Category Archives: London

That’ll show the Cnut.

ImageBy God, it’s been a long time since last I posted here. The reasons are complicated – suffice it to say that I think we’ve heard the last of Baron von Hamstern. So, back to posting stuff about London!

There are various nursery rhymes on the subject of London and its characters. One of the most boring is surely ‘London Bridge is Falling Down.’ The lyrics you’re probably familiar with are,

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down

Falling down

Falling down

London Bridge is falling down,

My Fair Lady

I mean, there are other verses, but that’s what everyone remembers. In all honesty, you’re not missing much if you don’t know the rest. But did you know that it’s based on a true story?

Oh yes. First, a little background. Now, as you’re no doubt aware, the unbelievably boring bridge that we now call London Bridge is far from the first by that name.ImageThe present bridge replaces one that was built in 1831 (which is now based in Lake Havasu, Arizona, as per this photo). The 1831 bridge replaced a medieval bridge which lasted for hundreds of years in varying states of disrepair. Indeed, the fact that it was falling to bits in the 17th century helped save Southwark from the Great Fire – collapsed buildings on the bridge formed a firebreak.

Image

Old London Bridge. If you look closely, you can see the heads on spikes, which were a popular tourist attraction. You had to make your own entertainment in those days.

So, case closed, right? The medieval bridge, or Old London Bridge as it’s popularly known, was basically all about the falling down. That rhyme could have come from almost any time in its history.

Could have, but didn’t. No, it seems the rhyme dates from even further back from that.

We need to go right back to the 11th century for the origin. At this time, London was under the rule of the Danish King Cnut, a man who was permanently one misprint from disaster. Cnut had conquered England and exiled King Aethelred the Unready, who didn’t see that one coming for obvious reasons.

While Aethelred was in Normandy, plotting his bloody vengeance, he formed an alliance with King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway. Olaf sailed his troops up the Thames to meet Cnut’s forces in London. The forces were arranged on either side of the river, with a substantial proportion of them based on the wooden bridge that was then known as London Bridge.

Fortunately, Olaf, unlike Aethelred, was ready for this, and had a cunning plan. He simply hitched his ships to the bridge supports and ordered his men to haul away. The bridge collapsed, killing the troops on the bridge and dividing Cnut’s forces. London was retaken, and the event was commemorated in an epic which begins,

London Bridge is fallen down.

Gold is won, and bright renown.

Shields resounding,

War-horns sounding,

Hild is shouting in the din!

Arrows singing,

Mail-coats ringing,

Odin makes our Olaf win!

This is commonly given as the origin of the nursery rhyme. Admittedly Cnut took London back a couple of years later, but nobody’s writing any nursery rhymes about him. Probably because of the aforementioned misprint issue.

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Filed under Buildings and architecture, Disasters, History, Landmarks, Literature, London, london bridge, Thames, Uncategorized

What’s for dinner, Tom?

I have a special little end-of-the-week ritual that I’d like to tell you about. You know how it is on a Friday – you’re running out of food in the house, you’re tired, you can’t really be arsed to cook. In my case, as I don’t even do a weekly shop to speak of, and am a terrible cook, these issues are particularly troublesome.

Fortunately, if you’re in the Waterloo area, help is at hand. I like to make a detour on my way home to the South Bank, where every weekend,  just in front of the Royal Festival Hall (or behind, if you’re approaching from the West End) is the Real Food Market. This varies from week to week, but it’s basically a place where independent food producers can sell their wares. Many of them will do you a nice takeaway, and there’s a seating area where you can munch on your purchases. I’ve been introduced here to Malaysian, Ghanaian and Polish food. Some of my favourite food people, including Outsider Tart and Jaz & Jul’s, are often there and so tend to be favoured ports of call. Sometimes it’ll be themed (e.g. “Free From,” chocolate) but you are always guaranteed to find something utterly delicious.

Unlike Becky B and the Hungry Sparrow, whose blogs may be found to the right, I’m not much of a foodie, but I know a good thing when I find it. What’s more, it’s a great place whether I’m on my way home or heading into town for a Friday night shindig – why line my stomach with toast when I could line it with bigos or chilli? And it beats the pants off a greasy kebab for a Friday night takeaway.

