A London Walk That is Not for the Fainthearted

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If you want to see the largest number of ghosts crammed together into the smallest possible space to get the biggest spectral bang for your London-walking-buck so to speak, go to the City of London.

After all, before the square mile became a business district, it was pretty much all of London there was. While cows were grazing in what today is the West End and while South London was nothing but a wilderness (North Londoners will say that it still is), more than 100,000 people already lived, died and killed each other within the ancient City walls.

Meeting east London’s ghosts is just another way of acquainting yourself with London’s long, colourful and – as you shall see – occasionally gruesome history. (This is not for the fainthearted. If you are, you may want to skip today’s post. Be warned! Blood will be spilled, lives will be lost, and pain will be inflicted in frequently unspeakable ways.)

"hanging pole on a London walk not for the fainthearted"

We continue our walk from the Rising Sun pub in the direction of St Bart’s Church – that’s the building on the other side of Middle Street.

"St Bartholomew the Great's church on a London walk not for the fainthearted"

The founder of the adjacent St Bart’s hospital, a monk called Rahere (who died in 1145), has been heard hopping around the old graveyard on one foot. One foot because that is all he has got left since a relatively recent encounter with a grave robber who wanted to pull the sandals from the dead monk’s feet and, when one of the sandals got stuck, pulled a little too hard.

Also have a look at the hospital next door, …

"entrance to St Barts hospital on a London walk not for the fainthearted"

…which is the oldest in Britain (est. in 1123) and haunted by the souls of hundreds of babies who were born here and put to sleep soon after by one of the country’s most prolific mass murderers.

Amelia Dyer ran a so-called “baby farm” in Victorian London, taking over illegitimate children from their parents at Barts, promising to raise them for an upfront fee. Once this fee was paid, of course, the children were no longer valuable assets but mere cost factors.

With a chilly logic that today’s residents of London’s business district would doubtlessly recognize, Ms. Dyer drew the ultimate conclusion and disposed of her unproductive cost factors as quickly as she could, usually with the help of opium-laced sedatives which made the deaths appear “natural”.

Eventually, Ms. Dyer became careless, sometimes killing as many as five babies in a single day – to the extent that even the coroner became suspicious, and she was duly hanged in 1896.

On the large public square in front of the hospital, William Wallace died, one of the early campaigners for Scottish independence. Wallace lost his campaign, just like the new breed of Scottish Nationalists in 2014 lost theirs, but while Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond were able to continue their political careers after the referendum, Wallace was treated somewhat more harshly, i.e. strangled with a rope, then released while still alive so the English could emasculate him before pulling his intestines out and burning them before his very eyes.

But this is not why “Braveheart” haunts the place: with occasional nightly returns, it is said, he rages at the final ignominy of being portrayed by Mel Gibson – an Australian! – in the Hollywood version of the story. (Wallace, it is said, “did not understand a single word of the dialogue” and would clearly have preferred Sean Connery.)

Now look for Giltspur Street on the western side of the hospital complex and turn into Cock Lane which is haunted by a ghost called – I am not making this up! – Scratching Fanny. (If you don’t believe me, go here.)

"Cock Lane on a London walk not for the fainthearted"

The ghost – a young woman who had allegedly been poisoned – was so famous in 19th century London that the street had to be cordoned off by police when rumours of a sighting materialized, and both Charles Dickens and William Hogarth refer to the story in their works.

At the end of Cock Lane, turn left into Snow Hill and left again into Holborn Viaduct. The next intersection – with Giltspur Street and the Old Bailey on the right – is, without a doubt, the place with the darkest history in the whole of London: this is the old site of Newgate Prison.

Newgate prison stood here for 700 years before it was torn down in 1904. Until modern times, it was operated very much like a business: the wardens had to pay for the privilege of working there and were then, more or less, free to recover their investment from the prisoners.

As a consequence, prisoners with means lived relatively care-free lives (mingling with visitors, drinking alcohol which was freely available and receiving food from near-by restaurants), while poorer inmates were shackled to the walls of a basement cell and, often literally, left to rot and die. The conditions in Newgate were so bad that the municipal administration temporarily shut it down in 1422 – even by the standards of the time, the prison had become a scandal.

The most badly haunted building on the prison’s old site is the Viaduct Tavern on Newgate Street – the pub uses some of the old prison cells as a beer cellar.

"Viaduct Tavern on a London walk not for the fainthearted"

But there is also the story of the Black Dog of Newgate – a former prisoner, who was murdered and eaten alive by his starving cell-mates. It is said that he comes back in the form of a black dog to terrorise the neighbourhood – and he has been seen roaming as far away as Fleet Street and the Aldwych.

"black dog on a London walk not for the fainthearted"

A little further down Newgate Street, you will find the ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars, in whose graveyard the She-Wolf of France was buried, Queen Isabella, the proverbial Wife From Hell.

"ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars on a London walk not for the fainthearted"

Isabella’s husband was King Edward II whom she deposed in 1327 and had killed soon after (through the insertion of a “red hot poker”, it is said, to punish him for an alleged homosexual liaison with one of his courtiers).

When Isabella herself died, she was not buried alongside her husband – as would have been the custom of the period (“let bygones be bygones, I say”) – but alone, taking the heart of Edward II (which had been sent to her after the killing, presumably as a proof that the deed had been done) to her grave. Her ghost is said to walk among the trees in the church garden, clutching the heart.

Heading further down Newgate Street, you will soon make out the unmistakable contours of St Pauls Cathedral …

"St Pauls Cathedral on a London walk not for the fainthearted"

.. which is haunted by a rather good-natured ghost called the Whistling Clergyman who is sometimes seen (and heard, “whistling out of tune”) near All Souls Chapel to the west of the church’s nave.

Continue on Cheapside in the direction of the Bank of England. This area is the realm of the Bank Nun, so called because of her attire – a long black dress and a veil – that she never changed after her beloved brother, a cashier at the Bank of England, had been hanged for embezzlement in 1812.

The events surrounding her brother’s court case and execution apparently made the poor woman lose her mind, and for years later, she was seen around Threadneedle Street and the Stock Exchange harassing staff and customers alike, blaming them for her brother’s fate.

Ultimately, the governors of the Bank gave her a small sum of money on the promise that she would henceforth stay clear of the business district – a promise that she kept while alive but that she has violated many times since.

So if you are approached by a ghostly figure who politely enquires “Have you seen my brother?” (which is how she is said to approach strangers these days), you better run.

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