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10 Unknown Stories from London

Some wonderfully, weird, and personal stories from London's history.

Buckingham Palace by Nicole Barnes

Many wonderfully crazy things have happened in London, England over its many centuries. From finding mice in a lady’s hair being a normality to a one-legged man who travelled up and down a single escalator for a living. Millions of people have lived in London over its impressive history and therefore there are so many wonderful tales and lives to explore.

10. A Hair-Do with A Resident Mouse

Ladies in the 1600s enjoyed having their hairstyle improved. Sometimes, this process could take a couple of days to complete due to the precision and technique involved. Their hair would be piled above their head, sometimes using fake hair to help progress the look. Arsenic, and powder would often be used to help stick the hair together and keep it firm. Little pretend ships, birds and flowers were placed into the hair to make it look ornamental! However, due to how long this process took, the lady would then sleep with her in this up-do for weeks on end. She would not have been able to wash it either! This created a rodent issue. Mice would crawl into the hair while it’s owner was sleeping, and they would nest there. There was one solution to this dramatic issue. A small shop named the Silver Mousetrap in London, sold mousetraps made of silver. The user would place these around her head while she slept (trying not to move too much while asleep!) and hopefully the mice would be caught in the mousetraps instead of nesting in her hair. (Link 1)

9. Getting Married in a Bakers

Fleet Prison in London was a debtor’s prison. There were many small houses on the outskirts of the prison, where many prisoners who was given special freedoms and lived with their families. There was also a lot of clergymen who were imprisoned there. Many people were married using these clergymen as they were cheaper than elsewhere. These priests obviously had no parishes due to being in prison (therefore unbeneficed)—so in 1696 when the law changed, which prosecuted any beneficed clergymen who married people without proclaiming it beforehand, many people flocked to Fleet Prison to be married. (Link 2) These clergymen could not be prosecuted. 15 percent of all marriages in England at the time were conducted in the small streets, houses and shops surrounding the prison. People were known to get married in the baker’s shop, and the bookshop! During the prison’s long history, over 250,000 people are thought to have been married in its grounds. (Link 1)

8. Lady Lewson Loved Pig Fat and Powder

Lady Lewson was a young widow at 26 when her rich husband died. After his death, she practically never left her house. She never cleaned her windows, as she believed either the window would break or the person cleaning them would be hurt in some way. All the beds in her house were kept tidy and made up—she rarely had any visitors. She wore clothes that were fashionable in her younger days all her life, never changing or adapting her clothing. (Link 3) The most remarkable thing about Lady Lewson however, was that she refused to wash. She believed it would cause her more harm to keep herself clean. She would put layers of pig fat across her face and neck, and then would pile another few layers of a lovely pink powder! When she died, her house was opened as a local museum. The house was still in the style fashionable in her younger years, and people were fascinated by the Lady’s house frozen in time. (Link 1)

7. The Man Who Was Also a Woman

Hannah Snell was born in 1723, and at the age of 23 she married a seaman. However, her husband left her after a year and she was not happy with this result. She took her male cousin’s clothes and went off to sign up for the army using his name, James Gray – to chase after her husband. After a few months, she realised the army was not for her and joined the Navy. She received many floggings from her superiors and many injuries while fighting, but her real identity was never suspected, and somehow, she managed to hide any suspicion of her being a woman. Once her five years of military service were up, she retired to London to receive her full pension. After a few weeks of being back in London, James Gray was charged with fraud as it was discovered he was really Hannah! However, the Duke of Cumberland was very impressed with her bravery, he placed her name on The King’s List. This was a list of pensioners who were given a nice sum of £30 a year! She opened a pub called The Female Warrior, a very fitting title. Hannah Snell died in 1792 in Bethlehem Hospital—if you can find out why she was admitted to the Hospital for the Insane I would be very happy to hear the reason!