This week, I found myself enjoying a bit of a nostalgia trip. One of the retailers there this week was What the Dickens? Their thing is not, as you might have thought, unidentifiable and frightening food that causes one to utter their company name (those £5 buffets around Chinatown are far better for that sort of thing). Rather, they specialise in old-fashioned dishes that have been unjustly neglected. On their stand, these delightfully vintage-clothed gentlemen were serving bacon and scallop rolls (had one yesterday, a delicious variation on the bacon sandwich) and kedgeree.

Oh man, kedgeree. This is a slightly unfashionable dish that has never quite disappeared, but which I absolutely love. It’s a lightly-spiced rice dish containing smoked haddock, onion and hard-boiled egg, often served for breakfast but equally splendid at any time of the day. It’s one of my ma’s specialities and also one of the few dishes I can cook myself and happily serve to others. It can be eaten hot or cold, is very filling and is an excellent hangover cure, not being too heavy. There are various recipes – it’s very hard to mess up, so experimentation is fine.

Its origins are uncertain, as is the case with so many foods. But the most common explanation is that it came along during the days of the British empire in India and started out as an Anglicised form of khichri. The chaps on the stall said it originated with the Scottish regiments – certainly the addition of smoked fish is quite a Caledonian thing, and the name of the dish does have a Scotch ring to it. Some versions of the origin even go so far as to say that the dish originated in Scotland and was merely popularised in India. I suspect, given the flexible nature of the recipe, every explanation has some truth to it.

So anyway, sampling What the Dickens?’ version was a must for me. Particularly as we’d had doughnuts and chocolate in the office and I badly needed something savoury to prevent a sugar coma. The stall was shortly due to close up as I arrived. The fellow serving gave it to me for half price, as they were soon closing and the rice had started to go a bit crispy in the pan (which didn’t bother me, I’m not a remotely fussy eater). They also complimented me on my raincoat, which was praise indeed given the nature of their own vintage outfits.

In conclusion, kedgeree is great.

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Filed under 19th century, Food, History, London, Markets, Waterloo and Southwark

Round the bend

So I see they finally got rid of the last of those bendy buses. There don’t seem to be all that many mourners.

I think part of the problem was that nobody realised quite how nostalgic Londoners got about the old Routemasters. They were a design classic and very much part of the scenery. Old-fashioned, yes, and not without faults of their own, but much beloved. Not that they’ve exactly vanished – they still work a couple of tourist routes and there have been no shortage of private firms to snap them up. But I digress.

The thing with the Routemasters was that, like the classic FX4 taxi, they were designed in consultation with drivers using the routes. They were, in a very literal sense, a bus for London. The bendy buses were not – they were off-the-peg vehicles used all over the world, from Germany to Japan to Mexico.

The bendy buses, or Mercedes-Benz Citaros to give them their proper name, were therefore not universally popular with drivers. Problems with visibility due to the length of the vehicle and reflections in the windscreen were reported. The length of the vehicle also meant that they had a tendency to foul crossings and junctions (this, incidentally, was my personal beef with them). Cyclists were perceived as being at risk from the lack of driver visibility. What also caused a certain amount of jeering in the early days was a fire aboard one of the buses en route to its new home, resulting in the nickname ‘Chariots of Fire.’ When Boris Johnson was standing for the Mayoral election, one of his promises was that he would get rid of the bendy buses and come up with a more appropriate successor to the Routemaster. A friend of mine went so far as to actually decry the bendy buses as “the Devil’s work,” which I think is perhaps a bit harsh.

However, I do wonder if the Citaros are a bus more sinned against than sinning. There has, for instance, never actually been an instance of a cyclist being killed by a bendy bus, despite Boris’ slightly showboating implications to the contrary. While it’s true that in terms of actual numbers, the bendy buses have been involved in more accidents than any other model, they are also used on more routes than any other individual model. The fire does not appear to have been caused by any fault inherent to the bendy buses and was in fact a one-off.

And the bendy buses did have certain advantages. They were roomier than your average double decker (they could hold 120 to a present-day double decker’s 85). And all of that space was downstairs, great if for whatever reason you couldn’t negotiate the stairs. Along those lines, they had disabled access, unlike their predecessor.

They were also popular for rather less orthodox reasons. One of the major reasons for their withdrawal was that they were a godsend to fare dodgers – one could board via the centre entrance. Transport for London as a result had to take on 150 extra ticket inspectors (I refuse to use the term “Revenue Protection Officer”), and there were plenty of reports of people getting shirty when told that actually, they were supposed to pay for this journey. A strange use for the bendy buses I learnt about today was by the Capital’s homeless. The night buses provided a measure of warmth and comfort, unofficially for free. Actually, a friend of mine once spent a week sleeping rough on the 24-hour non-articulated 285, so it is possible even if you don’t have a bendy bus. Just putting that out there. Not that I’m advising anything illegal.

Boris has been noticeably reticent about the cost of replacing the 10-year-old bendy buses with new models, and frankly I suspect the decision to get rid of them was populist first and practical second. Nevertheless, the bendy buses are finding new homes in other cities, where perhaps they’ll be a lot happier.

Why am I feeling sorry for a bus?

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Filed under Current events, London, Politics, Transport

Mother’s Ruin

As regular readers will know, I like a drink now and again and again and again. The way I see it, it’s not an addiction if you’re still enjoying yourself. But even I must draw the line somewhere. Today I think I saw where that line was. In Sainsbury’s this evening I came across the disturbing discovery that, in their Basics range, the supermarket does gin.

It’s not that I have anything particularly against gin, you understand. Actually, I quite like it. But I take the view that spirits, below a certain price, are best employed in experiments to determine whether your tractor really will “run on anything.”

Gin enjoys something of an uneasy reputation these days. Scotch suggests manly sophistication, vodka suggests a fashionable cocktail lifestyle, Jack Daniel’s suggests maybe you aren’t quite ready for spirits yet. Gin, it seems, will be forever stuck with the reputation of being a drink for the elderly and terminally alcoholic.

Although it does tend to be historically associated with London, the origins of the present-day spirit lie with the Dutch physician and chemist Franciscus Sylvius at some point in the first half of the seventeenth century (though similar beverages are recorded as far back as the 10th century). It’s made of distilled grain alcohol and traditionally flavoured with juniper berries, and enjoyed great popularity in Holland as a medicine.

In 1688, William of Orange ascended the throne of England and brought with him this exciting new Dutch spirit. There were a number of contributing factors to its success within these shores. Firstly, William increased the taxes on importing booze and deregulated distillation in Britain, making gin cheaper and more readily available than any other form of spirit. Secondly, food had fallen in price recently, meaning there was more money to spend on life’s little luxuries. Thirdly, grain was particularly abundant at that time, and so gin production was an attractive way to get rid of the surplus, especially as the grain used in gin did not have to be particularly high quality. Fourthly, booze was a way of life in those days – in those days before effective sanitation, alcohol was far safer than water. And finally, gin was cheap and could get you ratted more quickly than beer. There’s also another interesting theory that folk took to drink as a result of being unable to adjust to city life, but that’s a minority view that I only mention for the curiosity value.

Anyway, the result was the Gin Craze, as memorably satirised in William Hogarth’s grotesque and blackly humorous Gin Lane, reproduced right. If you’ve ever been though Kingston-upon-Thames on a Saturday night, imagine that, only all the time. Lord Harvey noted at the time that “Drunkenness among the common people was universal; the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from  morning ’til night.” Sick leave rose to an unprecedented degree as a result of people simply being too pished to make it into work, with the corresponding economic effects. Crime, too, rose drastically – it was observed by magistrates that gin was “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people” (though the lack of a police force didn’t help).  And of course there were the direct and indirect physiological effects of such widespread boozing – liver disorders, blindness, syphilis and a rise in juvenile alcoholism as a result of spirit-infused breastmilk. Daniel Defoe feared the creation of “a fine spindle-shanked generation.” There was even a (possibly apocryphal) reported increase in cases of spontaneous combustion.

Not helping matters at all was the poor quality of gin on sale. With the simplicity of production, the aforementioned lack of any police force to speak of, almost anyone could set up a still and go into business. And there were plenty of dubious ways to increase your yields if you were unscrupulous. If the buyer was lucky, their gin would be watered down. If they were unlucky, it might be padded out with turpentine. If they were really unlucky, industrial acid.

