I am a medievalist in the process of completing a PhD (involving medieval medicine). I travel as much as possible at home (UK) and abroad. I'm always ready for new experiences!
Published October 16th 2012
Fun, quirky, and little known London trivia
London is one of the most cosmopolitan and unique places in the world due in large part to its intricate history and diverse population. The following is a collection of London facts that you may have never encountered before.
Melting Pot is a term commonly used to describe the melding together of cultures in the great immigrant nation of America, but the same can be said for the extremely diverse population of London, a town which has been a cultural crossroads for centuries. As of 2011, one-third of London's population was born abroad and over 300 languages are currently spoken in the city.
The great majority of immigrants to the UK live in London (over half of the UK's total number), which makes the cultural landscape of London very different from most other UK cities.
Plague in the Park
During the extension of the Victoria Tube Line in the 1960s, workers accidently dug straight into a previously undiscovered Black Death plague pit underneath the Green Park near Buckingham Palace. Scientists have found plague bacteria in skeletons exhumed from the plague pits, as well as in the soil and rodent life, such as squirrels. Although picnicking in the park grounds has never proved to be a problem, it may be a good idea not to antagonise the squirrels in the Green Park.
Notice not to feed pigeons and squirrels. Photo by Stephen McKay.
According to many eyewitness writers, eels were once so plentiful in the Thames that they turned the water black. In fact, they were so common that they served as a staple food source for regular Londoners (jellied eel is still linked with Cockney culture), as well as the high and mighty (King Henry I is said to have died from consuming too many eels). According to the BBC, eel populations in the Thames have declined by 98% as of 2010. Jellied eel, eel pie, and smoked eel are still available in London's shops and high-end restaurants, but they are mostly imported from the continent.
The Tower of London is a frequent subject of archaeological research and every once in awhile a hidden piece of history is uncovered. In the early twentieth century, workers replacing a window in the Martin Tower found the hand-carved inscription of one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, Ambrose Rookwood, beneath a layer of whitewash and framing material.
Guy Fawkes usually receives the bulk of the blame for the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (i.e., the failed attempt to blow up Parliament). However, Fawkes was part of a team of 12 equally dangerous men, many of which were also imprisoned in the Tower and later executed. The inscription of another member of the Gunpowder Plot, Everard Digby, is located in the Broad Arrow Tower and Fawkes' signed confession is also on display.
So great was the nation-wide reaction to the Gunpowder Plot that, even to this day, yeoman of the guard ceremoniously search the basement of Parliament at every state opening.
London through Dickens' Eyes
Charles Dickens can readily be credited with one of the most creative and impassioned writing styles in the modern era. Those who are avid fans of his work probably already suspect that the fine detail and strong feelings ascribed to some characters must be linked to figures from Dickens' real-life experience.
As a boy, an impoverished Dickens roamed the streets and tenements of London absorbing all the assorted heroes, villains, and images from Victorian London that would later appear in his works. There are characters based on his parents, real-life Fagins, workhouse friends, and a legion of sinister lawyers and debt collectors conjured up from traumatic boyhood experiences. Possibly even in the young Dickens himself, we find David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and the collective Victorian underclass.
Bedlam and War
The Royal Bethlehem Hospital for Mental Illness, from which the term Bedlam is derived, has a very long history in London dating back to the thirteenth century. In 1815, the hospital occupied the building which is now the Imperial War Museum. Those suffering from mental illnesses were housed at the hospital along with debtors and criminals until the 1930s when the building was replaced by the museum. The current mental health hospital is located in the Borough of Bromley.
Everyone knows that a true Cockney is someone who is born within the sound of the ringing of Bow Bells (i.e., the bells of St Mary Le Bow Church in London's East End). Perhaps less well known though is the circuitous origin of the term Cockney. Variations of the word are first referenced in medieval times in the writings of Chaucer and his contemporaries where it was a derogatory term used by rural folks to mock people who lived in a city.
There is also a medieval poem about a mythical, indulgent country, The Land of Cockaigne, which was used as a moniker for London. An etymology for the word was first attempted in the seventeenth century with a fanciful story: A Londoner, not being exposed to country life, was said to confuse the cry of a 'cock' with the 'neigh' of a horse and asked a farmer, 'Do you hear how the cock neighs?' Although this particular story is unlikely to be true, it is likely that the word originated in rural areas as a derisive term for their city-dwelling neighbours.
Keep Calm and Carry On
During the Second World War most of England's male workforce was serving in the military. When Waterloo Bridge needed to be rebuilt in the early 1940s the workforce was made up almost entirely of women. The bridge was opened in 1945 and is sometimes referred to as 'the ladies' bridge'.
The London Underground is the longest metro in the world with 400 km of track serving over 270 stations. In addition, there are many hundreds of miles of tunnels built in the 1950s as an escape route and shelter in case of nuclear attack, as well as tunnels used for sewer and river systems. The 426 escalators operating in the tube travel the combined distance of several trips around the globe in a week's time.
Although the ancient settlements of the Anglo-Saxons are long gone, their memory lives on in place names throughout England, including many of London's boroughs and districts. The name London actually predates the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, all the way back to Roman occupation of the area, where the town was known as Londinium (possibly in reference to an even older Celtic or Welsh name).
The following are just some examples of London place names that trace their origins to the Old English tongue spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.
This name comes directly from the Old English eald (old) and wic/wyc (town), which likely refers to a village or market once located here.
In the past, the Thames was a much wider and free-flowing river than its current restricted form and there were many embankments and beaches in London that just no longer exist today. Strand comes from the Old English word for beach and likely refers to a sandy area near where the river once flowed.
This area in North London was once owned by a man called Tota, which is recorded in the Doomsday Book in 1086 as Toteham (meaning Tota's hamlet or land/village).
These are only a few interesting items about some of London's landmarks and history. The next time you take a tour or encounter a bored looking guide, ask them some questions - you'll certainly learn more stories about this fascinating city.