• Anything but writing,  Frivolity,  History,  Holidays,  Risky Regencies

    Haunted London

    If you do a Google search on “ghost sites london”, guess how many hits you can get? About 31.4 MILLION!! Needless to say, I am not going to claim that I went through all of those in putting together this post.  But I am aware that London is considered one of the most haunted places on the planet, and as it is such a central location in our Regency world, I thought a quick visit on the blog might be appropriate for the day after Halloween in the U.S., or “All Saints” in the Christian Church.

    The Spaniards Inn, with the old turnpike toll house across the road from it

    PUBS: Old pubs are everywhere in the British Isles, but not all are haunted. Probably the best-known London-area “haunted pub” that pre-dates the Regency is Hampstead’s The Spaniards Inn (built c. 1585), where highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739) is said to hang out –pun intended –(and his horse, too). His father at one time owned it, and Dick may have been born there. One of the area’s oldest pubs, the place is so iconic it was immortalized in literature by Dickens and in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Two other ghosts are said to haunt here, one a former landlord murdered by his brother, and the other one of those seemingly ubiquitous “Ladies in White.” But I have a question: Dick Turpin is also supposed to haunt Loughton Camp in Epping Forest. Can a ghost be two places at once?

    The Grenadier, Belgravia

    The “soldier ghost” and the story of The Grenadier Pub, tucked away down a mews in Belgravia/Knightsbridge supposedly date from Regency times. In 1720 the place was an officers’ mess for the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards in the courtyard of their barracks, but it opened as a pub named The Guardsman in 1818. Later it was renamed more specifically to honor the Grenadier Guards’ actions in the Battle of Waterloo. The ghost is assumed to be “Cedric,” a young subaltern caught cheating at cards and beaten to death for it. Modern visitors to the pub put currency on the ceiling to help pay off his debt.

    Highgate’s haunted pub, The Flask, claims to have two ghosts, one a Spanish barmaid who hung herself in the cellar when the publican broke her heart, and the other an unidentified Cavalier who apparently won’t give up hanging out at the bar. But this pub is also supposed to be the site of one of the first-ever autopsies, performed illegally in the back room on a body stolen from the nearby cemetery.

    The Ten Bells Pub

    The Ten Bells Pub in Spitalfields is said to be haunted, either by two victims of Jack the Ripper who were last seen there before they were killed in 1888, or perhaps also by the Ripper himself who may have imbibed there while scouting for victims. Since his identity to this day is still unconfirmed, who can say? But the pub dates to at least 1755, when it was known as the “Eight Bells” –named for the peal of Christ Church which was next door. The name was changed between 1788-1794 when the church got a new set with –you guessed it –ten bells. The pub relocated in 1851 to its present nearby location due to the construction of Commercial Street and is still noted for its Victorian flair.

    The Old Queen’s Head in Islington is yet another haunted pub, one Time Out: London calls “flamboyantly historical”. This one claims an unidentified woman ghost and also a very active little girl ghost who weeps, runs around in the pub and on the stairs, and slams doors. Sounds very naughty to me! But no one seems to know who they are or why they would be haunting the pub. Too crowded at the other haunted pubs?

    THEATRE ROYAL DRURY LANE. Now here’s a bright spot that harks back to Regency days –well, actually, much farther back, to 1663 when the first theatre was built here. There are supposed to be several ghosts, and seeing one is supposed to be good luck for actors working here. The most famous is “The Man in Grey”, supposed to be an “18th century murder victim” by his distinctly Georgian clothing, including powdered wig, tricorn hat, cape and sword. Is he the victim whose skeleton was found inside a bricked-up passage in 1848? I do wonder how he could be when the theater was demolished in 1791, rebuilt in 1794, burned down in 1809 and rebuilt again to open in 1812. Numerous refurbishings followed. Maybe the 1848 discovery was someone else –a Regency victim? If so I’d say he had reason to haunt the place.

    Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, reopened in 1812

    Joseph Grimaldi, the so-called King of Clowns (1778-1837), is said to haunt here, although why he should I’ve only a slight idea. Much of his long career was spent at Sadler Wells and other Regency theaters. He had struggles & tragedies in his life, including the suicide of his son J.S. Grimaldi, also an actor during the Regency. But some say ghosts haunt places of either greatest happiness or sorrow. Grimaldi’s star-power was burning brightly when he performed here. Another ghost some sources mention is actor Charles Maklin, who killed a fellow actor here in an argument over a wig in 1735. Talk about artistic temperament! But wouldn’t you think the man he killed there (Thomas Hallam) would be more likely to haunt the place? I wonder if he could be the Man in Grey!!

