10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the history of London
How much do you know about the history of London? From underground Roman streets and the invention of Chelsea buns, to impaled heads on London Bridge and the very first Globe theatre, here history writer and filmmaker Richard Guard reveals the forgotten landmarks and traditions of England's capital
In his book Lost London (Michael O’Mara Books, 2012), Guard reveals intriguing stories that lie beneath the city’s familiar streets, to take readers on a journey through London’s overlooked past. Here, writing for History Extra, Guard lists 10 surprising facts about the history of London…
The origin of Charing Cross
Also known as Eleanor’s Cross, the original Charing Cross was erected by Edward I following the death of his wife of 36 years, Eleanor of Castile, in 1290.
Edward had a memorial cross erected at every resting place of her funeral procession, the last being in the village of Charing – a stopover between the City of London and Westminster. The cross, built in the forecourt of Charing Cross station, is a Victorian replacement of the original, 180 yards away from its former location, now marked by a statue of Charles I on horseback looking down Whitehall.
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The invention of Chelsea buns
In the early 1700s, Chelsea Bun House was opened in Jew’s Row (now Pimlico Road), and it became the site of the invention of Chelsea buns. Its proprietor, Richard Hand, decorated the interior with clocks and curious artefacts.
In its day, the Bun House was hugely famous, prompting Jonathan Swift to celebrate the “Rrrrrrrare Chelsea buns” after he visited in 1711. It even found popularity among royalty, with both George II and George III visiting with their wives and children.
So successful was the business that on Good Fridays, crowds of more than 50,000 people gathered outside the premises to purchase its products.
St Paul’s was briefly trumped
A vast rotunda known as the Colosseum was built in Regent’s Park by Decimus Burton between 1824 and 1827, featuring a dome very slightly larger than that of St Paul’s Cathedral. It housed a huge canvas panorama of London, painted by Thomas Hornor.
However, the attraction’s initial popularity soon waned, and in 1831 the building was sold to opera singer John Barham, whose dream to turn it into an opera house took both his fortune and his health. Briefly used for magic-lantern shows, the Colosseum was demolished in 1874 or 1875, and is now covered by Cambridge Gate.
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It was high class on the Strand
For 800 years before the Embankment was built, the Strand was the site of many of London’s finest houses – it boasted river views and close proximity to the City and Westminster.
Durham House, an example of one such fine residence, was originally built in the mid-14th century as the town house of the Bishop of Durham [though there was a residence of the Bishop of Durham on this site since at least 1220). It went on to serve as residence to both Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn, and eventually became the home of Sir Walter Ralegh. While living there, Ralegh was memorably drenched with beer by a servant who feared that his master had caught fire when he found him smoking.
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Euston’s lost arch
When Euston station was first opened in 1837, its entrance was dominated by Euston Arch, which stood 70ft high and was supported by four Doric columns, to make it the largest arch in Great Britain.
Some 100 years later, with the Victoria and Adelaide hotels having been built either side, the arch was recognised as a major landmark, and “the most imposing entrance to a London terminus”.
When the station entrance was completely redesigned and rebuilt in 1962, the heedless demolition of the arch galvanised the nascent preservation movement. Although it failed to save the arch, many other historic buildings owe their survival to groups formed as a result.
The very first Globe theatre
Considering that it is perhaps the most famous theatre in the world, the original Globe had a surprisingly short – though highly eventful – existence. It was built by Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of actors that included the most famous playwright of them all, William Shakespeare.
Opened in 1599, the Globe played host to Shakespeare for 14 years, during which time he wrote many of his greatest works. The theatre was destroyed by fire in 1613 after its thatch was accidentally set alight by a cannon during a performance of Henry VIII.
A new theatre was built in 1614, but was demolished in 1644 when all plays were banned by the Puritan parliament.
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London’s Las Vegas
Between 1613 and 1754, a legal loophole meant that on-the-spot marriages could be carried out in an area surrounding the Fleet Debtors’ Prison known as the ‘Liberties of the Fleet’. There is suspicion that some illicit matches took place, against the will of one or other of the parties, but judging from the number of unions made (estimated to be almost 250,000 in just 60 years up to 1753), it seems more likely that the ability to marry without parental consent might well have been the more common motivation.
The Liberties of the Fleet in many ways resembled Las Vegas of today – a notorious area famed for debauchery, where the reach of the law was restricted.
The London Stock Exchange was originally a coffee shop
In 1680, Jonathan Miles opened Jonathan’s Coffee Shop in Bank. By 1690 there were more than 100 companies trading their shares in the city, and traders would meet at Jonathan’s to gather news from other traders, and from merchants entering the city via the Thames.
At Jonathan’s, the news was written up on boards behind the bar. Over time, traders developed a network of runners who would bring them all the latest on returning ships.
When the Coffee House burnt down in the Cornhill fire of 1748, it was immediately rebuilt with the support of brokers, and was given the name New Jonathan’s. It was renamed the Stock Exchange in 1773.
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The glamorous lifetime of Thorney Island
Originally formed by a loop of the Thames and the division of the Tyburn River, it is thought that Thorney Island may have been inhabited by the Romans.
King Offa (who died in 796) issued a charter describing it as a “loco terribili”, while its modern name derived from the thorns that covered the area. It went on to become the site of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Palace, now better known as the Houses of Parliament.
With the land drained and the river covered over, Thorney Island has long since disappeared, although the name lives on in Thorney Street, which runs parallel to Millbank, off Horseferry Road.
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Impaled heads on London Bridge
London Bridge has long been central to life in the capital, but one of its more macabre purposes was as a site for the display of traitors’ heads, impaled on spikes to serve as a warning to others.
In the late 16th century, Paul Hentzner, a German visitor to the city, made some notes on the bridge: “Upon this is built a tower, on whose top the heads of such as have been executed for high treason are placed on iron spikes: we counted above thirty.”
Among those known to have suffered this fate through the centuries are William Wallace, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.
To read more about London's history, click here.
Richard Guard is the author of Lost London: An A-Z of Forgotten Llandmarks and Lost Traditions (Michael O’Mara Books, 2012).
This article was first published by History Extra in 2013