names survived the Great Fire of London was renamed the more polite Little Friday Street in 1848, before being absorbed into Cannon Street in 1853–54. Petticoat Lane, the meaning of which is sometimes misinterpreted as being related to prostitution – it was actually named after the Huguenot lacemakers – was renamed Middlesex Street in 1830.


In 1531, the Bishop of Rochester's cook, Richard Roose, was boiled to death at Smithfield. He had confessed to poisoning soup served to Bishop John Fisher and his guests. The Bishop survived, but some of his guests, presumably those who had more than one helping, died.

The 1531 'Acte for Poysoning' says,

On the Eighteenth day of February, 1531, one Richard Roose, of Rochester, Cook, also called Richard Cooke, did cast poison into a vessel of yeast to baum, standing in the kitchen of the Bishop of Rochester's Palace, at Lambeth March, by means of which two persons who happened to eat of the pottage made with such yeast died.

Some believed that Anne Boleyn was responsible, saying that she and her family had bribed Roose to poison the soup to get rid of Fisher, but Henry VIII did not believe this to be the case. It is definitely a possibility, because the Bishop was in opposition to Henry's Church reforms and his plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne.

Following Roose's arrest, an Act was passed specifically to deal with his case. From then on, poisoning would be deemed an act of high treason and anyone found guilty would be boiled to death. Roose was executed in this manner and the unfortunate cook took several hours to die.

The Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London (1531) announced:

This yere was a coke boylyd in a cauderne in Smythfeld for he wolde a powsyned the bishop of Rochester Fycher with dyvers of hys servanttes, and he was lockyd in a chayne and pullyd up and downe with a gybbyt at dyvers tymes tyll he was dede.

The gruesome Act was repealed under Henry VIII's son, Edward VI.


After the Norman Conquest, the site of Buckingham House was passed to Geoffrey de Mandeville, who donated it to the monks of Westminster Abbey. It is thought that the first house to be erected on the site belonged to Sir William Blake. Previously known as Goring House and Arlington House, it was named Buckingham House after the eighteenth-century Tory politician, John Sheffield (3rd Earl of Mulgrave and Marquess of Normanby) who was given the title of Duke of Buckingham in 1703. He built Buckingham House for himself as a grand London home.

A little further down the line, George III purchased the house in 1762 for his wife Queen Charlotte to use as a family home close to St James's Palace, where the many court functions were held. Buckingham House was known as the Queen's House and fourteen of George III's fifteen children were born there. In 1826, the unpopular George IV decided to transform the house into a palace, although it seems he never moved in. Even though the Duke of Wellington described George and his brothers as 'the damnedest millstones about the neck of any government that may be imagined', he generously offered the palace as a new home for Parliament when the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834. However, his offer was declined.

Queen Victoria, whose first name was actually Alexandrina, was the first monarch to take up residence in July 1837 and, in June 1838, she was the first British sovereign to leave from Buckingham Palace for a coronation. Her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 highlighted the palace's shortcomings, including the lack of nurseries for the newly married couple – although obviously George III had not found this to be a problem – and too few guest rooms. The only solution was to move the Marble Arch, which now stands at the north-east corner of Hyde Park, and build a fourth wing, creating a quadrangle. That is the kind of thing you can do if you are a monarch.

The palace certainly has no shortage of rooms these days; there are 775 in total, including nineteen state rooms, fifty-two royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, ninety-two offices and seventy-eight bathrooms. It also has its own post office, swimming pool, staff cafeteria, doctor's surgery and cinema. Over 800 members of staff are based at the palace, with jobs ranging from housekeeping to horticulture and catering to correspondence. Some of the more unusual jobs include fendersmith, clockmaker and flagman and, because there are more than 350 clocks and watches in the palace, two full-time horological conservators that wind them up every week and keep them in good order.

The garden includes a helicopter landing area, a lake and a tennis court. Thirty different species of bird live in the garden and more than 350 different varieties of wild flowers flourish in the peaceful setting, of which some are extremely rare. As well as being the venue for summer garden parties, it was the setting for a charity tennis competition in 2000, pop and classical music concerts in 2002, and a children's party featuring a host of characters from popular children's books in 2006.

Edward VII is the only monarch to have been born and to have died at Buckingham Palace. One of his dogs, a terrier named Caesar, outlived the King and walked behind his coffin in the funeral procession. Both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew were born at Buckingham Palace, and notices of Royal births and deaths are still attached to the railings for the public to read, although now they are also announced on the Royal website.

Through the years, many distinguished figures have visited Buckingham Palace since it became the official London residence of the monarchy. Among these were a seven-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (when it was still Buckingham House), Felix Mendelssohn, Johann Strauss Junior, Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi (who is reported to have worn a loin-cloth and sandals to tea with King George V), Neil Armstrong, Laurence Olivier and Nelson Mandela.


Excerpted from The A-Z of Curious London by Gilly Pickup. Copyright © 2013 Gilly Pickup. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The A–Z of Curious London,
Bibliography and Sources,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews