The spooky side to London

In this extract from the Not for Parents guide to London, the darkest parts of the city are uncovered


In Ancient Egypt, when someone died their body was embalmed and then wrapped in linen cloths to preserve it... yuuuucckkk! The British Museum holds some of the most famous treasure in the world and a lot of visitors start with the creepy mummies.

Mummies and pets
There are more mummies in this museum than anywhere outside Egypt. There are even mummies of cats, apes and an eel.

Mummified bodies
Wrapping a mummy in linen was a long, slow process. The body, both inside and out, was prepared carefully according to common practices, rituals and beliefs.

The Great Plague

1665. The year of the Great Plague. The disease is also called the Black Death because of the dark lumps that appear on the skin of victims. The rich leave the city. The poor have no option but to stay. Over 1,000 people are dying each week. They have no idea how it started or how it spreads, so the authorities decree that victims and their families should be shut into their houses and left to die.

Good for business
Some people made good money out of the plague. ‘Magic’ potions and religious trinkets sold well. People were paid to uncover and report new cases, to cart bodies and to clean houses after deaths.

Medical masks
Most real doctors left London. Those who stayed wore a beaked mask full of herbs to cover the smell and protect themselves in case disease spread in air.

Fleas at Fault
Rats are often blamed for the plague and they are guilty, but only by association. It was actually the fleas on the rats that carried the disease. Killing rats and other animals that might be diseased made the problem worse – the fleas jumped onto humans. This was only discovered around 200 years after the plague.

Westminster Abbey

The bodies of some of the most famous people of all time are buried in the church of Westminster Abbey. Some are in stone vaults with a statue of themselves on top, others are stowed away in tombs along the walls, and there are loads right under the floor where you walk.

Ghostly Abbey

Some people claim that ghosts wander the Abbey at night. John Bradshaw, who signed the death warrant of Charles I, has supposedly been spotted wandering about, as has a monk who was murdered.

Unknown Soldier
At the west end of the Abbey lies the body of a British soldier brought back from war in France. His tomb is a tribute to all who are sent to fight and die in wars, especially those with no known grave.

Crowning Achievement
Every King or Queen of England and Britain since 1066 has been crowned at the Abbey. The same oak coronation throne has been used since 1308.

London Burning

Burning bacon fat can easily catch fire. That’s the moral to the story of the London baker who in 1666 put two big bits of bacon in his oven for the morning and then went to bed. The fat dripped onto his straw-covered floor, a flame lit up and the fire took hold, spreading to neighbouring houses. The citizen firefighting service using buckets of water from the river could not dampen the great fire, and most of London was destroyed.

The baker’s mistake
By the time the flames died out six days later, around 90 churches, 50 trades halls and 13,000 houses were burned to the ground. Incredibly, only a few people died.

Tall tribute
A monument to the Great Fire, in the form of a Roman column, stands just a few steps from where the fire first started. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

Tour of flames
The fire reached London Bridge but was stopped because part of the bridge had already burned down! It headed down Thames Street where wharves and warehouses caught alight, and spread back into the city.

Jack the Ripper

Dare you venture into the dark parts of old London? For eight weeks in 1888, the narrow alleys of Whitechapel were a murder scene. Five young women were brutally killed by a murderer called Jack the Ripper. He was never caught.

One good thing
The murders led to more police and better houses and street lights for the people in London’s East End

Who was Jack the Ripper?
No one knows! One suspect was the son of the future King. Another, a surgeon.

Whitechapel alleys
The streets and alleys of Whitechapel were dark and scary with narrow doorways to hide in.

Tower of London

William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and built the White Tower from which to rule over his new kingdom. Kings and Queens lived in the Tower of London – but later it became the royal prison and torture chamber for traitors.

Forty Beefeaters guard the tower of London. They got the name because they were originally paid with beef instead of money.

The last beheading here was in 1747.

Lost Princes
The two young sons of King Edward IV were locked up in the tower by their evil uncle Richard so that he could become king. They were last seen there in 1483. In 1674 two boys’ skeletons were found under a staircase in the tower. Suspicious?

Chop off his head!
Having your head chopped off was the least painful punishment for crimes against the Crown and Church and you had to be pretty posh to be executed this way. Everyone else was hanged, burned at the stake, boiled in oil or hung, drawn and quartered, which meant having your guts pulled out, your head chopped off and your body cut into four pieces!

Heading down the river
The water-gate entry to the tower of London is called Traitors’ Gate because that’s where prisoners charged with treason were taken inside. On the way, they passed the heads of executed prisoners displayed on London Bridge.

Field of fear
There was no better place to witness public executions, revolts and assassinations than Smithfield. Executions were carried out here for about 500 years.

Deadly punishment
Why was the dead body of Oliver Cromwell dug up and hanged, drawn and quartered? Because Cromwell had ordered the execution of Charles I, and Charles II was still really angry about it.

Extracts taken from Not-for-Parents: London: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know by Klay Lamprell published by Lonely Planet.