6. The Forgetful Parish Priest

Reverend George Harvest was a very forgetful man. His first venture in life was to become an actor, but unfortunately it did not work as planned for him. He then decided it would be a good idea to take holy orders. George planned to get married, however on the day of the wedding, he went fishing instead and only remember he was supposed to get married once he returned home that night! (Link 4) He would lose his own horses so regularly, that whenever he needed to travel somewhere he would borrow them from someone else—obviously managing to lose them along the way! George would write a letter to one person, then write an address of a completely different person on the envelope and post it to another person. His forgetfulness seemed to reach all corners of his life. Later in his life, George planned to get married again. Once again, he forgot it was his wedding day and decided to take a trip to Richmond! Poor George. (Link 1)

5. Margaret Thomson: The Infamous Snuff Fanatic

Margaret Thomson lived during the early 1800s in London, near The Strand. She wrote her will in a very strict form. Mrs Thomson stated that the six ‘supreme’ snuff takers in the local area were going to carry her coffin, while wearing snuff-coloured hats. She wanted to be surrounded by uncleaned snuff handkerchiefs and freshly ground snuff inside her coffin! (Link 5) Margaret instructed her servants to walk in front of the coffin, and throw snuff on the ground and into the crowd. There were to be six girls, each holding a box of snuff to walk behind the coffin, and were to take the drug as they wished! If her beneficiaries of the will did not complete her wishes, she told them they would not receive any money for it. The priest was to be given five guineas to take snuff throughout the funeral. If that is not someone in love with the snuff, then I am not sure what is! (Link 1)

4. The Dead Train

1854, London. The graveyards were overflowing. Some bodies were only covered by a couple of inches of dirt—enabling disease and the retched smell to flow through the city. A solution needed to be found, but there was simply no room inside London to bury any more bodies. 25 miles from London, Brookwood Cemetery was built as a place to bury the dead of the City. However, somehow the dead, as well as their mourning family had to reach the Cemetery. The Necropolis Railway was built just outside of Waterloo Station. It was a station that connected with the main line—but was solely for the use of funerals. Up until 1902, trains left this station any day there was a reservation for it. Then over the next few years—trains stopped running on Sundays, then went down to only a couple of times a week and eventually the service was stopped. (Link 1)

3. A Pure-Finder

A Pure-finder was a job title. It was a person who would walk the streets of London to find dog faeces and sell them to a leather tanner for around ten old pence for a bucketful. Men, women and children were involved in the trade. Often people of a higher standing who had struggled onto difficult times appear to have taken on this role. The finders would hold a basket in one hand with a cover on the top, so people could not see what was inside. On their other hand, they would wear a black glove. Many women at the time stated that they did not use their glove to pick up the faeces as it was easier for them to clean their hand rather than the glove! The tanners also preferred the faeces to be dry, as this would contain more alkaline which was what they needed for their leather—so the pure finders would search most of London’s streets for the best faeces! (Link 1)

2. Bumper Harris: The Professional One-Legged Escalator Rider

The railway company paid lots of money to have the first railway escalator built by the Otis Company in Earl’s Court Station in 1910. However, to the company’s horror many passengers refused to use it. During its first week of being in working order, the escalator caused a pinched finger, a man with crutches to fall over and nine torn dresses! (Link 6) They did not want all their money to go to waste and needed a drastic solution fast—so they decided to employ someone to ride the escalator all day every day, in the hope that the public would use it. Harris was the man for the job. He had one leg, with the other being a wooden leg. If he could ride the escalator safely all day, surely everyone could. He demonstrated its safety and stability so well that people did slowly begin to use the escalator and Bumper Harris was out of a job! (Link 1)

1. Marble Arch’s Original Purpose

Marble Arch was built in the mid-1800s as an exact copy of the Roman Triumphal Arch of Constantine. It was to be a grand entrance into a courtyard at Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately, no one considered measuring the Arch to check it could fit royal carriages through it. Obviously, it was the perfect size to fit Roman chariots but not Georgian carriages. In 1851, Marble Arch was moved to its current location as an impressive entrance to Hyde Park. It was painstakingly moved stone by stone in an impressive three-month period. (Link 7) After a restructure of the roadways, it was separated from Hyde Park and simply stood on its own where it remains to this day. Even now, only royal carriages are allowed through the Arch, and as these do not fit, no vehicle is to travel through it! (Link 1)

London has and always will be full of magical, and impressive stories. So many individuals have walked through its streets and experienced life within its walls. It is an incredible place, fueled with history.

View of St Paul's by Max Scrivener


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