    HAUNTED HOMES: Sutton House & Breaker’s Yard. This Tudor brick house (1535) belonging to the National Trust (in Hackney, far enough east of the city to have survived), is said to be haunted by “The White Lady” (how many of those there are!!) –a woman who died there in 1574 giving birth to twins. But this site has been called “the most haunted in London” (maybe because it’s so old?) and howling hounds and another woman dressed in blue are also said to have made themselves known here.

    Catherine Howard

    Hampton Court Palace boasts a “haunted gallery” where Catherine Howard (beheaded by Henry VIII) is reputed to reenact her departure, screaming, but since she died at the Tower of London…do you think she just got tired of being where so many other ghosts were crowding in? One story says Catherine was dragged from that gallery to go to her death at the prison. Maybe she opted for the Palace rather than share space with Anne Boleyn, another of Henry’s ex-wives reputed to be a Tower ghost. However, another of Henry’s ill-fated wives is also a ghost at Hampton Court: Jane Seymour, who is said to haunt the Clock Court and the stairs to the Silver Stick Gallery. There’s also a “Lady in Grey” who has worked her spinning wheel in one of the upper palace rooms ever since the palace church was torn down.

    THE TOWER OF LONDON. With six centuries of tragic and deadly history behind it, little wonder that the Tower is reputed to have numerous ghosts. Among the long list are: Anne Boleyn (as mentioned), and also Guy Fawkes, Lady Jane Grey, the two little princes, and Henry VI. The Tower has its own “Lady in White.” Another ghost is said to be Thomas à Becket, but really, I’m pretty sure there are too many possible candidates here to count.

    CEMETERIES: Ghosts might be expected in a cemetery anyway, but Highgate is a huge cemetery in north London, constructed at the beginning of the Victorian era and highly fashionable in its time. The vast expense of upkeep on such a large tract led to it being abandoned in the 1960’s and then of course it became creepily overgrown and in disrepair, used for movie settings and known for hauntings. Were angry ghosts protesting? And who invited the rumored vampires? Among the notables interred here are Karl Marx and George Eliot. Since 1981 a Friends Trust has taken on the responsibility for the upkeep, and some burials still take place here. Pop musician George Michael and author Douglas Adams are buried here, for instance, but apparently aren’t haunting the place.

    Brompton Cemetery and Kensal Green are other Victorian-era London cemeteries where haunts are supposed to occur. Also creepy is the West Norwood Catacombs, a Victorian underground repository full of the shelved coffins of people who did not want to be interred in swampy cemeteries with victims of the cholera epidemic. No specific reports of ghosts there, though, so apparently they were satisfied with their final resting place!

    Do you believe in ghosts? Ever had a spooky experience, in London or anywhere else? London has innumerable “ghost tours” that I’m sure take in far more sites than the handful I’ve touched upon in this post. Would you go on one of those? Happy Halloween (slightly belated)!

  • Food,  Research

    The Dark Side of the Metropolis

    First of all: Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry I forgot to post yesterday! I was busy putting the finishing touches to Yuletide Truce, one of my Victorian holiday stories, which will be released later this year, so I’d be able to send it to my beta readers. I did send it to my beta readers last night (and of course, I’m now convinced they’ll hate me after reading the manuscript) (but hey, that’s a vast improvement over thinking my manuscript might prove fatal for my poor editor!!!)

    Aigee, from Yuletide Truce, by Sandra SchwabAigee (short for Alan Garmond), one of the main characters in Yuletide Truce, has grown up in one of the poorest districts of London, before he was apprenticed to a bookseller at age eleven. He is torn between his new life and his old, and he often returns to his childhood haunts.

    So, not surprisingly, for this story, I looked at some of the darker aspects of Victorian London, and one book in particular proved to be enormously helpful in finding out about the poorer population: Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

    Mayhew was one of the co-founders of Punch (yes, we always come back to Punch, don’t we *grins*), though he severed the ties with the magazine only four years later. In 1849, the editors of another periodical, The Morning Chronicle, invited him to write a series about the working people of London under the title of “Labour and the Poor.” These articles formed the basis for an extended three-volume study, namely London Labour and the London Poor.

    Henry Mayhew
    Henry Mayhew, from Wikipedia

    Mayhew’s work is in many ways ground-breaking — not just because he threw light on a class of people who were so often forgotten, but also because interviews made up the bulk of his articles. Through him we get to hear the voices of the streetsellers, the old-clothes dealers, the mudlarks, the omnibus drivers, and chimney sweeps. He let them talk about their jobs, their everyday lives, their hopes and dreams. One of the streetsellers Mayhew introduces is the muffin man:

    “The street sellers of muffins and crumpets rank among the old street-tradesmen. It is difficult to estimate their numbers, but they were computed for me at 500, during the winter months. They are for the most part boys, young men, or old men, and some of them infirm. […]

    I did not hear of any street seller who made the muffins or crumpets he vended. […] The muffins are bought of the bakers, and at prices to leave a profit of 4d. in 1s. […] The muffin-man carries his delicacies in a basket, wherein they are well sweathed in flanne, to retain the heat: ‘People like them war, sir,’ an old man told me, ‘to satisfy theym they’re fresh, and they almost always are fresh; but it can’t matter so much about their being warm, as they have to be toasted again: I only wish good butter as a sight cheaper, and that would make the muffins go. Butter’s half the battle.’