In desperation, the government introduced no less than eight Gin Acts to counter this between 1729 and 1751. However, what probably did for gin was one of the contributing factors in its initial ascension – the price of grain, which had begun once again to rise due to poor harvests. Just in time for the Industrial Revolution, in fact.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. Gin had gained such unflattering nicknames as “Mother’s Ruin” and low drinking dives were popularly known as “gin shops,” whether they sold gin or not.

Gin would enjoy a resurgance during the 19th century with the opening of the Victorian “gin palaces,” the finest surviving example of which is the Princess Louise in Holborn. I mention this purely because that’s my favourite boozer. Also contributing to its popularity at this time was the discovery of quinine’s anti-malarial properties. Quinine is quite a bitter substance, and so it was typically diluted to make what we now call tonic water. To make the tonic water more palatable, the colonials of the British empire would add gin, which I would imagine also alleviated the boredom of some of those Imperial outposts. And thus was the gin and tonic forged.

And I suppose this was the final nail in the coffin of gin’s reputation – that imperial association. Granted, it’s not regarded as the abomination it was in the 18th century, not least because the following century would see improvements in distillation and a corresponding increase in quality. But nevertheless, it is perhaps the least cool thing behind a bar south of the liqueur shelf.

Oh well. Here’s my recipe for a gin and tonic. G&T seems to be a matter of personal preference, so my word isn’t even close to the last on the subject. I favour Malawi for the gin – it’s a highly aromatic spirit with strong juniper notes, which is really what you look for in a gin. For the tonic, I go with Schweppes, the diet stuff for the sake of my waistline (the relative sweetness of the Malawi balances this out). And here’s where I get a little bit heretical – I don’t add ice. Rather, I chill the gin and the tonic beforehand. Then mix in a ratio of 2:3. Then drink. Then kill my children in a drunken stupor and spontaneously combust.

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Filed under 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, Booze, Crime, History, London, Medicine, Politics

Dame Thora and the Killer Coat

London has no shortage of unusual ghost stories, from the Bald Chicken of Pond Square to Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane. Many of these unhappy shades choose to haunt Theatreland – and why not? If you’re looking for a spooky place to hang around scaring the living daylights out of people, you couldn’t do much better than a dark and gloomy playhouse.

Among the city’s many theatrical ghosts are William Terriss at the Adelphi and Covent Garden Underground Station, Sarah Siddons at her old house in Baker Street and the World War I soldier at the Coliseum. For those seeking less highbrow entertainments, Nell Gwynne was said to appear in the Gargoyle Club, a strip joint in Soho.

My personal favourite, though, involved the late and much-lamented Dame Thora Hird. In her long career, she played many roles, but is perhaps most famous for her long run on Last of the Summer Wine.

Long before that, she trod the boards in various venues, including a stint at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage. Here, in 1949, she played a lead role in a costume drama called The Queen Came By. Like many theatres, the Embassy had a store of old-fashioned costumes. Miss Hird was outfitted for her role as a seamstress with a short velvet jacket pulled out of a box of Victorian clothing that had been in store.

While it was initially a perfect fit, during the run she experienced a degree of discomfort – at first just a little tightness under the arms, which grew worse and worse even after the jacket had been let out. Worse still, the brooch she was wearing felt as if it was sticking into her throat. Attempts to adjust it were futile, and when the show moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End she simply did away with the painful piece of jewelery.

Yet still the jacket caused discomfort. The tightness was particularly noted around the neck. The Stage Manager tried it on, and felt the same. The Director’s wife felt a similar pinch, and when she took it off she had painful red marks around her throat, consistent with an attempt at strangling. When Thora’s understudy, whom Miss Hird described as “very psychic,” tried it on, she saw a vision of a teenage girl wearing the jacket in her bathroom mirror that night.

Eventually it was decided that the jacket itself had to go. But before it did, a cast member named Frederick Piffard, at the instigation of esteemed periodical Psychic News, decided that a seance was the only way to get to the bottom of this mystery. On the last night, after the final curtain, it was organised. Instead of indulging in the traditional last night pasttime of getting roaring drunk, the cast, crew and three mediums held the seance on stage in front of an invited audience.

