Isn’t that a great title for a book? As soon as I saw it, I wanted to find out more – and luckily I had the opportunity to do so tonight, at a talk given by the book’s author, Matt Brown, to celebrate its launch. There is no better qualified person than Matt to talk and write upon this subject: he is the editor-at-large of Londonist, as well as being a founder member of London Historians – not to mention a most entertaining speaker.
Tonight, Matt dispelled a number of myths relating to London’s history, buildings and people, letting us into some little-known secrets, some of which I am sharing below – I suspect you will be as intrigued as I was…
THE TOWER OF LONDON
One of the most imposing – and recognisable – buildings in the world. Home, in the past, to some incredibly dangerous characters. An impregnable fortress, you might therefore assume? Not so. In fact, the Tower’s defences have been breached a number of times – famously, it was captured in the 12th century by King John while his brother, Richard the Lionheart was away fighting in the Crusades. Some years later, in 1323, Roger Mortimer escaped the Tower by putting sedatives in his guards’ wine, setting off a chain of events which would see him flee the country, return and replace Edward II as ruler – and eventually end up in the Tower again (his execution followed shortly after). The last known break-out from the Tower was far more recent than you might think – it took place in 1944 and was so successful that even the Beefeaters weren’t aware that it had occurred.
Likewise, although we tend to think of the Tudor era as the bloodiest time for Tower-based executions, this is nowhere near the case. The Tudors were indeed a bloodthirsty lot – but the vast majority of executions were held on Tower Hill, not within the Tower of London. Most Tower of London executions actually took place in the 20th century – a fact that took me completely by surprise.
So many iconic and memorable – not to mention notorious – people are associated with this magnificent city of ours. But how much do we really know about them – and how much of that “knowledge” is based upon hearsay?
Take Dick Whittington, for example. We’re all familiar with the story: from a humble background, came to London to seek his fortune with his faithful cat, ended up being Lord Mayor of London three times…
Actually, none of the above is true. Whittington was the son of a wealthy landowner (although not being the first son & heir he was, it’s true, encouraged to take up a trade), he was Lord Mayor of London four times, not three and – perhaps most disappointingly – there is no evidence whatsoever of him having been accompanied on his journey by a cat. He may well have kept a cat at his London residence – most people did, to keep down the mouse population – but the idea of him travelling all the way to London with one is, sadly, false.
Dick Turpin. What a great story his is: the dashing highwayman who charmed wealthy ladies whilst persuading them to hand over their jewellery (all for the greater good, you understand), aided by his trusty steed Black Bess. A loveable rogue, you might say? Oh dear. In fact, Turpin was a horse thief who was neither handsome nor charming – whilst there are no contemporary drawings of Turpin, written accounts describe him as positively ugly and, alas, as a notorious thug and rogue. What a let-down – Adam Ant has a lot to answer for, if you ask me.
As for Jack the Ripper: well, I’m sure I’m not alone in associating this nefarious criminal with top hats, foggy evenings and nights at the opera (not too sure where that last thought came from but most likely from one of the many books, talks and walks which have the Ripper as their subject).
The truth, alas, is far more prosaic. We know virtually nothing about Jack the Ripper – not even his/her gender. The murders could have been committed by more than one person – we simply don’t know, just as we don’t know whether the letters purportedly sent by him to the police were genuine (it’s more likely that they were a hoax, or sent by a journalist trying to stir up further news). As for the Ripper’s supposedly debonair way of dressing: let’s just say that any criminal worth their salt would have been highly unlikely to carry out crimes in the East End of London dressed in top hat and tails – they would have stood out like a sore thumb.
Having learned all of the above at Matt’s talk tonight I can’t wait to get stuck into his book – there is so much more to find out.
One final gem that is definitely worth sharing: it is not, sadly, the case that the legendary Boudica is buried underneath Platform 10 at King’s Cross Station. I would have loved that myth to be fact, living just up the road from King’s Cross as I do and having been obsessed with Queen Boudica since primary school days – alas, the story is unfounded. King’s Cross did used to be called Battle Bridge, and tradition has it that this was where a major battle between Boudica’s Iceni tribe and the Romans took place – but that is not true, either.
Nor is the Boudica connection anything to do with why JK Rowling had the train to Hogwarts leaving from Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross – she had Euston in mind when she wrote her Harry Potter books, but for some reason confused it with King’s Cross. Proof that even the cleverest, and most successful of us, takes the odd wrong turn in their research.