    A sharp London lad of fourteen, whose father had been a journeyman baker, and whose mother (a widow) kept a small chandler’s shop, gave me the following account:

    ‘I turns out with muffins and crumpets, sir, in October, and continues until it gets well into the spring, according to the weather. I carries a fustrate article; werry much so. If you was to taste ’em, sir, you’d say the same. […] If there’s any unsold, a coffee-shop gets them cheap, and puts ’em off cheap again next morning. My best customers is genteel houses, ’cause I sells a genteel thing. I likes wet days best, ’cause there’s werry respectable ladies what don’t keep a servant, and they buys to save themselves going out. We’re a great conwenience to the ladies, sir — a great conwenience to them as likes a slap-up tea. […]'”

    (Can somebody pass me a warm muffin, now, please?) (And we’re talking English muffins, of course, a type of small, flat, round bread, rather than the cake-like American muffins.)

  • History,  Places,  Research

    Voices from Old London

    The Strand, with Somerset House and Mary-le-Strand church. Published by Ackerman, 1836 (from Wikipedia)

    This year I’m back in Victorian London, and as it so happens I’ve got a couple of new research books, among them Voices from Dickens’ London by Michael Paterson from 2006 (republished as Inside Dickens’ London). Right in the introduction Paterson makes a claim that I found both daring and electrifying:

    “The city of Dickens is a place lost to us beyond recall. It is difficult to imagine its dirtiness and dnager and its extremes of wealth and poverty. Its people did not look, speak, smell or behave like us. The ways they dressed, the times at which they ate, the slang they used and the accents in which they talked, the ways in which they worked or celebrated or took their amusements, often bear no resemblance to our experience” (10).

    As somebody who has walked through London several times, often with the specific intention tracing the sights and buildings of the early 19th century, I found Paterson’s claim rather outrageous at first. After all, isn’t it our shared human experience that allows us modern readers to connect to characters in the literature of the past as well as to characters in historical fiction?

    Today’s London is noisy and dirty and smells of exhaust fumes. Add to that the stink of piss and garbage in the back streets. How much worse could 19th-century London have been? There would have been different smells, of course, not of exhaust fumes, but of horses and…

    Open sewers.

    Cess pits.

    A river that stank to heaven and spread illness and disease.

    The smell of this old London, Paterson writes,

    “must have been overwhelming. First, there was the smell of coal fires.. The vast forest of reeking chimneys filled the air with smoke, which covered buildings with unsightly layers of soot and left dirty black smuts on clothes and faces. There were the multifarious stenches of industry: breweries, foundries and forges, chemical works and, worse than all of them, tanneries […]. There was also the aroma of horses, on which so much of London’s transport and commerce depended — the smell of a stable multiplied millionfold. There was the scent of hundreds of thousands of people, whose tightly packed lives did not allow them opportunities to keep themselves, their clothes or their homes clean” (18).

    And as to the noise —

    “However noisy today’s traffic may be, it is insignificant by comparison with the din that filled the city in Dickens’ time. Countless iron-shod wheels rattled all day over cobbled streets behind clopping horses. Shouting was constant as, without any form of traffic control, drivers relied on aggression to push their way through the crush of vehicles. The sounds, thrown back by the walls of narrow streets, was so loud that it would not be possible to hold a conversation on the pavement, nor to leave street-facing windows open in summer” (17).

    An exaggeration? Perhaps, for after all, the street sellers were still able to hawk their wares. And there were street musicians, too — Italian boys with barrel organs or harps — and street performers of every kind.

    No Big Ben, of course.

    Some of the things Paterson considers strange — like the closure of all shops and museums on Sunday — don’t seem quite so strange to those who have a different cultural background than the author (in Germany, shops are closed on Sunday).

    And yet, the London that emerges from the pages of Paterson’s book is indeed very different from the London of today. It also differs markedly from the London you get to see in most of those pretty TV adaptations of 19th-century literature (with Dickens adaptation being the big exception).

    As the title suggest, Voices from Dickens’ London relies heavily on primary texts by Victorian journalists, authors, and everyday people, which are quoted extensively (though not always quite accurately: ellipses are often unmarked). This makes Paterson’s book both fascinating reading material and a rather fantastic source — one I can highly recommend.


    I wrote this post yesterday. Today, London was once again hit by catastrophe: This morning, a devastating fire started in Grenfell Tower in Kensington and killed and injured many people. My thoughts are with all those affected by the fire.

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