Almost everyone who tried the jacket on reported the same sensation of strangulation, one even needing to be revived with water. A couple off the street, too, felt the hands of a mysterious assailant when asked to put the garment on. No conclusions were reached as to the identity of the spectre that had apparently taken residence in this coat (not least because the audience was rather more sceptical than the mediums and happily voiced this fact), but two of the mediums reported an image of a young Victorian girl violently struggling against an unknown assailant.

Speaking personally, at the risk of sounding disrespectful to the late Dame Thora, I’m not particularly convinced. There have been some pretty hard-to-explain ghost stories that I’ve heard of, but this one could mostly be accounted for by a too-tight jacket and hysteria. Theatrical folk prone to hysteria? Surely not.

As for the jacket itself, apparently it made its way to America. So watch out next time you’re vintage shopping and you come across a bargain, I guess.

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Covent Garden, History, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography, Theatre, West End

Great balls of fire!

The midweek post comes a little early this time around, chums. Allow me to explain.

You see, once again, Yr. Humble Chronicler is doing a show. But no ordinary show. This time, Youth Action Theatre is spreading its wings somewhat and going for an all out, high-camp, rock ‘n’ roll musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet! Wooo!

If you don’t know the show, it’s… well, how can I describe it? It’s a spoof of sci-fi B-movies which is based loosely on The Tempest, set to a track of classic tunes from the 1950s and ’60s. It owes more than a little to Forbidden Planet, as you might imagine from the title, but also borrows liberally from just about every terrible science fiction film of that era. As well as pretty much everything Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s complicated.

The basic story is that the spaceship Albatross, under the command of the heroic Captain Tempest, makes the mistake of going on a routine survey expedition. As you know if you’ve watched any episode of Star Trek, in the future the word “routine” means exactly the opposite of what it does now, and the ship gets diverted to the mysterious planet of D’Illyria. There, they are greeted by the mad Doctor Prospero, his beautiful daughter Miranda and their camp robot Ariel. And then things start to go wrong. What is the terrible secret of D’Illyria? Who is the enigmatic new science officer? Where did Prospero get that outfit? All this and more will be revealed…

(By the way, I’m playing Doctor Prospero. Yeah, I do have to sing. Yeah, I am slightly bricking it.)

If science fiction campiness is not to your taste, I should mention once again our extremely rocking soundtrack. Good Vibrations, Shakin’ All Over, All Shook Up and Shake, Rattle and Roll are in there, along with a variety of songs that aren’t about vibrating at all, like Teenager in Love, Mr Spaceman, Great Balls of Fire, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Wipeout, The Monster Mash, The Young Ones… and that’s just the ones you’ve heard of. All live, performed by an awesomely talented cast, and also me.

Our production is going pretty all-out. We’ve got the Mill doing our special effects – that’s the Mill, as in, the people who do Doctor Who and Torchwood. I know, right? We’re going to have a live band on stage. We’re transforming the Hampton Hill Playhouse into a spaceship (not literally). It’s all going to need a lot of work, so Yr. Humble Chronicler intends to be mucking in tomorrow evening.

Anyway, if you’re looking for something fun to do next week, something that’ll put a spring in your step, the show runs 9th-12th November inclusive at the Hampton Hill Playhouse in West London. To book tickets, kindly click on this link. Blast off!

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Filed under Current events, London, Music, Suburbia, Theatre

Beneath the Grave – Ghosts of the Central Line

Good evening, fright-fans, it is I, Tom, your extravagantly-cleavaged Master of the Dark [picture inadmissable]. As Halloween approaches with the inevitability of death, I thought an appropriately-themed entry might be in order. As last year’s entry on the ghosts haunting the Northern Line was so popular, I figured I might continue the theme with the hauntings on the old Central London Railway or, as the kids call it nowadays, the Central Line. Mind the gap…

Northolt

You’ve all heard of the Beast of Bodmin, but did you know there was a Beast of Northolt? In the early 1990s, there were several sightings of a big cat alongside the Central Line between Northolt and Greenford. Accounts vary as to the species of cat, although most seem to settle on “puma.” Whence it came and how it got to Northolt without being noticed remain to be explained.

Marble Arch

If you should find yourself leaving Marble Arch late at night, when the station is quiet, you may find yourself being followed up the escalator. Several people have reported a sinister man in 1940s clothing who they sense close behind them on the escalator and see out of the corner of their eye. Upon turning around completely, the man vanishes. Again, no explanation has been offered as to who this restless spirit might be.

British Museum

Perhaps the most unlikely ghost out of the many on the Underground was sighted at this now-closed station. The ghost would, so the story goes, appear at one end of the platform and walk to the other, wailing mournfully. What marked this particular spectre out, however, was the fact that he was dressed in the clobber of an Ancient Egyptian. Being the intelligent and probably very sexy reader that you are, you’ve no doubt figured out why there might be an Ancient Egyptian haunting British Museum Station. To be more specific, the Egyptian is said to have some sort of link to the so-called Unlucky Mummy (pictured right), a sarcophagus lid in the Museum that is said to be cursed. This is just one of many legends attached to it, the most interesting of which says that it was responsible for sinking the Titanic.

Even bearing in mind that I’m a sceptic, I’m inclined to take this one with a pinch of salt. The accounts are lacking in detail and only emerged shortly before the station was closed down. I’m inclined to believe it was the invention of a journalist looking for a spooky story. Nevertheless, the story persists, albeit with the ghost now haunting Holborn. Why Holborn and not the closer Russell Square or Tottenham Court Road stations? It is a mystery.

Chancery Lane

Chancery Lane has plenty of secrets of its own, but in the tunnels between here and Holborn, there’s said to be one more surprise. During the 1960s,drivers stopping at signals here would often be freaked out by the appearance of a man standing next to them in the cab. Apparently some sort of fellow crewman, he would be staring straight ahead, and would vanish as soon as the train pulled away.

Bank

I covered the manife-stations (see what I did there) at this stop in last year’s entry, but I thought I’d mention that it’s a haunted station on the Central Line for those pedants who’ll leave comments if I don’t.

Liverpool Street

This terminus is built on the site of a plague pit and one of the several incarnations of the notorious Bedlam. The building of this and neighbouring Broad Street Station involved the disturbance of many final resting places, so really it would be surprising if there were no hauntings here. Sure enough, Liverpool Street and environs are said to be haunted by the ghastly screams of a woman.

The most popular suggestion for the screamer is one Rebecca Griffiths, an inmate at Bedlam in the late 18th century whose illness included a compulsive need to hold on to a particular coin. Upon her death, one of the staff (who were not known for their selflessness) stole it from her lifeless fingers and Rebecca’s inconsolable spirit searches for it still.

More recently, in 2000, the Line Controller sighted a man in white overalls in the tunnels who should not have been there. He sent the Station Supervisor to investigate, who found nothing. What made this particularly peculiar was that the Supervisor found no man down there – even though the Controller could see the man on the CCTV screen right next to him.

Bethnal Green

I’ll finish with the Easternmost of the haunted Central Line stations that I’m aware of, and one of the most frightening hauntings. This one is traceable to a specific incident that took place on 3rd March 1943. As often happened in the East End at that time, when the air raid siren sounded, the local people made for the Tube station. Unfortunately, on this night it had been decided to carry out a test-firing of an experimental new type of rocket in nearby Victoria Park. Panicked by what sounded like a very nearby explosion, the crowds surged forward. A woman on the stairs lost her footing and fell, taking several others with her and causing further panic, which in turn worsened the stampede and the crush inside the station. 173 people were killed in the disaster, crushed or asphyxiated. For reasons of morale, the Bethnal Green incident was covered up until 1946.

From 1981 onwards, however, there were reports of an extremely unnerving nature from the station. Staff working late at night spoke of hearing screams – at first one or two, then more and more, clearly identifiable as women and children. These screams would go on for up to fifteen minutes before dying down.

There you have it, readers. I hope you enjoy your Halloween this year and whatever you do, don’t have nightmares…

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, Disasters, East End and Docklands, Flora and Fauna, Hackney, History, London, London Underground, Museums, Occult, Paranormal, Suburbia, The City, Transport, West End